South Sudan Warlords Duped the World—Peace Negotiators need to Reassess the deep-rooted Conflict thoroughly

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By William Davidson…

It was the end of yet another South Sudan crisis summit at the sumptuous Sheraton Addis for Africa’s leaders and the usual coterie of Western diplomats, journalists, and assorted hangers-on in Ethiopia’s capital.

As usual for the media, confusion reigned about the outcome of the high-level private discussions – that is until Mahboub Maalim, the executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a grouping of eight East African nations, stepped into the glare of the cameras.

At stake on 29 July was whether South Sudan’s three-month-old transitional government would reverse its position and accept a Regional Protection Force (RPF) into a United Nations mission. The idea behind this proposal was that the force would provide extra security in the capital Juba and get the power-sharing deal back on track. Three weeks before, the militarised city had exploded into violence again, as President Salva Kiir’s helicopter gunships and tanks drove his deputy and erstwhile rival Riek Machar and his outgunned troops into the bush once more.

“The Government of South Sudan accepted [the force]….there’s no conditions,” Maalim pronounced, after being pushed by journalists on Juba’s position.

News wire headlines flashed around the world that the international community had struck its latest deal with South Sudan’s elites. That meant the resuscitation of a vision of an inclusive, reforming government in the world’s newest country. But like most of the diplomacy that’s accompanied almost three years of brutal civil war for control of the state fought mainly between the two most powerful ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, it was, at best, wishful thinking and, at worst, complete fantasy.

The official fallacy underpinning the RPF proposal was the notion that President Kiir’s Dinka-dominated faction, which had recently gained military and political ascendancy against Machar’s largely Nuer fighters, would allow a third force to redress the balance. This naiveté mirrored the international approach to peace-making during the conflict that began in December 2013. In that situation, the peace agreement that officially brought the war to an end treated the disgraced leaders Kiir and Machar as respectable statesmen and saw the same figures responsible for the nation’s stillbirth sharing power once again. Blinded by hostility to Sudan’s Islamist regime, the US and others had made a similar mistake in the build up to South Sudan’s 2011 independence by glossing over the myriad failings of the former fighters who had inherited the nationhood project.

By reapplying a failed formula, the power-sharing strategy reflected a superficial analysis of South Sudan’s elite problem combined with the need to find a solution that interested outsiders could agree upon. Instead of pushing for fundamental reform to make the political system inclusive, as IGAD initially intended, the final outcome suggested the rival camps of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) would work together to right their wrongs.

This July’s outrageous violence in the capital not only rubbished that notion and derailed the transitional government, but also suggested strongly that South Sudan’s rulers never intended to follow the peace-making prescriptions of outsiders.

Indeed, there never has been any reason to think the nation is a template liberal democracy ready to be tweaked into shape by politicians in the capital – let alone by the soldier-politicians who had proved their venality over previous decades. South Sudan remains a deeply troubled, terribly governed, untamed territory where a nascent battle for state power is violent and ethnic, reflecting decades of oppression, internal conflict and marginalisation. The continuing failure to have this explicitly reflected in the world’s dealings with it risks prolonging the turmoil and costing even more lives and dollars.

Meaningless truces

South Sudan formally achieved statehood in 2011 after southerners voted overwhelmingly to secede from Sudan. The referendum was the result of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended one of Africa’s longest civil wars in which the SPLM and its armed wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), battled the regime in Khartoum and other rival southern groups, some of them Nuer.

While South Sudan had the strong backing of the US and the international community at independence, it remained ethnically divided, had virtually no infrastructure, was heavily militarised, and suffered from a fantastically corrupt and fractious elite prone to using tribal warfare as a political tactic.  It also had large oil reserves, which intensified competition for control of the state and lubricated bribes and patronage.

Sure enough, chaos ensued. Machar, the deputy president, was sacked in July 2013, and SPLM opponents of Kiir soon challenged him, arguing that the government was increasingly authoritarian. Kiir’s subsequent attempt to eliminate his rivals led to war. In December, members of Kiir’s presidential guards attempted to disarm Nuer colleagues loyal to Machar. Fighting broke out and Kiir accused, with no evidence, rivals of plotting to topple him. Dinka soldiers ran amok in Juba, massacring Nuer civilians, while Machar escaped the bombardment of his house and fled. Mainly Nuer divisions of the military rebelled, as they had done from the SPLA during the struggle against Khartoum, and Machar became the head of a resistance movement that was as fractious and fragile as the nation.

