Is South Sudan Doomed to Fail?

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Sam Stratford looks at the situation in South Sudan, too often forgotten in the flurry of headlines about events in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and looks at the prospects for taking the country forward.


The South Sudan conflict will enter its fifth year in December. Violence has claimed over 100,000 lives and forced more than six million, amounting to one half of the population, into food insecurity. A 2015 peace agreement brought temporary respite to some areas but quickly fell apart and the conflict appears intractable, fragmenting further with each month that passes. The international community’s latest response is to push for a revitalisation of the 2015 peace agreement.

President Salva Kiir remains ‘committed’ to a national dialogue and holding elections in 2018. However, elections are unfeasible, not just next year but perhaps longer. Logistically, ensuring the more than two million South Sudanese displaced across the region can vote is practically impossible. In addition, the the climate of fear that pervades the country, evidenced by the more than 200,000 people currently sheltering at UN protection sites as well as ongoing atrocities and refugee outflows, will challenge the legitimacy of elections and raise the risk of a violent fallout. Hate speech is rife on social media while traditional outlets have come under unprecedented pressure and censorship in recent months. To say conditions are not ripe would be an understatement.

Angola in 1992 and Cambodia in 1993 are just two countries that can tell the tale of misguided attempts to rush into post-conflict elections, and South Sudan is not post-conflict. Sequencing and the timing of elections is vital and holding them before violence has ended would be disastrous. The revitalisation of the old agreement may include an initial ceasefire but if the revitalisation does not result in major changes to the original template, over the longer term, it is unlikely to prevent a return of conflict. The peace deal was externally imposed and forced the conflict’s antagonists together in Juba to await elections that would appoint one or the other at the head of constituencies they have no influence over. It was a powder keg and the fallout was inevitable. Independence, and the absence of a common enemy in the north, has laid bare the divisions within South Sudan that were always there but often ignored in favour of a simpler north-south narrative.

Following the breakdown of the 2015 agreement the conflict engulfed the previously insulated Equatorias and spawned new armed groups. The ousting of former army chief Paul Malong, a hardline Dinka nationalist who played a key role in the war, has also seen the emergence of an intra-Dinka rift between those from Malong’s home area of Aweil and those from Kiir’s Warrup. Dinkas from Aweil make up a significant proportion of the military as well as the Mathiang Anyoor militia. Further fallout has been avoided, for now, but there are signs Kiir’s power base is disintegrating.

Somewhat fortunately, for Kiir, the myriad armed groups opposed to him similarly lack cohesion and appear no more ready to govern. In October, in Kajo Keji conflict flared between rebel movements the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – in Opposition (SPLM-IO), led by Riek Machar, and the National Salvation Front (NAS), headed by former general Thomas Cirillo Swaka. The government watched with glee, and then attacked the territory itself.

The rift between Kiir and Malong saw former Malong loyalist, Chang Garang Lual, defect to the SPLM-IO. His defection is a timely reminder that even seemingly entrenched loyalties are in fact fluid and decisions are shaped by incentives, ever-shifting circumstances and desperation. A spoiler one day may be a peacemaker the next. The history of South Sudan tells us this is especially true of those at the top of political and military structures. Many of those involved in the current conflict have sat opposite or alongside one another at the negotiating table many times over the years.

Many of them are also the ones who stand accused of benefitting from the war economy. Investigative journalist Simona Foltyn’s painstaking investigation into the looting of South Sudan’s foreign reserves by politicians, civil service workers and military personnel highlights how many are able to profit from the war system through exploitative avenues that may not be available in peace time. They have enriched and advanced themselves not despite the war but because of it. Does this disincentivise a concerted push for peace?

For the international community a focus on the systems sustaining the war, as opposed to coercing the conflict’s antagonists into sitting round a table in a far-off country, may help them effect it in more positive ways, or at least have a less damaging impact than before. This would include combatting the flow of arms to the country, as well as cutting off avenues through which political and military elites have enriched themselves. In this vein, there needs to be more scrutiny of the role played by neighbouring countries, be it through providing arms or facilitating illicit financial flows.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, as a western counterterrorism ally, largely escapes scrutiny for his role in the conflict yet his government, intent on holding sway over Juba, has facilitated the flow of arms, including a helicopter gunship, while retaining a key position in the peace-brokering the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Regional geopolitics too often get in the way and even a thawing of relations with Sudan has not resulted in a re-ordering of priorities. Sudan itself has little interest in a strong South Sudan. Ethiopia has led peace efforts as it attempts to position itself as the region’s powerhouse, but Kiir’s budding relations with Egypt will no doubt inform their agenda. Another member of the IGAD, Kenya too is complicit in the war economy. Its banks have dealt with South Sudanese elites and their ill-gotten wealth, substantial amounts of which has been spent on expensive properties in Nairobi.

The international community, most notably the US, could use what leverage they have, including the threat of anti-laundering measures, to lessen the negative impacts of neighbouring countries. Sanctions were recently imposed on two South Sudanese government officials and reports suggest further economic and banking sanctions are being considered, as well as a much-needed arms embargo. While Sudan is testament to the fact that blanket sanctions harm the population more than elites, who too often find ways around them to enrich themselves, targeted sanctions, or the threat of, could help shape decisions, as they did before the 2015 peace agreement.

The difference from 2015 must be that what leverage the international community has must not be used to dictate peace but to create conditions whereby South Sudanese can set out not just a peace agreement but their own vision for the country. A social contract does not exist in South Sudan. Some have pointed to the National Dialogue as a means to develop one, but it will not achieve this as long as conditions in the country remain as they are. The guns must fall silent. Then vital issues such as reconciliation, land rights, devolution and justice can be discussed. While the conflict appears intractable, there have been many successful peace initiatives over the years, including the Wunlit Conference. Once conditions are ready, there will be no shortage of ideas the take the country forward.


Samuel Stratford is a political risk analyst whose academic background is in international development and humanitarianism.

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