Kittens in the Oven: Dashed Hopes in South Sudan

Kittens in the Oven: Dashed Hopes in South Sudan

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On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest country.  The mood among southerners was euphoric, expectations were high, and the international community rushed to pledge its assistance.  From the beginning, however, the odds were stacked against the landlocked country that had known little but war since 1955. That year, the Anya Nya mutiny led to civil war that only ended with the signing of the Addis Ababa peace agreement of 1972.  The root causes of the conflict, however, that centered on participation in the government by the South Sudanese, did not end.  In 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and its armed wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), rebelled when the Sudanese government cancelled its agreement and announced the extension of Shari’a law throughout all of Sudan.  An estimated 1.5 million people died, and more than 4 million were displaced in the following 22 years.  Embroiled once more in conflict that threatens to extend to civil war, South Sudan has again captured international attention. The recent violence is the result of a combination of factors that result in part from historic ethnic/tribal rivalries and are manifested in a power struggle between the predominant Dinka led by President Salva Kiir and Nuer leader ex-Vice President Riek Machar.  Throughout the negotiations that resulted in the Naivasha Agreemnent in 2005 and subsequent independence of South Sudan, the Western powers played an important role, but missed some key factors that would have tipped the scales in favor of the new country.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in Naivasha, Kenya, intended to end the conflict, provided for regional autonomy for the South and power sharing with the Khartoum government.  It also called for a referendum to determine whether the South would become an independent country.  In 2011 more than 98 percent of southerners who voted chose independence.  The CPA process was led by the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eastern African organization of (at that time) seven countries under the watchful eye of western donors.  The United States, the UK, and Norway played key roles in the negotiations that were limited to representatives of the SPLM and the Khartoum government rather than including a broader representation of the populations.

From the beginning, the international powers favored independence for South Sudan without making a careful, unemotional analysis of what independence would mean or whether the South was prepared to govern.  It was not.  Limited participation in the negotiations and subsequent agreement by IGAD and the western partners also limited buy-in and the chance for building national unity.  When the celebrations that followed independence ended, reality set in.  South Sudan reverted to traditional tribal conflicts, cattle rustling, and historic distrust that inevitably led to rebellion and the present power struggle between Kiir and Machar.  The U.S. and other western countries threw money at NGOs and the UN in an attempt to develop the new country according to their own visions.

South Sudan is Africa’s poorest country.  It lacks infrastructure, education, access to health resources, and employment. From the beginning, with some exceptions, South Sudan lacked a cadre of human resources who could develop and maintain the institutions that accompany nationhood.  South Sudanese returning from exile who had the necessary skills were under-used, as the SPLM preferred to govern with those who had remained in the fight.

South Sudan:  a snapshot

With more than 60 ethnic groups speaking as many different languages and dialects, South Sudan in 2011 was far from a united country with strong leadership that could somehow weld together its distinct parts.  The death of SPLM leader John Garang in a 2005 helicopter crash dealt a blow to the possibility for internal cohesion, one that has yet to be remedied.  South Sudan is an agricultural tribal society, whose populations depend more on cattle migration than on promised benefits from its oil fields. Although South Sudan is an oil rich nation, 80 per cent of the population depends on livestock farming for their livelihoods and cultural identity. Cattle represent wealth and status; cattle rustling feeds tribal conflict.

Tribal violence has continued to stifle progress.  Historical animosities are never far from the surface.  Lacking education and employment, ex-fighters have continued the only lives they have known.  While South Sudan’s major tribes include the Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, Murle, and Azande, the most evident ethnic rivalry is between the Dinka and the Nuer. Divided into sub-clans, the Dinka tribe is the largest in South Sudan. John  Garang, a Dinka-Boor, did not hesitate to assign key positions to members of his group, establishing a Dinka dynasty that angered other tribes and some of his own from different sub-clans.  The second largest tribe is the Nuer, a warrior class whose “White Army” casts fear among the population.  (The Lou Nuer “White Army” got its name because of the white ash the men covered their bodies with.) Led by Machar and joined by the Shilluk, the Nuer twice changed sides and sided with Khartoum.  During the peace process and interim period it was clear that the Western powers favored the Dinka, whom it viewed as bucolic freedom fighters.   Nevertheless, the Nuer control key oil regions and international competitors for oil concessions have courted them.  (Note:  China is the major holder of concessions followed by Malaysia and India.  The Kiir Government announced it would re-assign some blocks to offer opportunities to others, including U.S. companies.)

When Garang died, leadership passed to Salva Kiir, also a Dinka; Kiir became South Sudan’s first President.  Kiir is first and foremost a military man with limited political skill and is generally viewed as an ethical leader who tried to involve more sections of society in government.  In late 2013, invoking his significant power as President, Kiir removed Vice President Riek Machar from his position amidst a hefty cabinet shuffle in December 2013, accusing Machar, a Nuer leader, of planning a coup.  At the same time, he removed some prominent Dinkas and removed SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amun. The stage was set for the present round of violence that, if not resolved, could lead to a civil war in South Sudan and regional destabilization due in part to thousands of refugees who escaped to neighboring countries.