The nascent civil war in South Sudan is a product of kleptocratic governance, systemic corruption, and political posturing that has reignited deep ethnic divisions between the nation’s two largest tribal groups.
The world’s youngest nation has been in disarray since December 14th, when sporadic gunfire and skirmishes broke out in the capital, Juba. Shortly after, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir announced that a coup had been attempted by members of his own presidential guard allied with Riek Machar, the ambitious former vice president who was purged in July. Since then, the country has been destabilized by fighting between government forces and members of the army loyal to Machar, forcing tens of thousands to abandon their homes and seek shelter in squalid UN bases throughout the country. Reports indicate that rebels have captured swathes of territory, including areas such as Bentiu, a northern provincial capital in the country’s most oil-rich region, and other economically strategic areas. Kiir belongs to the Dinka – the country’s most powerful and populous ethnic group – while Machar is ethnically Nuer, and sources claim that brutal ethnic violence has broken out between the two groups with heavy involvement by government forces.
Juba has insisted that its forces have only protected civilians and have not taken part in massacres, despite numerous reports of security forces arbitrarily targeting civilians belonging to the Nuer ethnic group. The resulting violence has prompted the UN to add nearly 6,000 international troops and police officers to the more than 7,600 peacekeeping forces already in the country.
The United States – which has been South Sudan’s main political backer prior to and since its independence in 2011 – has firmly declared their support for Kiir’s government and warned the rebels against attempts to seize power through military force. Though the current crisis has undeniable ethnic dimensions that have reemerged as a consequence of historically unsettled animosity between the Dinka and Nuer people, the crux of the problem is political. The rampant corruption and misuse of governmental authority in political and economic affairs has divided the ruling party (the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement or SPLM), while the state’s inability to provide basic services and alleviate poverty has created widespread disenchantment in a society that was largely optimistic that independence would bring lasting peace.
Critics of President Kiir, who enjoys sweeping constitutional authority, accuse him of ruling the country like a tyrant when he unexpectedly purged former vice president Machar and his entire Cabinet after Machar announced plans to challenge Kiir in the 2015 presidential elections. Kiir’s relations with dissenting factions of the SPLM have steadily deteriorated since the purge, including with party heavyweight, Pagan Amum, who has been the South’s chief negotiator with the Sudanese government in Khartoum on separation issues and border disputes after independence. Kiir, perhaps attempting to hedge against growing discontent toward his rule, forced more than 100 army generals into retirement in an effort to bring more loyal figures into the military. These features of Kiir’s one-man-rule have contributed to the creation of a disgruntled faction in the army that backs Riek Machar, including a renegade faction of the army led by General Peter Gatdet Yak, whose forces stormed SPLA bases in Jonglei state and took full control of military equipment and heavy weapons.
In such a diversely heterogeneous state, the increasing ethnic dimension of this conflict is a testament to Kiir’s failure to build an inclusive and representative political order. Rather, many complain that Kiir has reinforced the Dinka tribe's influence over political, military, and economic affairs. Abhorrent levels of corruption have triggered mass distrust in the political system; reports indicate that thousands of fake names have been found on security payrolls and the government admits that officials have stolen some $4 billion dollars from its coffers. Riek Machar’s credentials are hardly any better; he is seen as an opportunist for siding with the Sudanese government in Khartoum at various times during the civil war that raged for two decades prior to South Sudan’s secession. Furthermore, he is historically accused of exploiting ethnic relations as a means of mobilizing support for his own factions. Machar is not a rebel leader controlling an organized opposition structure by any means; disgruntled factions have allied with him over their discontent with the way Kiir has been running the country. The thousands of people who have taken refuge in UN bases throughout the country – even in the capital – is a telling sign of how little faith people have in proper governance and the army’s ability to protect them.
The SPLM has received support from the US and Israel throughout the duration of the civil war fought between southern rebels and Khartoum, which has historically had unfriendly relations with the West and has moved very closely to China in recent times to jointly develop the country’s oil wealth prior to the separation. Romantic notions for self-determination did not motivate the West to support southern secession; the objective was to partition Sudan and deprive Khartoum of economically relevant territory in the south where most of the oil fields lie. In exchange for the financial, material, political, and diplomatic support received from the West, the new government in Juba endorsed a ‘Faustian pact’ with its sponsors to open its economy to international finance capital and multinational interests. The government in Juba even applied for IMF membership before it had even officially gained independence from Sudan.
Despite supporting the South’s independence with diplomatic muscle and military aid, the United States has been unable to gain a foothold in the country’s oil sector; Juba’s crippled economy remains dominated by Asian companies, primarily from China. South Sudan must rely on pipelines that run through Khartoum to export its oil, and the two countries produced around 115,000 barrels of oil per day in 2012, less than half the volume produced in the years before South Sudan's independence. Both sides have nearly gone to war over disputed oil fields that straddle a poorly demarcated border. Judging from the poor economic performance of both countries since the partition and the dramatic loss of the life in the ongoing crisis, the experiment of South Sudanese independence is failing.
Those countries that supported the partition of a unified Sudan for narrow economic and geopolitical interests have failed by off-shoring their nation-building responsibilities to multinationals and investors who lack interest and confidence in developing anything outside the oil sector. It has created a situation where state-officials loot billions while food insecurity is rampant throughout the country. In effect, the foreign-sponsors of the SPLM have encouraged a system of ‘trickle-down economics’ without the trickle-down, which is an inseparable dimension to the current political crisis. It would be highly unlikely that the US would renege on their support for Juba, or scale back weapons sales or military aid, even if Salva Kiir continues running the country like a ‘president-for-life’.
As South Sudan stands on the precipice of a brutal civil war, policy-makers and pundits in the West should ask themselves if supporting dialogue and reconciliation between parties in a unified Sudan would have been wiser than supporting the birth of a nation that has been marred by instability since its inception.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.