Government and rebel forces are currently battling for control of towns and strategic oil fields in the South Sudan state of Upper Nile. Four civilians have reportedly been killed and the United Nations compound in Melut bombed, in just the latest case of instability and violence since the country gained independence from Sudan following a successful referendum in 2011.
At the time of that vote, the international community widely saw the overwhelming support for a new state as setting the stage for a positive transformation. It had the potential to usher in a period of peace and economic development for the people of the south, who fought decades of civil war against the north to win autonomy and the right to the referendum.
The civil war that subsequently erupted in South Sudan dashed those hopes. The political situation has deteriorated severely. The country is in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis, with over 120,000 Sudanese in Protection of Civilian sites run by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and many thousands more displaced from their homes. The economy is on the brink of collapse. In the past year, oil revenues have declined by more than three quarters—from 300 million USD per month to 60 million USD—as a result of reduced production due to the ongoing fighting, and the decline in global oil prices. In order to pay salaries and cover basic expenses, the government, after having incurred high debts at unfavorable terms, has resorted to printing money, which has further devalued the currency.
The situation calls for a full consideration of what went wrong and why the international community has been unable to stop the free-fall. The major conclusion is there was a basic misunderstanding of the situation, and a failure to assess correctly the fissures and weaknesses of the South Sudanese government. The international community’s focus was on reconciliation and mutual viability between the north and the south, rather than among the rival factions within South Sudan.
The collapse of leadership started with the helicopter crash that killed the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s (SLPM) founding leader John Garang in July 2005. Garang was the father of the “New Sudan” vision, which called for democratic transformation of the country. He wanted to keep Sudan united as a secular and democratic state, but reserved the right to self-determination for the south if that were not possible.
After Garang’s death the political situation inside the SLPM changed. His replacement Salva Kiir was a separatist and did not have the same leadership skills. His most acute weakness was an inability to make decisions and/or stick to them. The result has been poor governance, massive corruption, rampant insecurity, and tribalism. Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, who now leads the rebel SPLM faction, fostered ethnic and regional rivalries within the country’s leadership. The international community recognized this, but it nonetheless felt an obligation to work with Kiir.
Instead of acting in a united way to establish the new government and begin rebuilding the country’s institutions and economy, the SPLM leadership quickly fractured and a power struggle ensued. Shortly after independence Kiir indicated he would give up the presidency, but soon changed his mind. As the country transitioned into independence, he altered the previous interim constitution to give himself more authority to remove regional governors in the transitional constitution, further exacerbating the internal power struggle.
Kiir dismissed many of his rivals, including Machar, during the cabinet reshuffle in July 2013. The army was similarly fragmented. It consisted of a coalition of tribal militias grouped around key generals. The United States Department of Defense had engaged with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) through contractors, who provided training. Shortly after independence Africom (the US training institute for African militaries) had offered to re-train the SPLA military leadership; the State Department decided against this. While the army appears to have a unified leadership, it is highly divided along ethnic lines.
The delay in setting up a truth and reconciliation commission after South Sudan’s independence caused more problems. The failure to think through what integration of the south would entail led to a situation of increased insecurity, which continues to this day. Even after independence, outside actors failed to focus on internal tensions and rivalries in the south, focusing instead on the status of the disputed Abyei region and other outstanding issues with the north.
On the economic side South Sudanese oil production was shut down in February 2012 in a bid to pressure Sudan to charge lower pipeline fees for transporting oil through its territory. South Sudan resumed production sometime in the second quarter of 2013, after failing to achieve its desired outcome and agreeing to the exorbitant fee of $24.10 per barrel. Since the civil war in South Sudan started, oil production has decreased further. The drop in production has devastated the country’s economy, hurting local communities, and hindering the government’s ability to pay the salaries of security forces.
So what can be done? The African Union (AU) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)—with the support of the US, the European Union, and the UN—are seeking to work out a power sharing agreement between the SPLM factions led by Kiir and Machir. The IGAD-led peace talks in Addis Ababa seeking to establish a unified transitional government came to naught after 14 months and over eight rounds of talks. An effort to invigorate the mediation is currently underway through the so-called “IGAD-plus” process. This involves China, the UN, the Troika countries (Norway, United Kingdom, and US), Russia, and five non-IGAD AU member states (Algeria, Chad, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Africa) seeking to add their weight to IGAD-led mediation.
However, the international community, especially the UN and the US, needs to go beyond these immediate efforts, to promote what might be called a “generational exit”. The current leadership may be able to end the fighting, but it seems clear that they will not be able to build a sustainable peace.
On the other hand, a significant number of young men and women have gone to the US and Europe during the war years and acquired skills in governance, business, and development. It is important to create opportunities for these individuals to be able to return to South Sudan to work either in government or the private sector. This in turn will restore confidence in governance, improve relations between South Sudan and Sudan and create new opportunities for the international community to work with a new generation of South Sudanese in rebuilding their country. This is an opportunity that must be fully grasped.
Peter Ajak is Founder and Director of the Centre for Strategic Analysis (C-SAR) in Juba, South Sudan. His latest report is State Formation, Humanitarianism, and Institutional Capabilities in South Sudan. John Hirsch is Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.