The IGAD nations quickly stepped in to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. During the next two and a half years of war, the Sheraton Addis did a roaring trade, mainly at the expense of the West, as South Sudan’s leaders took regular breaks from battlefield manoeuvring. Virtually meaningless truces were agreed, violated, and then recommitted to, as diplomats praised allegedly incremental progress during every step of a gullible process.

Back in the oil-producing Greater Upper Nile region, where the fighting was focused, Machar and fellow rebel leaders coaxed Nuer militias to lay waste to enemy towns − including Bor, which Machar’s forces first devastated as long ago as 1991 − spurred on by a narrative of the December 2013 “Juba genocide” against their tribe. Both sides committed multiple atrocities in a war that mostly involved armed groups massacring and raping civilians.

Back to Juba

In August 2015, after making significant military gains, Kiir accepted for Machar to return as his deputy. At the same time, he took the unusual step of formally listing his reservations about the deal, but still, diplomats seemed sanguine.

After Kiir defied the peace process by unilaterally reorganising the country into 28 states amid allegations of pro-Dinka gerrymandering (a powerless Machar made a similar pro-Nuer proposal to his rebel coalition the year before), the transitional government formed belatedly in April 2016 when Machar was persuaded to return to Juba with a lightly armed protection force.

[Splitting South Sudan into 28 states: right move, wrong time?]

But quarrels soon arose. His chief negotiator Taban Deng – a former governor of oil-pumping Unity State who’s believed to have partly bankrolled the rebellion – quit a key mediating forum, allegedly because he was upset at not becoming Petroleum Minister. Machar himself was peeved as he didn’t get adequate office space. And the rival camps had a spat over who would nominate the speaker of parliament.

On 7 July, real politics resumed. Although the origin of the spark is disputed, the flame that engulfed Juba for the second time is not. Following an initial battle outside the presidential palace, Kiir’s faction used tanks, helicopter gunships and ground troops to kill or drive Machar’s forces out of town. After the victory, government soldiers fired into the air; the media reported they were celebrating a ceasefire. As part of those celebrations, Nuer women were raped at checkpoints en masse and there were targeted killings of Nuer men in the capital, according to the United Nations, in a replay of December 2013. Dinka soldiers also invaded an international compound, gang raping foreign workers and executing a Nuer journalist.

With the transitional government in tatters, the blood-soaked circus returned to the Sheraton Addis, with Taban Deng now leading the government delegation. Alongside Deng, who replaced Machar as First Vice President, was another defector: Machar’s former chief-of-staff Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth. The day after the crisis summit and Maalim’s headline-making soundbite, the government’s position crystalised as it explained that it had only accepted the new force “in principle” and that all details were still to be negotiated.

[The African Union can and must intervene to prevent atrocities in South Sudan]

Out of keeping with the bland public statements, a Western diplomat explained privately that the government’s bait and switch tactics were “straight out of the warlord’s playbook” as he compared South Sudanese politics to power struggles in medieval Britain. The point was that while the mediators and the media were drip-fed enough information to file reports about progress, the government hadn’t actually committed to anything.

The US tried to exploit the minimal concession through a tough UN Security Council resolution, but Juba slowed the process as the political reality on the ground shifted. In the intervening weeks, the government prevaricated further over the RPF, and the coopted Deng consolidated his position by acquiring international support. Three weeks after the summit, US Secretary of State John Kerry admitted Machar’s return was no longer vital for the power sharing agreement.

[Down but not out: What Machar’s absence means for South Sudan’s peace process]

“Riek Machar is an idiot,” snorted one Ethiopian official, well aware of the Machiavellian games being played. “He allowed himself to get played by a shepherd from Bahr El Ghazal.”

The shepherd with 80 wives

Western and Northern Bahr el Ghazal are Dinka-dominated states in South Sudan’s northwest, and the “shepherd” the official was referring to is Paul Malong, the SPLA’s chief-of-staff. He is an influential Dinka hardliner widely believed to have been against the deal that legitimised Machar and his followers. When George Clooney’s Sentry project released a report on war profiteering this month, Malong featured and was described as owning mansions in Nairobi and Kampala as well as having around 80 wives, which means countless cattle for dowries.

