Five years after its creation, South Sudan is ever closer to being a failed state. What went so badly wrong in the world’s newest nation?
Nobody really knows how it started. “On that Friday, I’m not even sure what was concerning me so much,” says the South Sudan head of an international NGO. “But by lunchtime, we were asking staff to return to the office and putting all movements on stand by.”
By 4:30pm, that had become irrelevant anyway. Fierce fighting had erupted in front of the presidential palace, with president Salva Kiir and vice-president Riek Machar, who’d been meeting to discuss recent violence in the country, trapped like sitting ducks inside. Four hours later a ceasefire was declared, and soon after machine guns quietened down in the capital.
“By Saturday afternoon it looked like something that had got out of hand was back under control. Most people were starting to get quite optimistic,” the NGO director tells me.
This sense of relief proved premature. By 4pm fighting started again, this time much more intense. People were shooting at each other with assault rifles; helicopter gunships and tanks were blasting targets on the streets. Thousands died in the space of three days, according to local security sources (the official toll is 300). Government troops stormed a hotel prized by foreigners, with scores of aid workers beaten or raped. Heavy artillery pounded a UN compound.
This nightmare vision is a far cry from the fanfare that surrounded South Sudan’s creation five years ago. Back in 2011, at a time when insurgencies were raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country seemed to be the poster child of Western efforts at conflict resolution. The people of what used to be Southern Sudan had voted for independence, putting behind them decades of civil war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese government.
“It felt like South Sudan was this easy win story. So everyone got 100 percent behind it,” says Lydia Stone, lead consultant at UK aid and research provider Social Development Direct.
A year later, cracks were already starting to appear. Oil production, South Sudan’s main earner of foreign money, had been turned off. The country was plunged into austerity measures, and the president had overridden the constitution by sacking two governors. Three thousands had been killed in communal fighting in the eastern state of Jonglei.
“I remember the country’s first anniversary. My friends were all going to the celebrations. They asked me why I wasn’t going, and I replied that there was absolutely nothing to celebrate,” says Stone. “But if you were to say that, you would be have been treated as somebody who didn’t want to see South Sudan succeeding. There was this sort of communal brainwashing where, as long as you kept saying South Sudan will succeed, then it will succeed.”
But two years later failure could no longer be ignored. In 2013, accusing vice-president Machar of plotting against him, president Kiir sacked his entire cabinet. A full-blown civil war ensued, pitting Kiir’s SPLA against Machar’s SPLA-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO). Civilians, who did not care much about this alphabet soup, suffered the brunt of the two-year-long conflict. Amid repeated atrocities, at least 2.2 million were displaced. More than 300,000 died.
The threat of UN sanctions for both factions led their leaders to sign a peace agreement in August 2015, through which Machar got his old job back. But provisions to demilitarise Juba, the capital, were never respected. Fearing for his safety, Machar took months to return to the city. In April 2016, when he eventually did, the situation rapidly turned explosive. One of Machar’s bodyguards got killed. Fighting erupted at his funeral. Other incidents happened, and tensions rapidly escalated into the July clashes.
“The personal animosity between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar is very strong,” says the NGO chief. “At some point I don’t think they were even able to talk to each other, let alone negotiate a way forward in terms of implementing the peace agreement. In addition to that you had two opposing armed forces in what is in fact a very small town.”
How did it get that bad? It’s tempting to fall back on the ethnic explanation, and surely it plays a part. Kiir’s supporters are mostly Dinka tribesmen, while Machar’s troops are largely Nuer. Geography also matters: the latter’s power base is in the north, while the former comes from the south. But if tensions got out of hand, it’s mostly because the country’s leaders have let them fester for years. And it started well before the nation was born.
“The current situation is rooted in a political battle for power, with ethnical connotations, that’s been here throughout South Sudan’s history,” says Sara Pantuliano, a managing director at UK think-tank the Overseas Development Institute. “This has created a cycle of revenge and fear that continues to undermine any ability for the country to undergo a civil transition. The South Sudanese elite are the first ones to blame for not having led a more constructive transition.”
The seeds of hatred were planted throughout the 22-year long Sudanese civil war that preceded independence, during which competition for recruits and exactions by various factions had left deep scars on local communities. After the SPLA reached peace with Khartoum in 2005, its leaders did little to soothe the wounds.
“There was no sustained effort by the civil government to reconcile itself with the community it had oppressed, or promote inter-tribal peace meetings. Instead, during the period between 2006 and 2012, the SPLA carried very heavy-handed disarmament campaigns. They approached this legacy of violence as a security issue only,” says Douglas Johnson, a Sudan and South Sudan expert who’s advised the government on boundary issues.
With a referendum planned for 2011, the region’s leaders were exclusively focused on securing popular support for self-determination. To their eyes, other problems were little more than a digression. “The only ideology that existed was to achieve independence from the north. And the only narrative that existed was that Khartoum were the bad guys and South Sudan were the good guys,” says Stone.
