Since the outbreak of violence in South Sudan on December 15, 2013, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies has worked with subject matter experts to clarify analysis on the crisis to support ongoing U.S. diplomatic efforts.
Recent Africa Center activities on South Sudan – including a recent roundtable held on location at National Defense University – have built on earlier roundtable discussions and research.
On September 19, 2013, the Center hosted a group of experts from the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, to share analysis on patterns of violence in Sudan and South Sudan.
Sudan expert James Copnall, also a veteran British Broadcasting Cooperation correspondent on Sudan, warned that “the perceived unity and coherence of South Sudan’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) belies the much more complex contestations going on in the movement which are lending themselves to high profile disagreements over strategy, tactics and ideology.”
Judy McCallum, formerly a long-serving resident director of USAID contractor PACT South Sudan, suggested that Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile states would continue to be flashpoints of deadly violence mirroring high-level political disputes in the SPLM.
The capitals of the three states have exchanged hands repeatedly between rebels and government troops since the crisis erupted.
Ms. McCallum suggested at the September roundtable that “a more comprehensive approach would be needed to address the roots of violence in these three important states – the key to this should be more inclusive governance arrangements, the inclusion of civil society, addressing long standing socioeconomic cleavages and improved service delivery.”
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On September 23, 2013, the Africa Center published a research paper on South Sudan titled “Fragility and State-Society Relations in South Sudan.”
The paper, which was written by Kate Almquist Knopf, an Africa Center Adjunct Faculty member and former USAID Sudan Mission Director, urged the Government of South Sudan to “cease actions that alienate society from the state and focus on: building inclusive coalitions to support key institutional reforms, protecting space for independence voices in order to foster a national dialogue over the priorities of the new state, and achieving some tangible development process to demonstrate the government’s responsiveness to citizens expectations.”
Ms. Almquist Knopf has worked on, and in, South Sudan since 1995. She served both the Sudan and Darfur peace processes as a senior USAID leader and was the first U.S. representative to the Assessment and Evaluation Commission (AEC) – the body charged with monitoring the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which ended the 22-year civil war between the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/SPLA) and the Khartoum government. She continued her work on Sudan and South Sudan as Assistant Administrator for Africa at USAID.
In an interview at the Africa Center a few weeks before the publication of her paper, Ms. Almquist Knopf suggested that the overarching focus of the Government of South Sudan should be on “building an inclusive political process in South Sudan.” “What will keep South Sudan mired in instability is the weakness of its state-society relations,” she cautioned.
Ms. Almquist Knopf, in a discussion with Africa Center staff after the interview, explained the long-running official and unofficial American involvement in South Sudan.
“American officials, private citizens, development workers, religious leaders, and activists have been engaged with South Sudan from the days of the civil war and enjoy a level of confidence that should be leveraged to help this young nation chart its development path,” she counseled.
She pointed out that Southern Sudanese issues had historically enjoyed strong bi-partisan support and attention in the U.S. Congress and high-level engagement by successive U.S. administrations. “Throughout the long running civil war the cause of the Southern Sudanese was embraced and found deep constituencies in the United States among politicians, religious communities and a host of support groups and action committees on College campuses and high schools,” she said.
That history of engagement, according to Ms. Almquist Knopf, “gives the United States unparalleled influence in South Sudan and a responsibility to intervene diplomatically.”
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On January 9, 2014, Ms. Knopf testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on the crisis in South Sudan. Former U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Ambassador Princeton Lyman and Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau for African Affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield were also on the panel.
She urged the U.S. Congress and administration to pursue a multi-track approach focusing on four policy objectives: ending the fighting, securing the release of all political detainees, compelling the protagonists to provide unimpeded access for humanitarian aid, and demanding the full cooperation of the protagonists with international efforts to establish a commission of inquiry to document human rights violations.
“To reinforce these four priorities, the administration should prepare to invoke the president’s authorities in the International Economic Powers Act and National Emergencies Act to institute travels bans and asset freezes on senior leadership on both sides,” she suggested.
Ms. Almquist Knopf at the hearing also urged the United States to focus on the non-political elements that needed to be addressed in addition to much-needed structural and institutional reforms.
