How to prevent South Sudan’s impending civil war

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Around 48 hours ago, South Sudanese president Salva Kiir announced that his government had halted a hazy coup attempt against Kiir’s government, which took power in July 2011 after the country emerged as an independent nation from Sudan.southsudan

But Kiir’s announcement seemed less like the end of the matter than the start of the worst ethno-political rupture since South Sudanese independence, pitting Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group against the Nuer ethnic group of his fiercest rival, former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar.  Instead of stability in the capital city of Juba, the past two days have brought sporadic rounds of gunfire as armed forces allied with either Kiir (pictured above) or Machar clash in the streets, and there are reports of at least 500 people dead in Juba.

Kiir reshuffled his cabinet in July 2013, which led to Machar’s dismissal from the South Sudanese government.  For his part, Machar has criticized Kiir as increasingly ‘dictatorial.’

sudan-mapHopes ran high in the aftermath of the January 2011 referendum, in which 98.83% of the South Sudanese voted in favor of separating from Khartoum.  But since July 9, 2011, the country’s first 29 months have not been good ones for the world’s youngest country.  Aside from oil, the revenues of which South Sudan shares untidily with Sudan (which controls access to the oil pipelines that pump petroleum from South Sudan to the Red Sea coast), the country has been described as the world’s most underdeveloped.

It’s difficult to understand just how difficult the challenge is for South Sudan.

When it separated from Sudan, it was a country with virtually no institutions — don’t think of it like the pushes for Scottish or Catalan independence, where the sub-national units have experience with regional governance.  To the contrary, southern Sudan had essentially been engaged in a resistance struggle against its northern rulers in Khartoum for all but 10 years of the 55 years between Sudanese independence from the British and South Sudanese independence from Sudan.  It’s a landlocked country with no access to ports.  Oil wealth has proved a source of wealth, but also nearly unbelievable corruption.  Its GDP in 2012 was just $9.4 billion, and its GDP per capita is around $860.  Its literacy rate is around 27%.  Though its past is linked to Sudan in the north, and its leaders largely agree that its future lies with east African neighbors, such as Uganda and Kenya, its present is marked by rupture with the former and a lack of durable links with the latter.  It faces a long slog in terms of simply building roads and delivering fresh water to its citizens.  Infant mortality is 105 per 1,000 live births and the maternal mortality rate is 2,054 per 100,000 live births — these are some of the worst mortality statistics in the world.

Facts remain relatively dodgy, and it’s not certain if the ‘coup’ attempt on Sunday and Monday was a genuine plot or Kiir’s response an oversensitive reaction — Machar, speaking to the Sudan Tribune Wednesday, argued that the ‘coup’ itself was a misunderstanding between South Sudanese soldiers before calling Kiir an ‘illegal president.’

But with the US embassy in Juba evacuating all of its non-essential personnel and with thousands of South Sudanese seeking refuge at UN compounds in Juba, the situation seems to be worsening.  As South Sudan appears to move closer to the point of civil war, it’s important to remember that its chief ethnic groups have much more in common with each other than with the Khartoum elite that once ruled Juba from afar — and who would love to take advantage of internal South Sudanese strike in order to gain firm control of the Abyei region and, potentially, launch incursions to other oil-rich areas.  Though the Dinka (about 15% of the South Sudanese population) and the Nuer (about 10%) represent the two largest and politically strongest ethnic groups in the country, around three-fourths of South Sudan’s 11 million people belong to one of over five dozen other ethnic groups.

Speaking of its past, you can lay many of South Sudan’s woes at the feet of Khartoum, which for so long simply ignored what used to be southern Sudan, or even the British colonialists who so curiously fashioned the failed state that would later become Sudan.  

From the earliest days of Sudan’s independence in 1956, the construct of ‘Sudan’ and its borders were artificial inventions of the colonial British in their newfound urge to hasten sunset upon their long-coveted global empire.  Muslim Arab elites in Khartoum rarely had time, funds or understanding for the tribalist, Christian south, which lacked access to the economic and social policy tools available within the region around Khartoum — something that Darfur in Sudan’s west also tragically learned in the early 2000s.  Today’s South Sudan was known as Equatoria in the 1950s, and it only became part of ‘Sudan’ a few years before the British granted independence to Sudan — in the first half of the 20th century, southern Sudan (Equatoria) was essentially a discrete colony within the British empire, where colonial rule prioritized English over Arabic (today, English is the official language of South Sudan).  Even before independence, the Anya-Nya (which translates to ‘snake venom’) emerged in opposition to northern Sudanese rule and launched a rebellion in 1955.

That rebellion eventually turned into what’s now known as the First Sudanese Civil War, which lasted until 1972 when Jafar Numeiri agreed to a tentative peace with southern Sudan after negotiations in Addis Ababa.  That agreement contemplated a southern vice president, a regional assembly for the south and greater financial aid for the south.  Numeiri, Sudan’s dictator-president between 1969 and 1985, seemed genuinely committed to national unity in the 1970s, when the University of Juba opened and the Sudanese government devoted funds for many projects in the south.