This narrative was reinforced by the international community, and in particular the US, whose understanding of the war had served to draft the 2005 peace agreement. What Washington failed to see was that the Sudanese conflict was more than a conflict between north and south. Prior to 2005, even as the SPLA was firing rockets at Khartoum, the worst atrocities actually happened within the south, often pitting Dinka against Nuer. Their legacy was never seriously addressed.
“South Sudan cannot be treated as a unified country. It is going through state building. Right now, it is not a single entity but a myriad of tribes and interests,” says Veronique Barbelet, a research fellow at ODI.
It didn’t help that the new leaders had very limited experience on how to run a country. The institutions they created were neither transparent nor democratic, argues Pantuliano. That allowed the elite to pilfer the region’s coffers, with any lack of infrastructure or public services blamed on Khartoum. “In 2005 these guys coming out of the bush had very little money. And then suddenly you started seeing sons and daughters of ministers driving around in flash cars,” says Stone.
Despite the hubris, none of this improved after independence. The poster child got showered with presents: nearly $1.4 billion of international aid was allocated to South Sudan during its first year of existence. Hundreds of consultants rushed to the country to help it reform schools, the civil service and the army. But the carrot lacked a stick. “It was thought that this child was inherently good and would do the right thing. So it got spoiled,” says Barbelet.
This vision turned out to be rather naïve. A report released earlier this month by The Sentry, an investigative group co-founded by George Clooney, accuses South Sudan’s political elite of having constructed a “kleptocratic regime” that “controls nearly all profit-generating sectors of the economy”. A former adviser to the finance ministry, who I interviewed this month, told me as much. “South Sudan is quite corrupt. A lot of the money that went through the state budget never really transformed into investments on the ground.”
When donors belatedly tried to play harder ball, Juba reacted badly. “South Sudan is like a teenager that’s going through rebellion. The international community is coming back and saying ‘no, that’s not what we wanted you to do’. But it has lost its ability to influence the government,” says Barbelet. The US, which has tried to adopt a tougher line of late, is having little success: during the attack on the hotel in July, soldiers were singling out Americans to abuse them first.
The hotel episode also highlights another inconvenient truth: the UN’s impotence at calming things down. Peacekeepers, which had a base several hundred metres away, did nothing to stop the rampage. This has fuelled bitterness among local NGOs, and an investigation is under way. But on the ground, few express surprise. “They’re not even capable of protecting their own assets or staff, let alone providing more general civil and humanitarian protection. The SPLA has no fear, no respect of the UN,” says our NGO chief.
The UN’s peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, currently the organisation’s third-largest, counts more than 12,000 troops. But behind the headline number lie glaring weaknesses. For a start, the UN is often outgunned by the factions it is supposed to pacify: it takes more than a few armoured vehicles to impress the SPLA and its helicopters, says Johnson. “They simply don’t have the capacity to take on any large armed group and be guaranteed of winning.”
The peacekeeping force, which is made up of soldiers from armies around the world, also lacks a clear line of command. Troops from a particular country don’t always feel compelled to obey a superior who’s from elsewhere, especially when that involves risking confrontation with local groups. The SPLA is taking advantage of this indecision: by erecting simple roadblocks around UN compounds, observes an NGO exec, government troops often manage to keep peacekeepers in their barracks.
With rebel factions cleaned out of Juba, calm has now returned to the capital. Having won the upper hand, the president assures that there is “no reason to fight a senseless war”. But his interest in a genuine ceasefire remains hesitant at best. A UN report unveiled this month alleges that he and his chief of staff recently spent vast amounts of money on a pile of fresh weapons, including two fighter jets. The SPLA-IO could also decide to launch another offensive. Taban Deng Gai, the new vice-president, has a less troubled relation with the president than Riek Machar. But he is seen as a political animal who doesn’t command full loyalty among rebel troops.
Civilians are not holding their breath. Indications are that violence hasn’t stopped outside the capital: local sources say entire villages have been depleted in the country’s east; the total number of South Sudan refugees, which officially hit the 1 million mark this month, continues to rise fast (20,000 are said to be trekking into Uganda every week). Even where some form of stability exist, locals are paying a heavy price for the lingering tensions. With markets closed and import routes disrupted, food shortages are rife. Inflation is touching 730 percent. State administrations have no money: a local aid worker told me that civil servants often go to him when they need to get some documents printed.
Solutions may exist. Asset freezes and coordinated sanctions against the country’s elite may coerce them into committing to peace, financial propriety and the construction of a proper state. Fostering greater participation of the South Sudanese into trades and businesses, which are mostly run by outsiders, could lead to the emergence of a political group more interested in stability. But tangible progress could take decades to materialise. On South Sudan’s time scale, that’s already several lifetimes.