“Since the challenge of building a national consciousness is as much a cultural experience as it is a political one, efforts to foster a new South Sudan identity should complement reforms to protect and expand political and civil rights – South Sudan’s heterogeneity has deep reservoirs of culture that if appreciated and respected for their diversity can foster a new national identity,” she told U.S. lawmakers.
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On February 7, 2014, the Africa Center hosted a roundtable of experts to discuss the ongoing crisis in South Sudan and identify options for U.S. policy. The roundtable brought together leaders, senior officials and policy staffs across the U.S. government; military officers and civilian equivalents from the combined colleges at National Defense University (NDU); subject matter experts from South Sudan; negotiators involved in ongoing peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a delegation from the Embassy of South Sudan in Washington DC.
Ambassador Donald Booth, the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, expressed the growing sense of disappointment in the African and international community about developments in South Sudan.
“This crisis is much more than a personal and political contest between the President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar,” Ambassador Booth noted in his remarks. “The Government of South Sudan, despite being effectively in charge of Southern Sudan since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, has been slow to deliver basic services such as health and education and has not made much headway in setting up a basic infrastructure,” he said.
The Special Envoy suggested that the crisis, although shocking in both scale and speed, was unsurprising.
“For several years we saw the gradual shrinking of political space, the deepening of inter communal tensions, the unprecedented indiscipline and poor command and control within the armed forces, institutional failure, high levels of corruption, a culture of impunity and entitlement and lack of accountability,” he explained.
“Many of these failures are also reflected in the ongoing conflict resolution process,” the envoy noted. “Fighting continues despite the signing of a ceasefire agreement and fighters on all sides are not only recruiting child soldiers but also stealing humanitarian aid,” he cautioned.
Ambassador Booth expressed concern about targeted killings attributed to all sides in the fighting. “All those responsible should be held to account and it is to that end that the United States fully supports the African Union (AU) Commission of Inquiry,” he said.
He concluded his remarks by stressing the importance of addressing the underlying issues in the crisis.
“This conflict is deeply rooted,” he said. “Meaningful dialogue must start immediately and the peace talks need to focus attention on the underlying issues and should be broadened to include divergent political opinions including the political detainees and civil society groups.”
He ended with a word of caution: “A return by South Sudan’s protagonists to ‘business as usual’ would be a recipe for renewed conflict down the road.”
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Dr. Jok Madut Jok, the Executive Director of the Sudd Institute, a policy think tank based in Juba, South Sudan, suggested that the signs of conflict were visible in the years and months leading to the crisis. “We knew that something was going to happen – the signs were everywhere – but we didn’t know the form it would take,” he explained.
“Would the simmering tensions explode into a social uprising as happened in North Africa, increase the intensity of tribal wars or encourage more rebellions by army commanders as has happened many times since 2005, or any combination of these?” he wondered.
“Whatever the analysis, this crisis was bound to happen,” he concluded. “The absence of services outside Juba and the regional capitals is heartbreaking; the poverty experienced by our citizens, and the lavish expenditure of government officials in Juba is very visible – these are not abstract conclusions; anyone who has been to Juba or lives in Juba will recognize what I am talking about,” he said.
Dr. Jok also questioned the government’s handling of the crisis.
“On December 6 when SPLM leaders at a press conference raised their grievances, the Vice President, instead of addressing the issues raised, dismissed his colleagues as leaders who were disgruntled because they had been sacked from the cabinet back in July.”
“Additionally, the President, in his address to the National Liberation Council, reminded South Sudanese of the 1991 split in the SPLM/SPLA, and of the former Vice President Dr. Riek Machar’s controversial role in it,” Mr. Jok observed. “The 1991 split in the SPLM is a very painful episode in our history which the President probably shouldn’t have invoked because it ultimately ended up opening old wounds. … As it turned out he invoked it again at a press conference where he accused his opponents of plotting a coup.”
History of the Conflict
Dr. Jok also provided a historical overview of the conflict.
“This is not the first time that Southern Sudanese are fighting each other,” he told the meeting. “Violent internal upheavals have rocked the ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/SPLA) since its founding as a liberation movement in 1983,” he explained.
“Right at its inception in 1983 the movement went through a violent struggle between the proponents for a new, united, democratic, and secular Sudan, who rallied around former SPLM/SPLA Chairman, Dr. John Garang, and others who supported independence as an objective,” he explained.
