The war soon took an ethnic tone between Nuer and Dinka, killing thousands
A little more than two years of fighting in South Sudan had threatened to destroy the country’s oil production, a critical resource the country now needs to sustain its nascent economy.
Two weeks ago, former rebel leader, Riek Machar was inaugurated as vice president, a position he returned to after civil unrest that started in 2013 pit him against President Salva Kiir.
With the guns at bay and a unity government under formation, the commitment to peace will be critical in getting the country out of the ruins, China’s top diplomat to Africa has advised.
Zhong Jianhua, China’s Special Representative for African affairs told journalists in the capital Beijing that the reunion of Kiir and Machar was a positive step in stabilising South Sudan.
Jianhua, who has been widely involved in the peace process since the first clashes in 2012 that emerged following South Sudan’s split from Khartoum.
“I think peace will hold; I have met President Kiir and talked to Dr Machar. We can all see that there is nothing more to fight for,” Jianhua said.
In December 2013, a fight broke out between a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) led by Machar and government forces.
The war soon took an ethnic tone between Nuer and Dinka, killing thousands and driving about 2.3 million people from their homes and plunging the country into a humanitarian crisis.
Although Kiir and Machar signed a historic peace deal in August 2015, fighting intensified in some parts of the country, leaving many puzzled about the fate of the world’s youngest state.
Jianhua holds praise for the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for ‘acting quickly’ to stop bloodshed, first by calling for a summit within ten days of the conflict erupting.
The unrest turned the tide not only on the fortunes of South Sudan but also China, the largest investor in Juba’s oil production that took much of a beating.
Just six months earlier, Jianhua had shuttled many times between Khartoum and Juba to resolve a 2012 dispute that put a stop to oil production for 14 months.
According to the envoy, the row stemmed from the fact that after South Sudan’s separation from Khartoum, the critical issues pertaining to oil production were not quickly resolved.
“Part of the oil field was in South Sudan and the other in the north. The only channel for South Sudan can export oil is through Sudan,” Jianhua explained.
That left the question of how much South Sudan would pay to export its oil through Khartoum, which established the core infrastructure.
“Sudan set the price $36 per barrel but the South was willing to pay $1. Negotiations failed and Khartoum stopped the sale of oil, infuriating South Sudan,” Jianhua narrated.
According to the envoy, technicians in the throes of work at the oil fields were ordered to lay down their tools and leave, putting ‘billions of dollars’ at risk.
“Oil is not like water; when you turn off the tap, it solidifies and the pipelines rot. You ruin everything. We later had to pump hot water into pipeline to flush out the old dirty oil,” he says.
Jianhua casts an unflinching accusation against the US foreign policy he says did not the help to heal the underlying grievances between Khartoum and Juba.
“A failed south Sudan is a failure on US foreign policy. Part of the problem is that US has frosty relations with Sudan. China has ambassadors in both Sudan and South Sudan,” he explained.
When unrest broke out in Juba in 2013, Jianhua says China was caught off guard, six months after the resumption of oil production, when the dispute with Khartoum had just been resolved.
As a result of the fighting, most of the people working in the oil fields who were from the North were sent home, paralysing operations since the South did not have skilled engineers.
He defends the use of Chinese workers in the oil fields noting that they were forced to risk their lives to for the sake of keeping the operations afloat.
“If we had withdrawn all Chinese staff, it would have marked the end of oil production in South Sudan. A ruined economy would mean the country becomes ungovernable,” he says.
The conflict in South Sudan was the first time China stepped into domestic conflict in Africa, a critical test to the country’s foreign policy on non-interference.
Jianhua says China has sent 700 peacekeepers for the UN Mission in South Sudan, who not only patrol remote areas but also help communities in areas such as irrigation and medical care.
He promised that China will support South Sudan’s recovery and has already held preliminary talks with the principals, ministers and UN officials on investment and infrastructure support.
Support to Africa
Regarding China’s $60b pledge to Africa made last year, Jianhua said the funding arrangements were being scrutinised according to country-specific requests or already established projects.
“The process may take months. We are still looking at the plans but the best could be by the end of the year, although there is a positive step for some projects,” he disclosed.
While he maintained China will live to its promise on the pledge, the largest aid package to Africa in recent times, Jianhua advised African countries to start somewhere.
“Create an enabling climate to attract investment. China became what it is today because of competition for investment among its 31 provinces,” Jianhua says.
“Africa needs to stand on its own feet and we are willing to help. Africa is the future of the world and Chinese economy, and Africa will benefit the whole world by developing itself.”