There are two great examples of self-determination in post-colonial Africa: Eritrea and South Sudan. Eritrean independence came after a struggle lasting nearly four decades, one that ended in military victory over the Mengistu regime, the Derg. The larger context was also important: with the end of the Cold War, the US shed its fear of local independence turning into a Trojan Horse for a rival superpower.
In South Sudan, the internal situation was marked by a military stalemate. The external factor turned out to be decisive. Nothing else but the real fear that it could be the next on the American list post-9/11 targets after Afghanistan and Iraq explains why the Government of Sudan agreed to hold an independence referendum in the South when it had not lost the war. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 turned out to be a shoddy affair, rushed by those in a hurry to birth an independent South. The people of South Sudan are just beginning to pay the price for that haste.
The CPA was premised on a militarist assumption, that only those with the capacity to wage war have the right to determine the terms of the peace. The talks thus rendered illegitimate the political opposition in both the North and the South at the stroke of a pen. Doubling as both army and movement, the SPLA/M in the South emerged as the precocious double of the National Congress Party (NCP) in the North. Following the referendum, South Sudan became autonomous in 2005 and independent in 2011. The CPA reinforced the most negative of the legacies of the liberation war. The sense that ‘liberators’ could do no wrong reinforced the aversion to internal reform, and laid the seeds of the present crisis.
More than any other state, South Sudan was a child of the War on Terror. That South Sudan commands Africa’s second most important known oil deposits has made this ride even smoother. SPLA has long been used to basking in the halo conferred on those officially acknowledged as ‘victims’ of terror. In an era driven by the assumption that a victim can do no wrong, it has been coddled and absolved of responsibility. This too was a factor preventing reform.
Whereas the ruling party in the North was rightly and roundly criticized for electoral malpractice and fraud in the elections of April 2010, there was not even muted criticism when it came to similar practices by the SPLM in the South that same year. When the referendum on self-determination returned a 99.8% yes vote in the South, the “international community” lauded the result – when they would have pooh poohed it anywhere else in the world. The malpractices in the North led to a renewed insurgency in South Kordofan. In the South, there was the insurgency that followed in the wake of George Athor losing the gubernatorial bid in Jonglei State because the SPLM endorsed another candidate, Kuol Manyang Juuk. It provided a foretaste of how electoral politics operate when the ruling party doubles as the army.
When the SPLA/M seemed to split in nearly two halves in December 2013, each determined to devour the whole, the Western press was at a loss. Used to routinely lauding the struggle of “the Christian and animist African South” against “the Muslim Arab North,” the mainstream press looked for an equally easy and formulaic explanation for the civil war in South Sudan. That fallback explanation – ‘tribalism’ – evoked the conventional wisdom that Africans may be quick at learning the arts of war but seem genetically resistant to learning the arts of peace. From this point of view, the current conflict is between a Dinka-led government and a Nuer-led rebellion. This same stock explanation claims that the conflict may degenerate into ‘genocidal’ warfare. Conveniently, this posture masks the responsibility of both Western powers and the regional association known as IGAD in condoning the sorts of practices that have prepared the ground for the rebellion. In particular, it masks the responsibility of two powers: the U.S. and Uganda. An independent South Sudan was a key objective for the US during the War on Terror. Establishing the Ugandan state’s strategic importance in the regional War on Terror has been key to the government of retaining US support in spite of its adverse record at home.
The Ethnic Question
South Sudan is a multi-ethnic society. No ethnic group constitutes a majority but the Dinka and the Nuer make up 4.8 million or 57% of South Sudan population between them. With an estimated 3.2 million Dinka and 1.6 million Nuer, the Dinka outnumber the Nuer by a factor of 2 to 1. Dinka exist in 7 out of 10 South Sudan states, with the majority found in Northern Bahr El Ghazal, Warap, and Lakes states. The Nuer live mainly in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states. The two ethnic groups share a common culture, have similar languages, and practice an agro-pastoralist economy. Why, then, the conflict between them?
