In less than three years since South Sudan voted in a referendum for secession, the new republic has become engulfed in what is its most serious political crisis since independence. What started off as an exchange between soldiers in the military barracks in Juba has since engulfed the whole country. The death toll is estimated to be in the thousands. The media and many political analysts have framed the crisis as a conflict between two men, Salva Kiir, the current President of South Sudan, and Riek Machar, his former deputy. Worse yet, many have reduced the political crisis to a tribal conflict. The formulation of both problems, one between political adversaries and the other tribal, obscures the deeper issues affecting the ruling political party, the army, and the nation-building process.
In the next section we will highlight the deeper issues fueling violence, the fragmentation within the army, and the way forward out of the current crisis. The limited context behind some of the current analysis available ignores the historical and political factors that have contributed to the situation, and instead creates an analysis that portrays the conflict in a vacuum. A durable solution is premised on the problem being correctly diagnosed.
Putting the crisis in context
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 created an opportunity for South Sudan to finally begin building a governance infrastructure made up of representatives of the South Sudanese people, a governance practice that had been inhibited since the beginning of colonialism. While a national government was created, it did not develop into a strong democracy that adequately meets the needs of its citizens, nor did it allow for democratic practices such as diversity of opinion and political allegiance to flourish. Initial promises for a decentralized approach to allow for the representation of South Sudanese citizens in all parts of the country soon gave away to a centralization of power in the hands of legislators based in the capital, Juba.
The nature and origin of the current conflict has been debated. Mahmood Mamdani, Professor and Executive Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Kampala, dismissed the framing of the issue by the government as an “attempted coup.” In his analysis on Al Jazeera he wrote that it: “is neither an attempted coup nor a rebel attempt to take over government. In reality, Sudan, to the north, is likely to hold the trump card when it comes to influencing the outcome of the conflict in South Sudan. The call for power sharing in South Sudan ignores a central fact: rather than a conflict between two mutually exclusive powers, this conflict resulted from a split in power to begin with. The question now is how to reconstitute that power.”
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Alex de Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Abdul Mohammed, the Chief of Staff of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan, located the crisis with the ruling elites, the political party, and the structure of the army. The authors accused the ruling elites of being “more interested in power than in doing the hard work of nation building.” They concluded that: “Today’s crisis shows that South Sudan’s leaders have failed. But after this false start, the crisis could become an opportunity for a comprehensive rethink of its national project.” Their analysis called for a political reform of the ruling party and the army.
Douglas Johnson, an expert on Sudanese history, noted correctly that “what we are seeing in South Sudan is the convergence of two parallel conflicts that have been developing over time.” This fact makes it impossible to now disentangle both conflicts and resolve them separately.
Crisis with the SPLM/A
The current crisis is political. It is rooted within the ruling political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), as well as its military wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Dr. Peter A. Nyaba, a South Sudanese leader and former Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, offered the most insightful analysis of the genesis of the current crisis. In ‘Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View’, he distinguished between the “movement” and the “army” and critiqued both.
“The “M” (for Movement) in the SPLM/A was always nominal. It did not have a life of its own. … The militarists rigidly identified and dedicated the liberation process to armed struggle and made their political fate totally dependent on it, thereby producing the militarist elite whose existence and survival became linked with the continuation of war. … the “A” was the dominant and the strategic factor in decision making. This inadvertently reduced, with serious consequences, the capacity of the SPLM/A to absorb, organise and assimilate the then available intellectual and material resources, especially after 1989. … The SPLM/A used to behave like Siamese twins joined at the head such that any surgical operation to separate them could have resulted in their death. This paralysed both the “M” and the “A”, preventing them from developing into authentic entities in their respective professional spheres.”
