Kittens in the Oven: Dashed Hopes in South Sudan

January 14, 2014

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.

The power struggle

In the absence of strong central government, tribal loyalty is important in South Sudan.  It is a mistake, however, to view South Sudan’s recent escalation of violence as purely tribal.  It is also a struggle for political power, pitting Salva Kiir against Riek Machar.  There is not room for both, and a power sharing agreement would be doomed.  Kiir has detained some of his former colleagues and Dinka leaders, accusing them of corruption and/or plotting against him.  While possibly necessary, this move may in the long run prove a mistake.  His efforts to broaden participation in government, illustrated by naming James Wani Igga of the Bari tribe to replace Machar, have suffered a setback.  Machar has in his favor the warrior Nuer and tribal presence in the oil-rich areas.  His past willingness to bolt the SPLM and join with Khartoum, however, has resulted in a general distrust of his motives. The goal of forming an inclusive government that rules in favor of the whole population is as elusive as ever. The international community has not used its considerable influence to help resolve the present conflict.  Without strong support, especially from the U.S., IGAD has little power.


Both Sudan and South Sudan depend heavily on oil revenues. Approximately 75% of the oil fields are located in South Sudan, but the oil pipeline runs north through Sudan to Port Sudan.  Agreements for revenue sharing have been problematic, and the current violence has led to the closing of most fields and the exit of international technician.  Without the revenues South Sudan has no funding for critical programs; Sudan is already feeling the results of a halt in oil revenues. The present round of talks in Ethiopia must focus on ending violence in the oil-rich areas and a return as soon as possible to production.

South Sudan’s internal conflicts

Since its independence South Sudan has been plagued by internal conflicts, including rebellion by former SPLA officers, an increase in cattle rustling that has led to thousands of deaths, and an unresolved border issue with South Kordofan.

The present rebellion

Former SPLA General Peter Gadet leads the rebel South Sudan Liberation Movement that is in open rebellion against the Kiir government.  Formed in 1999, the SSLM represents the strongest of several opposition armed groups and is supporting Machar.  Its leaders accuse Kiir of becoming a dictator who plans to stay in power indefinitely, of not representing all tribal groups, and of failing to develop rural areas. In December 2013 an estimated twenty-five thousand young men who make up the “White Army” marched toward Bor, the capital of oil-rich Jonglei state, forcing thousands to seek safety at UN camps.  The “White Army,” so called because of the white ash they use on their skin to ward off insects, is composed of members of the Lou-Nuer tribe that is also Machar’s tribe.

The border and Abyie

The CPA called for the resolution of the disputed north-south border that focused on Abyie.  Rather than delay a final decision until the region was more stable, the international team aggressively sought a solution where, in fact, there was none. As in other parts of Africa, borders were drawn arbitrarily by colonial powers with little concern for ethnic/cultural groupings. To no one’s surprise, the decision favored the south and the Dinka inhabitants.  While the West saw this as a necessary definition of the border,  the populations  viewed the decision as it affected cattle migration.  For many years the Misseriya of South Kordofan in the north had moved their cattle south according to the season based on tribal agreements.  The Misseriya were immediately threatened by the decision and renewed their loyalty to Khartoum. (They had moved away from Khartoum and al-Bashir when the war ended and they were not rewarded for the part they had played.)  Oil plays a role, of course, but the Misseriyaherders who depend on cattle saw the issue as one of access to traditional migration routes.  The Dinka viewed it as a gain in territoryAbyie remains a major problem.

“Putting kittens in the oven”

According to an old Maine saying, “You can put kittens in the oven, but they won’t come out cookies.”  Early U.S. participation was based on an emotional mindset that viewed the conflict as the Christian/Animist South against the Muslim North.  Garang had become a Moses-like figure, leading his people into freedom, as a result enjoying widespread international popularity.  Khartoum was the bad guy who had to be punished. Without the charismatic presence of Garang, U.S. interest waned.  South Sudan fell off of the radarscope. Sudan accused the US of moving the goal posts by not delivering promised changes in US policy after it (Sudan) agreed to recognize South Sudan’s independence.)  The three international leaders, The US, Norway, and the UK, failed to grasp the core issue of institutional development and the importance of a cohesive government. Tired programs were put in the hands of NGOs and contractors. U.S. interest focused on South Asia and the Middle East. Increasingly, that focus and the accompanying funds have turned to humanitarian relief.  South Sudan needs assistance in developing its potential, and investors from several countries began to line up even before formal independence.  Without a measure of security and capable institutions, the investors will lose their enthusiasm and take their money and technical expertise elsewhere.

The West brokered the CPA and turned its attention elsewhere.  Well-intentioned donors failed to give priority to establishing the institutions that would make a difference and to insisting that the Government of South Sudan reach out to its broad population to create a unified country.  Rather, they insisted on putting kittens in the tribal South Sudanese oven, and were surprised when there were no cookies.  The mistakes began during the Naivasha peace process and continue. Understanding the mistakes that contributed to the present crisis may not help South Sudan, but may help avoid the same ones in other settings.

Lessons learned – or not

When the CPA was signed in 2005, senior representatives of African and Western countries, including then Secretary of State Colin Powell were present as guarantors.  The international community congratulated itself and spoke glowingly of a new era of peace and freedom for South Sudan.  But the U.S. maintained its sanctions on Sudan and al-Bashir was indicted by the ICC, ensuring Sudan’s continued animosity and behind-the-scene moves to disrupt the new country’s chances.

Naivasha talks were between the SPLM and the Bashir government.  Opposition leaders in Khartoum and Juba begged to be included.  Rebel leaders in Darfur and the East insisted that they must be part of any agreement.  As if deafened by the sound of an imaginary liberty bell, the negotiators continued with their plans.

Western democracies are uncomfortable with tribal systems and gave insufficient consideration to maintaining some elements of native administration, at least at the beginning.

South Sudan is an agricultural society.  Early attention to agriculture assistance might have helped alleviate food shortages and provide jobs and income.  Instead, the U.S. focused on rule of law and gender issues, on establishing a firm border, and on converting the SPLA into a modern professional army.  These were noble goals, but premature.  It is possible that the two sides will reach an agreement in Addis Ababa based on the dependence on oil revenues.  Like most agreements in Africa, however, it may be only one of convenience with neither planning to respect its provisions over time.  This is South Sudan, not Vermont, and the prize is power.  Having served as a midwife in Naivasha, the United States and other western powers need to be cognizant of the realities of South Sudan and play the role that will directly affect the future of South Sudan, Sudan, and East Africa.  President Obama has sent Special Envoy Booth to participate directly in finding solutions, while at the same time threatening sanctions if the situation is not brought under control.  While concern for humanitarian problems should be addressed, the US must keep its eye on helping to broker solutions that result in improved political, economic and social conditions.  Ambassador Booth is the right person to lead the effort.


Janice Elmore is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose 25 year career included assignments to embassies in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Bosnia, and the Sudan with a focus on political-military and law enforcement issues.


Photo credit: Al Jazeera English