The discovery of oil along the border between the desert north and the lush, greener south in 1978 set the two sides once again in conflict.  A series of mutinies in the south within the Sudanese army and the rise in the 1980s of hardline Islamist Hassan al-Turabi, with his hopes to institute sharia law throughout the entirety of Sudan, led to the Second Sudanese Civil War between 1983 and 2005, when the plan for South Sudan’s independence referendum was agreed.  Throughout that time, John Garang led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the largest force of southern Sudanese — while Kiir remained loyal to Garang throughout, Machar joined a rebel splinter faction in 1991 in opposition to Kiir.

As the war ended, and the prospect of peace seemed likely with Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who took power in 1989, shortly after Numeiri’s ouster, Garang himself died in a 2005 helicopter crash following a shadowy meeting in Uganda with its president Yoweri Museveni.  Though it’s easy to be optimistic in hypotheticals, it’s possible that some of the problems in South Sudan today were sealed with Garang’s untimely death in 2005.

In spite of the splintering of south Sudanese forces in the 1990s, Garang would have been a much stronger inaugural president for South Sudan and would have commanded much more power and deference than Kiir.  If we’ve learned anything from the past week in looking back on the life of former South African president Nelson Mandela, it’s that personal leadership can make a difference in national outcomes.  Is it possible to imagine what South Africa would have been like is Mandela died in prison in the late 1980s?

Anya-Nya, which eventually transformed into the SPLA, which itself transformed into the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) after the peace agreement with Khartoum and South Sudanese independence, is essentially the sole political party in South Sudan today — the attempted coup can be largely viewed as an internal struggle for control of SPLM and, accordingly, control of the South Sudanese government.

So where should South Sudan go from here?  From its birth, the country faced difficult odds, but it still has the goodwill and the financial and technical support of an international aid and development apparatus that’s rooting for South Sudan to succeed from Washington to Nairobi to Beijing to London.  Here are five ways that South Sudan can pull itself from the brink of civil war and toward a more robust path of growth.

South Sudanese accession to the East African Community should be a priority.  The EAC, especially Kenya and Uganda, have long been allies of South Sudan, from the earliest days of the southern rebellion against Khartoum’s rule.  South Sudan needs those allies to step up now more than ever.  The key to South Sudan’s long-term viability is its ability to ingrate into the political, infrastructural and economic communities of east Africa.  That means that EAC membership for South Sudan should come as soon as possible in 2014.  That also means that building the road between Juba and Nimule, on the Ugandan border, is critical.  It also means that Nairobi and Kampala — to say nothing of Dar-es-Salaam, Kigali and Bujumbura — should be working on ways to increase trade and investment opportunities in South Sudan. 

Machar should return as vice president immediately.  The current coup’s roots can be traced to the July 2013 cabinet reshuffle, which now appears to have been a hasty step, and the coup is believed to have taken place after a contentious SPLM meeting last Sunday.  It’s much better for Machar to be inside the government causing problems than to be leading an ethnically drawn insurrection against it.  Kiir should look magnanimously away from Machar’s role in the attempted coup on December 17 and restore him to South Sudan’s vice presidency.

A United Nations peacekeeping force (or a NATO force or an African Union force) should be deployed immediately.  With 500 people dead in Juba, who knows how many more might be killed (or potentially killed) in the current conflict, which could spiral quickly out of control.  Violence in Jonglai state earlier in 2013, between the Nuer and the Murle ethnic groups, could well have been the canary in the coal mine, so to speak.  While it’s not useful to talk about South Sudan in terms of Rwanda or Syria or other world crises, inside and outside sub-Saharan Africa, the risk of full-fledged civil war is now material, and the risk of ethnic genocide now seems high enough to merit an international force with enough power to bring about a period of calm.

Kiir and Machar need to agree on a concrete plan for 2015 elections.  It’s vital that South Sudan conduct democratic elections in 2015, and Kiir has dissembled in the past over whether he’ll push to maintain that timetable.  Not only should Kiir restore Machar to the South Sudanese vice presidency, he should negotiate a firm agreement with Machar over the timing of what would be South Sudan’s first set of general elections as a sovereign country.

South Sudan’s leadership needs to be diluted — both in terms of multiparty politics and in terms of separation of powers.  Though Kiir and Machar should unite in the short term to keep South Sudan from falling further into ethnic conflict, it wouldn’t be the worst result if the SPLM splinters into two competing groups for the 2015 presidential election — if Kiir and Machar face off in a relatively free and fair election in 2015, the winner can claim a credible mandate for guiding South Sudan through the end of the current decade.  Moreover, the interim 2005 South Sudanese constitution grants extraordinary powers to the president, who can  appoint members to the parliament as well as the governors of South Sudan’s 10 states.  But Kiir should reflect, in light of this week’s instability, whether so much power should be vested within the SPLM and within the South Sudanese presidency.  Instead, South Sudan should consider strengthening the power of its parliament as a true counterweight to the president — even if that means revising electoral law in a way that guarantees representation in the South Sudanese parliament for all of the country’s ethnic groups.

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