The idea that the Nuer, and to a lesser extent the Dinka, are naturally war-like was first advanced by British anthropologists, chief among them Edward Evans-Pritchard. Colonial discourse depicted South Sudan as a land inhabited by an array of nomadic “tribal” groups. Their relentless competition over water and pasture generated periodical cycles of violent attacks between them. Evans-Pritchard described the Nuer as a "wild offshoot of Dinka." The problem with the Nuer, he wrote, was that "every Nuer, the product of hard upbringing, deeply democratic and easily aroused to violence, considers himself as good as his neighbor.” Evans-Pritchard was describing a deeply democratic culture. He was describing less the Nuer problem than the British colonial problem with the Nuer: the Nuer were a problem for him and for the British because they were averse to centralized authority. But if the Nuer did not listen to government-appointed chiefs, they had their own leaders, among them spiritual/religious leaders such as spearmen and rain-makers. Evans-Pritchard saw more promise in the Dinka. He found reassuring their belief that people, even within the same family, are "not as equal as sticks in a match box," nor "have the same height as the herds of giraffes."
The fact is that relations between Dinka and Nuer were not just marked by competition and rivalry. Just as legendry is the historical common sense that every step forward in the history of the region has required by a coming together of Dinka and Nuer in a common cause. Historians date the beginning of the Sudanese national movement in 1920s with the formation of the anti-British White Brigade founded by two South Sudanese, Ali Abdalatif, a Dinka and Abdalfadheel El Maz, a Nuer. Both became known for their role in the 1924 armed uprising against British rule in Sudan. A similar story is told of how collaboration between Kurbino Kuanyin Bol, a Dinka, and William Nyuon Beny, a Nuer, both former Sudan army officers, led to the 1983 mutiny in Bor and Ayod. This mutiny led to the founding of SPLA and the onset of the second phase of the North-South struggle.
The British political problem was how to administer and rule mobile semi-pastoral communities with a tradition that combined independence with co-existence in a multi-ethnic region. Their solution was to politicize ethnic identity in a series of steps: first, to define it sharply as an exclusive identity; second, to identify each ethnicity with a homeland; third, to distinguish between those ‘”indigenous” entitled to “customary” rights and those without such a right; fourth, to put each homeland under the administration of its appointed ethnic authority that would administer this regime of rights; fifth, to give that authority the powers to administer land and adjudicate internal conflicts; and, finally, to render the absolute power of the authority unaccountable by backing it up with the power of the colonial state but justifying this absolute and unaccountable power as “customary.”
Ironically, when an autonomous South Sudan began to organize its local government after 2005, it built on the British colonial model rather than attempting to reform it. The politicization of ethnicity inevitably led to a fragmentation of South Sudan along ethnic lines. In one local authority after another, those claiming to be 'indigenous' to the land fought those who they said lacked a ‘customary’ right to natural resources and who in turn demanded their own ethnic homeland. Only a few years after independence, more and more South Sudanese became Bafuruki in their own country.
Take an example from Jonglei, which has a surface area of 123,000 square kilometers and is both the largest and the most densely populated of the 10 states in South Sudan. The region is home to six ethnic groups: the Nuer, Dinka, Anyuak, Murle, Kachipo and Jieh. These mobile communities have an equally soft and mobile notion of borders. An administrative system resting on a hard notion of a border administered by the majority ethnic group pressing its ‘customary’ right to resources in its ‘homeland’ is bound to turn cooperation between ethnic groups into conflict over previously shared resources. This context has led to the militarization of local defense units initially set up to protect cattle and property. As a result of this structure of local government, inter-ethnic conflict in contemporary South Sudan is both a top down and a bottom-up affair.
The important point is that internal conflicts, whether in the country or in the ruling SPLA/M, have not just been a contest between rival ethnic groups. From the Boll rebellion that led to the establishment of SPLA in 1983 to independence in 2011, and now, every internal power struggle inside the SPLM has had personal, political and ideological dimensions. Two issues have figured prominently in the mobilization by ambitious leaders: parity of community (ethnic) representation in the new power, and different views on the direction in which that power would move. Along this road, there have been several bloody splits. The split in December 2013 was the third.