Prior to the SPLM/SPLA, Southern Sudanese rebel movements had been separatist including the South Sudan Resistance Movement (SSRM) which after starting a rebellion in 1955, won regional autonomy for Southern Sudan in 1972. Garang, despite having fought with the SSRM rejected separation on the grounds that without a real transformation of power at the center in Khartoum, independence for Southern Sudan and other marginalized areas would always be imperiled. Garang pointed to the dismantlement by Khartoum of the 1972 peace accords and its autonomy provisions as a vindication for his arguments. With the resumption of war imminent, he called for new objectives centering on changing the whole country and not just Southern Sudan.
“Although the unionists won the confrontation over the movement’s direction in 1983,under the banner of what they termed the ‘New Sudan,’ the disagreement over strategy and ideology created deep-seated grievances which triggered deadly internal wrangles in the movement in subsequent years,” Dr. Jok observed.
The New Sudan, also referred to in the early SPLM/SPLA literature as the “unity in diversity model,” was a political program to preserve the unity of Sudan by restructuring the Sudanese state to make it secular, democratic, and pluralistic.
It was developed by Dr. John Garang, the movement’s first chairman, and later the concurrent President of Southern Sudan and Vice President of Sudan before his death a few months after signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
Garang’s vision for unity however, was never fully embraced by his colleagues and the movement’s rank and file and has been a source of tension between “unionists” and “separatists” ever since the movement’s founding.
“In 1991 some pro separatist elements led by former then senior SPLM/SPLA commander, Dr. Riek Machar, attempted to oust John Garang in what turned out to be a violent and bitter showdown.” Dr. Jok explained.
“Tragically,” Dr. Jok added, “What started out as a political disagreement over the SPLM’s strategic focus quickly degenerated into sectarian violence pitting Machar’s Nuer followers against Garang’s Dinka, resulting in the infamous massacre in Bor, allegedly carried out by forces loyal to Riek Machar,” he said.
Some United Nations estimates suggest that more South Sudanese died in internal fighting than were killed by Northerners during the 22-year-old civil war.
“These tragic events, especially the 1991 split in the SPLM/SPLA, have created deep wounds in South Sudanese society which have not been healed despite several reconciliation efforts,” Dr. Jok noted. “The term ‘1991’ has long been coined as a pejorative term by South Sudanese to allude to that sad episode in their history, and it has unfortunately been invoked by politicians as a scare tactic in moments of crisis as is currently happening,” he cautioned.
This pejorative term, according to Mr. Jok, “is deeply ingrained in the South Sudanese political lexicon and in the images that people have about conflict and is a powerful driver of the cycles of violence we have seen over the years,” he explained.
Dr. Jok in responding to a question about the SPLM’s internal dynamics highlighted other unresolved grievances in the movement.
“Riek Machar’s decision after the 1991 split to join Khartoum and fight the SPLM/SPLA, and Garang’s decision in 2002 to bring him back to the movement in the number-three position ahead of other leaders who felt they had been more loyal to Garang is one of the many grievances that remained unresolved,” he observed.
“Other grievances include the serious misunderstanding in 2004, between John Garang and current President Salva Kiir which almost caused a mutiny by soldiers loyal to both leaders and might have derailed the peace talks with Khartoum which were eventually concluded a year later in 2005,” he observed.
“Add to this the perception among a group of senior SPLM officials, the so called ‘John Garang boys,’ that Salva Kiir has sidelined them and abandoned the vision of the ‘New Sudan’; the formal disbandment in 2010 of the SPLM’s Northern Sector and collapse of the movement’s Northern alliance and the perception that Southern politicians formerly loyal to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum are dominating the policy agenda in Juba. … All these in one form or the other have fuelled the upheavals we are seeing,” Dr. Jok explained.
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Kate Almquist Knopf also spoke at the February 7 roundtable, attributing the crisis to a failure of leadership.
“Neither President Salva Kiir, nor former Vice President Riek Machar, is indispensable in the search for a viable and sustainable solution to the problems facing this young nation,” she said.
She highlighted several processes that are behind schedule: the constitutional review process, the national peace and reconciliation process, the political and institutional reform process within the SPLM, the national population census, and electoral reform. “These delays are all the more serious considering that the general elections are scheduled to take place next year,” she cautioned.
