Why the betrayal of South Sudan’s leaders and neighbours spells failure for ‘African solutions’
Hopes were high when in 2010, the world’s youngest country voted for independence from Sudan. Yet, South Sudan has spent more than half of its short life in civil conflict. Despite repeated efforts to reconcile, interference by elites in the country and the selfish interest of its neighbours interfere with peace efforts. Despite a growing number of people claiming that African problems must be solved at home, this approach seems to have failed in South Sudan. Is there really no local solution?
In 2010, South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence and on 9th July 2011, became the world’s youngest country. In the absence of its Arab masters, crisis emerged as contenders vied to fill the shoes of the country’s colonial predecessors. The first election in independent Sudan was planned for 2015 yet even before this, misunderstandings quickly emerged between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Vice President Dr Riek Machar.
The Vice President had accused the Salva Kiir of obstructing political reforms, failing to tackle corruption and stalling on efforts to transform the SPLA into a conventional army, amongst other things. After voicing discontent, Machar declared his intention to run in the elections on an SPLM ticket, the incumbent party he represented, along with President Salva Kiir. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was perceived by the President and his associates, including the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE), as a major threat.
On 23 Jul 2013, Kiir sacked the entire cabinet, including his deputy, Riek Machar. This only added confusion to the power-struggle within the reigning Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and created more impetus to regroup along tribal lines. It also created division among the the sacked party elements, some of whom stayed loyal to Vice President Machar, with others lining up behind President Salva Kiir.
Beneath high politics, the army, police and people from all walks of life started aligning themselves to back either the President or his Vice. The days were marked by a string of press conferences beaming out hateful rhetoric that neglected nation-building at the expense of self-interest.
On 15th December 2013 this reached a climax as Machar led a group of opponents, including SPLA (the military wing of the SPLM) leader Dr John Garang’s widow, in boycotting SPLM meetings. Salva Kiir described the move as a coup, a claim which was downplayed by many international organisations, which viewed the statement as a way for the President to legitimize arrests of political opponents.
Within days, rebellion against Machar was felt as fighting began in Juba and killing began along ethnic lines. Nuers were targeted, identified, and killed. According to the African Union (AU) investigators, led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the conflict began on 15th December 2013 as a skirmish broke out between Dinka and Nuer soldiers of the presidential guard, following the political tension between Kiir and Machar.
The AU report recognised the group responsible for the atrocities as “some Dinka soldiers”, specifically the Mathiang Anyoor, Galweng and Du-ku-beng. The fact that they were later moved to the President's private farm in Kopuri points to support from people at the top of South Sudan’s government and military. Indeed, the highly organised operation could not have been possible without it: roadblocks, checkpoints and house to house needed the help of security forces.
Within days, war had spread to Bor and across the country as Nuer elements sought revenge for the atrocities committed by Dinka fighters in Juba.
Shortly, fingers were pointed at neighbouring countries: Uganda was accused of taking sides with the government on the pretext of protecting infrastructural projects in Juba, such as the airport, and highway connecting Juba to Uganda. The Ugandan army even ran military operations in Bor and Jonglie states to protect Uganda’s interests and food.
Two years into the civil war, the UK, US and Norway brought the two leaders together to sign a resolution treaty in the Ethiopian town of Bahr Dar. The agreement permitted Dr. Machar to return to his former position and guaranteed to protect the two armies for 18 months and later aim to re-integrate forces into the national army. It also stipulated for the demilitarization of Juba, which was supposed to be protected by integrated forces, however due to a sore lack of political will, this did not happen.
In December 2015, Dr. Riek returned to Juba with a guard of 1300 soldiers as per the Bahr Dar agreement. However, the environment was tense even before his return; it seems that the intervening countries had failed to understand the circumstances on ground, and many feared Machar to be a dead man walking.
As feared, tensions erupted, triggering a second civil war. Machar fled Juba, narrowly escaping assassination. At present, he lives in exile in South Africa where he maintains control over military forces from a distance. His successor, Taban Deng, has failed to secure the same level of influence over military forces as Machar and is rather being used as a puppet by the President’s regime to cause division amongst the Nuer and SPLM/A-IO.
In the past, the international community have expressed frustration with Machar and his unrelenting desire for power in South Sudan. The structure of the peace deal which favoured the government, the high military presence in Juba prior to Machar’s arrival and lack of condemnation by the international community towards the government all suggest a lack of sympathy for Machar and even willingness to look the other way if his death were to clear the way for the more placid Taban Deng.