The first bloody split unfolded in the very early stages of the founding of SPLM (1984-85). The key issue was the direction of the struggle: one side called for an independent South Sudan (a continuation of Anyanya as Anyanya II), the other called for a ‘New Sudan.’ Each side drew support from across ethnic boundaries: the call for a ‘New Sudan’ was supported by John Garang (a Dinka), Kuribino Kuanyin (Dinka), and William Nyuon (Nuer) whereas the demand for an independent South was led by Samuel Gai Tut (Nuer), and Akuot Atem (Dinka).
The second bloody split came in 1991 when Lam Akol, a senior SPLA commander in Upper Nile, linked up with Riek Machar, another senior commander with a base in Nasir along the Ethiopian border, and called for the replacement of John Garang as leader, claiming that Garang had tied the SPLA too closely to the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia in exchange for Ethiopian support which he used to forestall internal reform. This time too the rebel call combined a heady brew of ideological commitment (dedication to an independent South) with demands for internal reform. In spite of wide support for rebel demands, SPLA ranks were divided on whether or not it was necessary to remove John Garang. When the rebels were unsuccessful, they formed a break-away faction called SPLM-Nasir under the leadership of Reik Machar.
Memories of the 1991 split have gelled around the Bor massacre that same year, when Machar’s forces are said to have slaughtered around 2,000 Dinka civilians. Broad-based before the Bor massacre, the Nasir group narrowed into a more or less exclusive Nuer affair after the spilling of blood. The Nasir faction renamed itself the South Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM) in the years that followed and in 1997 signed the Khartoum Peace Agreement (KPA) with the Sudan government. Other groups joined, including the SPLA/M-United of Lam Akol, the Equatoria Defence Force (EDF), and Kerubino Kawanyn Bol’s own SPLA/M. The collaboration that followed made it possible for the Sudan government to pump oil from South Sudan fields in Unity and Upper Nile, but it also turned out to be an interlude. The Khartoum Peace Agreement broke down in 2001. Reik Machar and some of his forces returned to the SPLM but the rest, led by Paulino Matiieb and other generals, stayed behind in Khartoum and formed the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF), an organization that grew into a formidable force under the patronage of the Sudan army.
The SSDF was the last to be integrated into the SPLA/M in 2006, following the CPA. Its integration presented the biggest challenge to the integrity of the SPLA. Like the SPLA, the SSDF was an umbrella military formation; it was also comparable in size to the SPLA. Its integration into the SPLA was the result of an ‘internal’ protocol, signed in 2006. This too was a hastily concluded affair. Comparable to the equally hastily concluded protocols on the Three Areas, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Abyei, it formed the et cetra of the CPA.
The integration of the SSDF into SPLA was Salva Kiir’s responsibility. Some consider it his finest achievement; others think of it as his Achilles Heel. With the aging Matieb appointed deputy commander of the SPLA, former SSDF commanders like Peter Gadet, Gordon Kong and others became generals in the SPLA, and turned its front office into a revolving door that made possible interminable cycles of mutiny and pardon. The ‘reconciliation’ turned out to be a charade that masked the absence of a political reform strategy.
The problem with this unprincipled ‘reconciliation’ was that it was driven by short-term considerations and had unanticipated consequences. The SPLA became a majority Nuer army, drawing 55 to 60% of its recruits from 20% of the population. The SPLA also became a coalition of ethnic militias, each loyal to its own set of militia leaders. The Nuer-Dinka split in the army was a code word for multiple tensions: between historicals and new members, professionals and militia recruits and, above all, between those who only a few years ago had been on opposite sides of changing battle lines.