In a recent article, written for SouthSudanNation.com, discussing the current crisis, he once again located the crisis and its origins within the ruling political party:
“The SPLM dysfunction has reflects (sic) itself the dysfunctionality of South Sudan state and this explains why it has remained since July 9th 2011 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. All that people are clamouring about as failures of the Government of South Sudan are indeed SPLM failures. The SPLM failure to organize itself with functional organs and institutions sensitive to the concerns of the citizens; the failure to evolve a political ideology has resulted in the ethnicization of SPLM power politics; the failure to institutionalise power relations within the SPLM has result in autocracy and one-man dictatorship relying on ethnic lobbies and close business associates who have turned South Sudan and its state institutions into a limited liability enterprise.”
Given that part of the vulnerability for conflict was built into the SPLM/A from the start in that the ruling elite failed to reform their approach to governance through democratization, Nyaba offers one solution for the country: the “total transformation of the SPLM, which ‘will definitely require profound attitudinal change towards organised political work which, above all, would mean accepting criticism and self-criticism and rejecting the attitude of equating verbal and media criticism with disloyalty.”
Whereas the political party is in dire need of reform, the army also needs to be restructured. From the beginning the army was composed of loosely structured militias that were fused together to form the current army. With each integration of former adversaries, the army became larger without being internally reformed. Moreover, 55 percent of South Sudan’s budget went towards defense, instead of other critical sectors such as education, health, infrastructure and social welfare. Key commanders retained loyalty to their former armies and the process of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) has been plagued with failures. The consequence of which is that only 10,000 have been demobilized of an estimated 150,000 former militia.
Furthermore, between 2009 and 2012, thousands more people have been killed in South Sudan from various causes. Most incidents leading to violent outcomes were due to the government’s inability to provide security, law and order in many parts of the country and the failure in DDR. The majority of incidents leading to death have occurred in the states of the Greater Upper Nile, where the conflict is now raging. The convergence of two conflicts in the current crisis has made it impossible to simply resolve the first issue (ongoing armed movements and inter-communal conflict that developed before and after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement) and ignore the second (exemplified by the events of December 15, 2013).
In the last few months a series of radical political decisions led to fears of losing power for critical groups, and also contributed to a centralization of power into the hands of an elite political alliance. When those that disagreed with the president’s monopoly of power asked for reform of the political party, the president responded by dissolving the leadership structure of the party. This came shortly after the former Vice-President Riek Machar was fired and the government was dismantled. These decisions took place without democratic measures, increasing tensions among competing political leadership. As the conflict began among soldiers in Juba, Kiir accused Machar of staging a coup to take over the Presidency, and arrested 11 key political figures in retaliation. Although all but three of these leaders have been released, the political division is ongoing.
The potential for conflict and political tension was exacerbated by the lack of thorough transition from a military regime to a civilian government. The SPLM/A, which began under the leadership of John Garang, was initially structured around the goals of creating a military opposition to the regime based in Khartoum, in northern Sudan. Since secession in 2011, the transition from a military based regime to democratic, stable and long-term government structure in the post-conflict period has evidently not been completed.
While it is understandable that such a transition will take time, particularly given that the SPLM/A has existed as an opposition army for decades, the change nevertheless has to occur. This includes forming a national identity and base of loyalty that supersedes allegiances to former rebel factions or to ethnicity. However, soldiers will only make this transition themselves if their leaders have already done so, and if they have established a history of being trustworthy and respectable. This will lessen their fear of being marginalized in terms of access to power, economic resources and services. A study by Mareike Schomerus  has shown that young men at risk of joining militias are less likely to make that decision if they can envision a viable future for them and their families – this includes the promise of access to education and employment.
Additionally, alternative strategies of dealing with political competition, as well as dissent on the part of journalists and civilians, need to be developed for a healthy and democratic environment to emerge. Since 2011 there have been key examples across the country of the government shutting down expressions of dissent on the part of civilians, including peaceful movements, as well as targeting journalists that have spoken out against the government. Civilians should not fear their government, nor should they doubt that they are able to access truthful information about the government’s operations and leadership.
Mediating peace in South Sudan
Peace talks began on New Year’s Day in Addis Ababa with mediators from key neighboring countries that play a critical role in regional politics; Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya. These countries also comprise key leadership positions in regional bodies such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU).