“The Government of South Sudan has unfortunately eroded the structures of management and accountability, an unwise move which continues to undermine the cause of creating a truly democratic and developmental state,” she explained. “In addition, the process of building a unifying national identity and a new and inclusive national consciousness has been badly undermined by nepotism, gross mismanagement of state institutions, corruption, and a complete lack of accountability.”
“Simply put,” she said, “the interests of the people of South Sudan have not featured in any meaningful way in the manner in which South Sudan’s leaders have run the country since 2005 and this is something that all SPLM leaders on all sides of the political divides in the ongoing crisis should acknowledge with sincerity and honesty,” she pointed out.
Ms. Almquist Knopf in response to a question about the peace process stressed the importance of including all shades of political opinion in the conflict resolution process.
“This should not be just another exercise in crafting an elite pact between political enemies,” she cautioned. “It cannot be business as usual; the legitimate call for the full participation of all political detainees in peace talks should also include elements from civil society, traditional and religious leaders, youth, women, and other interest groups,” she advised.
Ms. Almquist Knopf questioned the state-building approach that has been applied in South Sudan, a theme that she also discusses at length her September 2013 research paper.
“The foundation of the state cannot be an afterthought but needs to be revisited as part of the broader package of measures that would need to be put into place beyond the peace talks.” She noted. “It is not a good sign at all that after being self-governing since 2005, South Sudan, a country that is the size of the U.S. State of Texas, has only one 120km road, built by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).”
“There is virtually no physical infrastructure beyond the regional capitals; huge swaths of territory remain inaccessible for up to 5 months during the rainy season and there is no communication infrastructure,” she said. “This means that there are no meaningful connections both among citizens and between them and their government which even goes against the SPLM’s very own concept of “taking towns to the people.”
Ms. Almquist Knopf identified four strategic priorities that should be pursued beyond formal peace talks.
First, she called for the completion of the constitution making process. She explained that the constitutional review process was so behind schedule that the transitional constitution had to be amended to extend the National Constitutional Review Commission (NCRC) mandate for an additional two years to December 2014, which raises serious questions about the adoption of a new constitution before the current terms of the president and national assembly expire in July 2015.
Second, she called for a genuine and inclusive national reconciliation process mediated by impartial interlocutors. She singled out the efforts of church leaders including Anglican Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul and Catholic Bishop Paride Taban and suggested that the decades-long mediation experience of the Sudanese churches needed to be brought to bear in the ongoing crisis.
Third, she suggested that confidence building efforts needed to precede national elections. To develop such confidence the parties needed to complete the constitution making process, adopt internal SPLM party reforms, and provide space for other political parties. She also advised the SPLM to consider creating mechanisms to guarantee protections and space for losers in order to break the “winner take all” politics.
Fourth, she urged interested parties to focus on connecting the country through roads, infrastructure, improved service delivery and radio. “Upon the start of the CPA interim period in July 2005, SPLM founder Dr. John Garang told Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick that his priorities were roads, roads, roads,” she said. “So long as communities remain cut off from each other and from the government – physically and through the exchange of information – insecurity and political exclusion will persist,” she cautioned.
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Mr. Jason Matus, the South Sudan Coordinator for USAID contractor AECOM, identified two schools of thought on the crisis in South Sudan. The first school of thought views the conflict as a personal rivalry between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. The second views the conflict as much deeper crisis that touches on structural and institutional failures and political grievances dating back to various stages in Sudan’s civil wars, from the first war between the South and Khartoum which lasted 17 years from 1955 to 1972, and then again for another 22 years from 1983 to 2005.
“The models that one proposes to apply to deal with the conflict depend on how one analyses and understands the different factors at play.” He said.
Mr. Matus has been working in southern Sudan since 1992. He was an observer for the U.S. Government at the talks leading to the protocol on resolving the conflicts in the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile, and Abyei as part of the CPA and participated in the Joint Assessment Mission for these areas.
Mr. Matus identified four strategic issues that would need to be addressed as part of a broader settlement.
First, he called for a transitional process with clear implementation modalities, milestones, and monitoring mechanisms. The transition would build on the peace talks and would need to be guaranteed and accompanied by observers.