The key ideological element in these splits involved defining the central objective of the struggle: a new Sudan or an independent South Sudan? For John Garang, the key lesson of the first phase of the struggle, the phase led by Anyanya, was that the demand for an independent South Sudan had made it possible for Khartoum to isolate the South by rallying the rest of the country against it. Garang concluded that to succeed the SPLA needed to define an all-Sudan objective so as to rally discontented forces throughout the country and turn the political tables on the power in Khartoum by isolating it. Events proved Garang right. The SPLA’s greatest victories were in the border areas just across the north-south boundary (Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains) and in the western part of the country (Darfur) where its example led to the formation of a parallel movement for autonomy. But the border areas were opposed to an independent South. When it came to the vote for ‘self-determination’ – independence – they accused the SPLM leadership of betraying their common struggle around the vision for a New Sudan.
Garang’s great contribution was to inspire a vision that made possible a single rallying point around which to mobilize discontent throughout Sudan. His single most important failing was to subordinate this vision to the struggle for power and personal ambition. Faced with the demand for reform, Garang moved to consolidate power. The result was that every major struggle, whether ideological or personal, led to a spilling of more blood. And every subsequent blood-letting was resolved through a cosmetic power-sharing strategy, a sharing of positions and resources, which turned out to be no more than an interlude between bloody bouts. This failure to build an institutional culture that would filter and manage internal differences among leaders contaminated all institutions, above all, the army. The strategy seemed to be working so long as Garang accommodated himself to the demands of the War on Terror, and received full support from the U.S.
The story of the SPLA is told in two versions: one highlights its success, underlined by a ‘reconciliation’ strategy that prevented division between different armed factions by absorbing them into a single organization. Independence in 2011 is said to be the fruit of this strategy. The alternative version paints this as a strategy to buy time at the cost of fragmentation and fission, failing because the time earned was wasted away rather than used to introduce much needed political reforms. Thus, the way forward for the leadership was always to eliminate the internal rival before tackling the external enemy.
This strategy had a double cost. The blood-letting only postponed the militia problem. Externally, the SPLA came to rely heavily on support from neighboring countries: at first Ethiopia, but then, above all, Uganda. After being cut down to size, leaders of militias and their groups were absorbed into the army and given amnesty and rank. Regardless of how many times they defected, whether after months or years, the government continued to apply the same cure to the militia problem and with the same result. In the process, the size of the armed forces ballooned. Guy Lamb, a senior researcher at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, estimated the SPLA's current strength at “approximately 194,000” but warned that it “will continue to rise (so long) as additional South Sudanese soldiers from various external forces are being integrated" into it.
The donor community’s solution to this dilemma was a demobilization and disarmament program (DDR). The two-year program targeted 90,000 ex-combatants at a cost of US $55 million but could only boast of netting some 12,000 by 2012. With the lowest rank soldier in the army receiving about $140 a month, the military standard of living was much higher than that of civilians, most of whom lived on about $1 or less a day. To demobilize soldiers from the military was akin to integrating them into poverty. Understandably, many resisted.
Take a recent example from Jonglei province where David Yau Yau, a leader of the Murle group, was granted a presidential amnesty in 2012, and the position of a general in the army. A few months later, in April, he gave up this post and resumed his rebellion. Yau Yau’s rebellion attracted both Murle and Nuer youths. In a September 1 letter to Deputy Defence Minister Majak D'Agoot, elders and other Murle community leaders said the disarmament operation should stop because it was “the main reason” youth were joining David Yau Yau.
Amnesty has turned into a massive payout of the national budget as a way to retain the loyalty of commanders. South African sources estimate that over 50% of the government’s budget was going into paying the armed forces before the December 15 rebellion. The government's wage bill, they told IRIN, accounts for about 80 percent of the military budget.
Background to December 15
In light of this background, Reik Machar’s actions in the months and years before the December 15 split can be seen in a broad light, not just an expression of personal ambition but also an attempt at political reform.