Malong directed the July offensive to remove Machar and end the latest bout of power sharing, according to a close observer. “The core attack that happened around the Jebel [area of Juba]seems to have been loyalist elements in SPLA led by Malong basically trying to eliminate Machar,” said the source. The Dinka leadership is seen acting in accordance with the wishes of the influential ethnic advisory group, the Jieng Council of Elders.

[Who’s behind South Sudan’s return to fighting?]

In essence, the Dinka have won the power struggle and coopted Nuer such as Taban Deng who have given up on the fight and been rewarded. The question now is what new form Nuer resistance will take and what ethnic communities from the south, collectively known as Equatorians, as well as the powerful Shilluk and other groups – including marginalised Dinka officers – will do about the clique’s domination of an increasingly authoritarian government.

The current outcome is not that dissimilar to the one favoured by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, another enemy of Machar, who sent his army to protect Kiir’s government in 2013. By contrast, the international community has tried to even-handedly solve the war through formulaic conflict resolution that culminated in nothing more than a classic elite stitch up. This wide-eyed approach is not due to ignorance – international actors within the peace process know the nature and intricacies of South Sudanese politics – but due to an institutional bias towards quick fixes and a lack of consensus on more sustainable remedies, which has meant that knowledge is routinely side-lined in favour of leaps of faith in the failed leaders.

African solutions for African problems

The structure of conflict resolution in Africa puts continental actors at the forefront. Broadly, this results in regional blocs, in this case IGAD, taking the lead and reporting to the African Union (AU), whose stance is generally backed by the United Nations Security Council. Powerful actors like the US have an important consultative and cajoling role, but the region leads the way.

As the pre-eminent power within IGAD, Ethiopia assumed control of the South Sudan mediation and applied a framework from the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. But leading actors in the mediation were not South Sudan experts and struggled to handle the country’s disingenuous politicians. That played into the hands of Juba’s elite, who were happy to wine and dine at the Sheraton while pretending to be accommodating towards their opponents. By appealing for humanitarian access and getting paper truces signed, the world repeatedly fooled itself that it was making progress.

Part of the problem with IGAD trying to foster democracy in South Sudan is that the IGAD region is not very democratic. There was never any appetite from IGAD states to take on a government that was still the sovereign, and applying strong sanctions was hardly a natural recourse for regional leaders that have had two of their members charged with crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Court in recent years.

Furthermore, the region was divided, with Sudan seen to be supporting Machar’s Nuer rebels due to past ties, a lingering interest in South Sudan’s destabilisation, and a rivalry between President Omar al Bashir and Museveni. Respecting – or hiding behind – the mantra of “African solutions for African problems”, the rest of the international community didn’t intervene to alter these fundamental flaws. Any more aggressive moves, such as a concerted effort to impose an arms embargo or freeze the assets of leading protagonists, would have required the cooperation of IGAD allies, particularly Kenya and Uganda, as well as international backing from the likes of Russia and China.

A history of splintering

While critiquing failed peace-making is easy, offering solutions is harder, partly because South Sudan has a recent history that matches its tragic present. The united Sudan achieved independence in 1956 after being run by the British through Egyptian governors since 1899. The British generally ruled the country as two unequal territories: the governing north and the subjected south.

Southerners, realising that northern domination would continue, took up arms a year before independence. That rebellion lasted until 1972 when autonomy was promised. After an increasingly Islamic regime in Khartoum reneged on that offer, a second Nuer-dominated insurgency broke out in 1978, with John Garang’s Dinka-heavy SPLM/A, formed in 1983, eventually becoming the dominant insurgent group.

South Sudan’s liberation was far from neat. The SPLM under Garang, a Dinka from Bor, set out to overthrow the Sudanese regime and democratise the county. Yet his vision was not matched by his movement, which was brutal and exploited the population it was purporting to liberate. That contributed to its first major split in 1991 when Machar and Lam Akol  made the Nasir Declaration, accusing Garang of authoritarianism; a precursor of the 2013 charge against Kiir.

It was thus a history of splintering and reuniting rebellions that coalesced into South Sudan’s government in 2011. The national military was in actuality a patchwork of ethnic militias loyal to their commanders. For example, the Khartoum-linked South Sudan Defense Forces had been bought into the fold of the SPLA in 2007, but full reintegration was never achieved. Its former commanders formed the bulk of those who defected in December 2013.