Today, there are an estimated 800 000 South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. Yet neighboring countries including Uganda and Kenya are more than simply hosts; they are part and parcel of the conflict. Uganda has something of a reputation for getting involved in regional conflicts, from DRC to Rwanda and, in 2013, South Sudan.
Unlike ECOWAS, The East African Community is weak and unwilling to prevent Ugandan military intervention. Similarly, the AU is a toothless entity that seems bent on protecting heads of state in whatever they do.
Uganda’s agenda in South Sudan is undoubtedly economic. Indeed, speaking on UPDF operations in the country, President Museveni has confessed that Uganda “intervened in South Sudan to protect the food [supply] and Ugandan interests.”
The UPDF does not have a strong track-record of helping quell tensions in times of crisis (consider its operations against the LRA). However, Uganda does have a strong track record of attracting large humanitarian funds to support its growing refugee population. The influx of fleeing South Sudanese citizens adds dollars to the economy, creates jobs for relief staff and allows local NGOs to thrive. There are clear economic benefits to instability in South Sudan where Uganda is concerned, not least its signing of military agreements with the Juba regime.
If its neighbour can’t be trusted, who will stop the alleged genocide taking place? From the furthest corners of the arena, the UK has profiled the violence as genocide, while closer onlookers- the AU, IGAD, Uganda, and Kenya- watch silently or directly contribute to the violence.
The Ugandan media is noticeably silent about the genocide in South Sudan. While certain taboos- such as the issues surrounding feminine hygiene, raised very ‘creatively’ by Dr. Nyanzi- are splashed across front pages, a genocide which could implicate government laxity is perhaps to risky for editors to cover. There is payoff for Museveni in a controversial news story about women’s menstrual cycles- he has always depended on the female vote. There is little payoff in uncovering the brutal killing of brothers and sisters in South Sudan, pointing to a disgustingly disinterested media, or more likely, a very fragile illusion of press freedom in the country. Either way, it begs the question: who is supposed to raise the alarm if not the neighbors’ media?
Uganda is not the last country to muscle in on South Sudan’s misery. Kenya has also become part of the crisis. While previously regarded as a neutral country, this is no longer the case. Allegations continue to arise of MPs visiting Juba, where they are promptly bribed to remain silent on all opposition activities upon returning to Kenya.
Complicity is a reality, made evident by the recent arrest and deportation from Kenya of Dr. Machar’s Spokesperson, a Mr James Gatdet Dak, who is currently incarcerated in Juba. Most recently, is the arrest and disappearance of South Sudanese lawyer Dong Samuel, who advocated for South Sudan’s opposition and acted as member of the Human Rights and Justice Committee for South Sudan’s opposition. Another high-profile opposition aid, Aggrey Idri, chair of the opposition’s Humanitarian Affairs committee, has met the same inconclusive fate as Dong Samuel. To date, neither man’s whereabouts is known. Given the country’s patchy record reputation when it comes to extrajudicial killing, Kenya must clarify the situation if it does not wish to implicate its own guilt in acting as hitman for a genocidal regime.
All considered, Africans are doing little to mend African problems. Having failed to save South Sudan themselves, initiative from the UK and other international actors seem to be the last remaining option.
For a fresh chance at peace, a resuscitation is needed of the 2015 resolution signed in Ethiopia. There is a desperate need to bring all armed groups, political parties, religious sects and civil society to a point where talks can be had at a national level.
For South Sudan to talk is not enough though; the media in the East Africa, particularly in Kenya and Uganda, must step up. Failure to speak out against their neighbour is to legitimize killings and domination of the weak. It is to allow the murder, rape, plunder, famine and cannibalism suffered by their neighbours to pass under the bridge.
Within the country itself, moderate groups from warring tribes must use their voices to condemn the genocide. As with Rwanda’s experience, moderates can play a decisive role in the lessening the extent of the killing. Yet, without a free media across East Africa and in the face threats, assassinations and the subjugation of journalists in South Sudan, these voices will not be heard and the wider world will fail to comprehend the country’s plight.
Following the failure of its neighbours, UN protection forces must be deployed if civilians are to be rescued from the government which is supposed to protect them. Now, the majority perceive it as a betrayal from their leaders.
The joy of independence has turned into sorrow and a curse. The promise of a booming young nation has been sold and in its place are thousands of IDPs and depressing refugee camps. Worse still, the country and its neighbours are the ones driving the destruction and it seems that the international community is the only referee that will be able to fix the mess between the country’s leaders.
Monye Jur is a South Sudanese peace activist living in Juba. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.