The main points of the reform agenda were spelt out in the draft transitional constitution that Machar began circulating in 2011, well before independence. It called for a term limit for the president, a maximum of two 5-year terms, and also for the removal of the clause in SPLM constitution that gives its chairperson the power to nominate 5% members at all levels of the party, including its legislative organ, the National Liberation Congress (NLC). When the draft was voted down at the ruling party meeting, Machar took it to cabinet, and when there too it was voted down, he took it to parliament. When President Kiir accused him of “parallelism,” of wanting to run a second government, Machar said he was exercising his democratic right to express his opinion for or against the transitional constitution. After losing the vote in the NLC convention 128 to 8, Machar called for a change in the method of voting from a show of hands to a secret ballot. That too was defeated in the NLC – presumably also by a show of hands! That same meeting of the NLC confirmed the expulsion of Pagan Amum as secretary general of the party. Machar and his group walked out of the NLC convention that Saturday afternoon, never to return.
Meanwhile, the Machar group found new allies in the course of 2013. On January 21, 2013, President Kiir dismissed the elected Lakes State Governor, Chol Tong Mayay, and appointed a caretaker. In a letter dated March 13, 2013, Machar asked the President to reverse his action “to avoid the looming constitutional crisis.” On April 15, President Kiir stripped Machar of all powers delegated to him, leaving him with only those stipulated in the transitional constitution. In a second decree, Salva Kiir dissolved a national reconciliation committee that Machar headed and later named Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul as the new chair. In July, President Kiir sacked the former Unity State Governor Taban Deng Gai, now the lead negotiator for Machar. Referring to the transitional constitution which gives the president the powers to sack an elected governor or dissolve a State Parliament when a crisis threatens national security and territorial integrity, Machar said in a letter dated June 7, 2013, that there was no such crisis and that the President’s action was “politically motivated” and constituted “a violation of our constitution.”
The crisis reached its high point in July when President Kiir dissolved the cabinet, sacking Machar and two other ministers, including the SPLM Secretary General, Pagan Amum, accusing them of transacting nearly $8 million without parliamentary approval. Most of the ex-ministers allied with Machar. In a joint statement on December 6, they accused the President of “dictatorial tendencies” and said he “had completely immobilized the party, abandoned collective leadership and jettisoned all democratic pretensions to decision-making.” At a press conference that followed, they called on Salva Kiir to call a meeting of the Political Bureau both to sort out his differences with the majority and to set an agenda for the next meeting of the NLC.
By then, two distinct groups had coalesced against President Kiir. The first included Pagan Amum Okiech, the sacked Secretary General of the SPLM, Deng Alor Kuol, the former Minister of Cabinet Affairs, and Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior (the widow of the late John Garang de Mabior). Mostly Dinka, they called for reform within the party. Pagan and Rebecca announced they would run against Salva Kiir in the 2015 presidential election. The second included the former Vice President Riek Machar Teny, former elected governors who had been fired and replaced by the President in decrees they believed to be unconstitutional, and a number of senior military officers commanding divisions in Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal.
Fighting broke out on the last day of the NLC meeting inside the main military command center, known to locals as al-Qayada, located to the southwest of Juba town. There are two versions of events leading to the December 15 conflict. Peter Adwok Nyaba, former Minister of Higher Education, who was sacked when President Kiir replaced his entire cabinet in July 2013, laid responsibility on the President, who he said had become suspicious of his critics and decided to disarm the Nuer within his presidential guard, the Tiger Battalion. When the Nuer officers resisted, the whole affair got out of hand. On their part, government officials described it as an "unsuccessful coup attempt by Dr. Riek Machar in collaboration with a number of former cabinet ministers." In his speech in Angola a few days after Ugandan troops intervened in this conflict, President Museveni admitted there were two versions of what happened on December 15, and that there was as yet no way of telling which was right. And yet, Ugandan troops intervened in support of one side and against the other.
Is there a way forward? A lively discussion rages around this question both within South Sudan and in the region. Already, there are civil society groups calling on the “international community” (in particular, the ICC) to hold accountable all perpetrators of gross violence. At the same time, there is a chorus of voices calling for a return to power-sharing. Both are likely to prove counter-productive.