Second, he stressed the importance of revisiting the models of state and nation building that have been applied in South Sudan. “In essence what obtains in South Sudan is a model of a highly dependent state that is incapable of fulfilling the basic functions of a modern state,” he argued.
“The Westphalian framework of statehood simply does not apply and it is time for all parties concerned to understand this and look for more applicable models that are organic to South Sudan’s experience and reflective of local realities,” he suggested.
“South Sudan is dependent on foreign aid to run its basic government operations, on humanitarian and development assistance to deliver services to citizens, on Uganda currently for its regime survival, and on four different UN peace keeping missions for key elements of its national security,” he added. “This state of affairs is clearly unsustainable and undesirable in the longer term,” he warned.
Third, Mr. Matus urged the Government of South Sudan, African actors, and the international community to rejuvenate the constitution-making process, push forward political and institutional reforms, and complete the process of internal restructuring in the ruling SPLM. Consistent with these imperatives, according to Mr. Matus, is the “need to design political, administrative, and constitutional devises that foster national consciousness between South Sudan’s ethnic groups.”
Fourth, Mr. Matus stressed the importance of demilitarizing both the political system and political process in South Sudan.
“Most officials from the highest policy making level down to the county level are either serving or retired military officers, he explained. “Similarly the ruling party machinery is staffed by people with military backgrounds and all the top party leaders have deep roots in the regular army,” he said. “No institution is strong enough to hold to account a President who is not only the head of government but also the head of the army and head of a ruling party with deep roots in the military,” he warned.
Mr. Matus also warned about the dangers of establishing a humanitarian assistance model that reinforces the military positions of the protagonists. “If media reports are anything to go by humanitarian aid is being appropriated by the protagonists,” he cautioned. “We must avoid setting up a mechanism that lends itself to abuse as this will only prolong the conflict.”
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Dr. Jok, in the question and answer session, problematized the Government of South Sudan’s army building approach.
“This army has all but collapsed and even as we speak more units have defected to the rebel side,” he noted.
“Part of the problem is that the national army, the SPLA, was put together haphazardly – it consists of what might be called “SPLA proper”; the former tribally based militias and splinter groups that fought on the side of Khartoum against the SPLA; former regular soldiers in Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF); and former SPLA defectors. … Sixty percent of this army is recruited from one ethnic group, not to mention the proliferation of private militias which operate outside the chain of command,” he said.
“The result of all this is that there is no operational cohesion, no common military culture and ethos, high levels of suspicion between the various units and very poor and disjointed command and control and military decision making,” he explained.
“While the President should be commended for using amnesties to absorb as many former militias as possible into the SPLA the lack of true integration has meant that we now have an army that is dangerous, unwieldy, ill-disciplined, and expensive to run. … This army is impossible to control and is rife with cases of insubordination and outright munity as we have witnessed time and again since 2005 and more recently on December 15 when this crisis blew up in our faces,” he explained.
“Consequently,” he went on, “this army as currently constituted cannot in all fairness be the national institution that we all want it to be.”
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The Ambassador of South Sudan to the United States, His Excellency Akec Khoc Aciew, who attended the roundtable, said that his government was committed to the peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
He disagreed with the analysis that the Government of South Sudan had not taken steps to be more inclusive and transparent, citing a number of government officials who belonged to political parties other than the SPLM.
Reacting to the proposal for the withdrawal of Ugandan troops from South Sudan, a call that was included in Ambassador Donald Booth’s remarks, and remarks by other panelists and participants, Ambassador Aciew said that South Sudan had the “sovereign right to request the deployment of Ugandan forces and that the departure of these forces would be based on a bilateral military to military agreement between the two countries.”
The Ambassador praised the determination of the SPLA to roll back the rebellion and said that the army would “continue to conduct itself in a professional manner.” He also said that his government would ensure that humanitarian aid “reached those who needed it most.”
While welcoming the Ambassador’s remarks, Ms. Kate Almquist Knopf echoed Ambassador Donald Booth’s concern about reports that had recently surfaced in the media about the misuse of humanitarian assistance by government and rebel forces.
“Many have said that the SPLA is a professional and disciplined army – but an army that is truly professional does not steal humanitarian aid,” she said.
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