Fixing the country

In 1999, Edward N. Luttwak argued that in some cases, it can be the right thing to ‘Give War a Chance’. His thinking was that if there are fundamental disputes being fought over, such as the composition of the state and who controls it, their only partial resolution would likely mean the reoccurrence of conflict in the future. One could make this argument in reference to South Sudan. However, given the character of the civil war, allowing the fighting to run its course would likely mean the tacit approval of genocide.

Another big idea to address the country’s woes is some form of international administration until South Sudan is in a suitable condition for independent statehood. Versions of the approach have been promoted by Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani, who studied the crisis for an African Union commission; Pagan Amum, the former secretary-general of the SPLM; and Princeton Lyman, the former US envoy to the region.

Ever since IGAD resumed its role as mediator, John Young, an experienced Canadian researcher and author of The Fate of Sudans has been aghast at the process. He immediately pointed out that IGAD was making all the same mistakes it did with its stewardship of the 2005 CPA, right down to enlisting the same Kenyan mediator Lazarus Sumbeiywo.

Like almost all informed observers, Young saw no logic in pursuing the SPLM power-sharing deal when SPLM leadership was the major cause of the problem. Now, begrudgingly, given his contempt for the conceits of the US-led liberal world order, he believes that the option of a neutral caretaker government needs at least serious discussion for a crisis he thinks could go on for decades.  “As soon as the war started, I wrote a paper for the US government that strongly advocated some kind of notion of international trusteeship,” Young says. “I didn’t have some kind of ideological or philosophical commitment to that idea, but I wanted to get outside of this narrow box and debate it to see how realistic it was.”

However, while there’s some logic to the trusteeship suggestion, such an overtly neo-colonial approach is unimaginable in the age of African solutions for African problems. It also fails the pragmatism test: it’s not apparent how armed opponents of the move would be neutralised, while there are few reasons to think that temporary UN or AU administration would be anything other than a costly, hubristic disaster.

Peter Biar Ajak, a former political and economic advisor to the government and now director of the International Growth Center for South Sudan, was also  dismayed when it became obvious that IGAD’s plan hinged on an effort to coerce Machar and Kiir into sharing power. “In basically diagnosing the conflict as simply a power struggle between these two individuals that can be resolved by sharing power between them, I think it boxed the mediation into a very narrow room,” he says.

[Why elections may be the only answer for South Sudan]

Ajak too sees parallels with the 2005 CPA, which accorded the SPLM a monopoly on political power while failing to recognise the movement’s lack of interest in issues such as public service delivery, taxation, and institution building, as well as a history of infighting, brutality and corruption.

Post-2005, the SPLM used its “blanket authority” to grow a “bloated and dysfunctional” government with ministries ethnically defined and the military a patchwork of militias, he says.  “When the power struggle happened, [competition for control of the state]was only one element of it, not the main thing, as on all the issues of corruption and grievances from the past, nothing has been done − there was no justice, or accountability. So all this just exploded and reinforced the grievances that have roots in the civil war,” Ajak says.

He thinks there was an opportunity at the conflict’s outset to pursue an aggressive effort to shun the SPLM’s warlords and focus on peace, justice, reconciliation and accountability.  Instead, IGAD and partners entrenched Machar and Kiir’s networks, making the problem even more intractable.

Regardless, Ajak now favours an orthodox approach and is adamant that the power struggle cannot be sustainably solved through warfare. Ajak believes a renewed effort to transform the nation’s ethnic-based armed groups into a professional military could alter South Sudan’s downwards trajectory.

Whether that is the case or not, what is apparent is that the international approach to South Sudan needs to be underpinned by a more thorough and honest assessment of the deep-rooted, age-old problems bedevilling the young country. Until policy is directed by an understanding that South Sudanese elites are unscrupulously battling for control of an under-formed nation state – as groups have done across the world – then the remedies proposed will be insufficient. More piecemeal pragmatism that amounts to little more than feel-good churn will do a further disservice to the long-suffering South Sudanese people, though it promises much for the owner of the Sheraton Addis.

William Davison is a freelance journalist based in Ethiopia. Follow him on twitter at@wdavison10

This article was first Published by African arguments, a comment and analysis website which publishes analysis of African current affairs and politics from inside the continent. Click to Visit African Arguments