Perpetrators of atrocities in political conflicts are not simple criminals. Unlike criminals, they enjoy the support of a political constituency. Any attempt to hold their leaders accountable is likely to result in more violence. Power-sharing, on the other hand, is likely to mean a return to a status quo ante – with Salva Kiir and Riek Machar as President and Vice President master-minding a sharing of posts down the ranks. Understandably, the very suggestion of power-sharing as a solution evokes cynicism. When asked by the New York Times how he imagines the current crisis in South Sudan to end, Jok Madut Jok, one of the country’s leading intellectuals, answered with obvious resignation, referring to President Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar: “The two men will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for.” Without political reform, reconciliation and power-sharing will more than likely be a dress rehearsal for another crisis.
The alternative would combine meaningful political reform with reconciliation and power-sharing. A reconciliation without political reform would be no more than window dressing. The difference between power-sharing in end-of-apartheid South Africa and in post-CPA South Sudan is the difference between meaningful and cosmetic reconciliation.
A meaningful reform would need to begin with the rebel coalition’s demands, starting with a two-term limit to the presidency, voting by secret ballot, an end to presidential powers to appoint members to the legislative organ and the constitution of an independent electoral commission, as the first step in a much-needed but protracted reform process. Whereas in South Africa it was the end of the Cold War that made room for internal forces to arrive at a political resolution of the conflict, the situation in South Sudan is radically different: it will need greater involvement from the region to create conditions for meaningful reform. For this to be possible, one needs to keep in mind both the internal and the external reality.
The internal reality is that reform will have to be imposed on a reluctant Salva Kiir from the outside, most obviously, IGAD. The external reality is that the reform is also likely to be opposed by Uganda. Convinced that the solution in South Sudan must be military, not political, the Ugandan government has staked troops, estimated at around 4,500, to make a military solution possible. The government admits that without their intervention, the Salva Kiir government would have fallen in a matter of days.
The regional rivals, Uganda and Sudan, were the first to come to Salva Kiir’s assistance. Could it be that the desire to preempt a stronger involvement by Sudan led to Uganda’s hasty commitment of troops inside South Sudan? Or was it the fear that a less than friendly government in South Sudan may host political opponents – with greater political and organizational capabilities than Joseph Kony – that lay behind the Government of Uganda’s conviction that a national interest is at stake in South Sudan?
Even if that is so, military intervention may turn out to be a counter-productive way of pursuing it. Ugandans only need to remember the 1979 Tanzanian intervention in Uganda following Amin’s invasion of Kagera: Tanzania had great support public support when it intervened, but very little when it withdrew. The reason: Having intervened to protect “national interests,” it ended up meddling in Uganda’s internal affair by supporting one particular regime. The government cited the Status of Forces Agreement to argue that it was invited to do so on December 16, 2013 by an embattled Salva Kiir. But as The East African [Jan 18-24, 2014] pointed out, the Agreement was dated Jan 10, 2014, some 22 days after the Uganda Army was deployed in Juba.
Ugandan military support for one faction in the South Sudan conflict evokes memories of 1991, when Ethiopian President Mengistu’s support for Garang led to widespread opposition within the SPLA. Having long snubbed the demand for a two-term limit on the presidency at home, it is unlikely that the Ugandan president will be sympathetic to demands for internal reform in South Sudan. The alternative is for Ugandan troops to leave South Sudan before they become part of the problem in that country. Rather than follow a course of action that would lead them to enforce a particular leadership on the South Sudanese, the alternative would be to follow a course of military non-intervention combined with a political course of reform within the South and reconciliation with Sudan to the North.
Both the UN and IGAD need to take a lesson from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it became clear over time that a political solution would require the introduction of forces from countries without a direct political stake in Kivu (in this case, South Africa and Tanzania as opposed to Rwanda and Uganda). In South Sudan too, the way forward calls for the replacement of Ugandan troops with troops from other countries in the region, countries without a direct political stake in South Sudan and with a mandate and a political will to oversee the implementation of a necessary political reform.