This transition to key African leaders maintaining a leadership role in mediation is significant as recent political discourse within Africa has advocated for the greater use of regional and continental bodies to resolve conflict, as opposed to western institutions that are alleged to be biased, favor political alliances and interests, and lack in training and knowledge for African-specific issues. This has been particularly evident in the discussion of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) prosecution of African leaders.
Unfortunately little development has been evident from peace talks in Addis Ababa thus far and conflict has continued across the country, particularly in the northeastern states of the Greater Upper Nile and the capital of Juba. The conflict in South Sudan will become a case study in the region’s history of African-mediated resolutions, and can either be held as an example of continued failure in South Sudanese leadership, or it can be heralded as an illustration of the possibilities of a government that acts in the interests of its citizens.
South Sudan’s post-colonial history has been marked by failed peace agreements and temporary political appeasements brokered by external mediators. To bring a stop to cyclical regimes that do not act in the interest of the South Sudanese citizens, the current leading actors need to come to an agreement that will have a long-term impact and promote stability. With elections on the horizon in 2015, the peace talks should not end by creating an environment that allows for conflict to arise again in response to disagreement within political leadership. Rather, political practices need to develop to such a point that military action does not become a habitual response for disagreement.
In an earlier article we noted that as South Sudan is facing a political problem, a corresponding political solution is required. In the short term President Kiir and Riek Machar need to agree to a ceasefire and the release of political prisoners in order to make room for dialogue to resolve differences under the auspices of a regional or international organization like the African Union, UN and IGAD. In another piece we asked whether a military solution could lead to durable peace. We concluded that “durable peace cannot be built on military intervention by outside actors such as Uganda.”
In order to build sustainable peace in South Sudan, “a democratic process, which in turn requires that all the key stakeholders be accounted for in the process leading to an agreement” is required. Mamdani furthermore sees a problem of accountability in both the government and the political party. He notes that when President Kiir “dismissed both the vice chair and the secretary-general of the party, along with other senior officials, from leadership positions, the move did away with structures of accountability in both the party and the state,” and that “Neither external nor internal conditions for peace are possible without a change of political perspective in IGAD and the region, and a new political leadership in South Sudan.”
In nation and state building, experience is an important element that cannot be imported from abroad or outsourced to humanitarian agencies. Many leaders in South Sudan have opted for a quick fix and easy solutions, skipping the important process of building a durable democracy. The current crisis and violence that has engulfed South Sudan is not a stand-alone act. Instead it is a profound crisis of governance within the ruling political party and its military wing, the SPLA. No one can save South Sudan but the South Sudanese people themselves. Without resolving the societal issues facing South Sudan, democratizing the political party, opening up the political space, and addressing the root causes of the conflict, the country will only defer its problems to a later date.
Dr. John Garang, the late Chairman and Commander-in-Chief of the SPLM/A, once noted that “under these circumstances the marginal cost of rebellion in the South became very small, zero or negative; that is, in the South it pays to rebel.” The prevention of armed movements requires that issues that enable and motivate them be addressed. As noted elsewhere, “The bigger challenges will be political and security sector reform if violence is to be prevented in the future. This includes the transformation of the SPLM from liberation movement into a democratic political party in addition to the completion of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of rebel groups and the professionalization of the national armed forces.”
Lastly, we must foreground the issues that drive the violence to have a better chance of conceiving durable solutions. The political adversaries in South Sudan have three options; the rebels could pursue a military solution, prolonging the fight in hopes of winning a decisive military victory over the government forces that have regional backing. The second option is that the government, with its regional and international support, could forgo peaceful negotiation and place its bet on defeating the rebel groups on the battlefield. The first two options are winner-takes-all; a zero-sum game. The third option is a political compromise and middle ground through a broad-based government: a transitional government in light of the forthcoming general election in 2015. In each of the options, the cost will inevitably be paid by civilians and not by the warriors.
Christopher Zambakari, Rotary Peace Fellow, is Doctor of Law and Policy, University of Queensland, Australia, & Tarnjeet K. Kang, Ph.D. Student, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.