Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

War in South Sudan: No End in Sight

Posted in African Politics, South Sudan by ruben eberlein on December 22, 2015

This week, the International Crisis Group alerted to the possibility of a renewed war in South Sudan. Many low-intensity conflicts and the non-implementation of the August peace agreement support this view. Here is my interview with Alex de Waal about the agreement and the situation in the country.


Alex de Waal is currently the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and Research Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Medford (MA, USA). He is a leading expert on Sudan and the Horn of Africa and has written widely on this subject. His latest book, published in August 2015 with Polity Press, is called “The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power”.


How would you characterize the nature of the political system of South Sudan since independence until today?

South Sudan isn’t a conventional authoritarian system, and nor is it a warlord system, though it has features of both. It was briefly an oil-based kleptocracy: a ruling system run by a quarrelsome cartel of political elites, who redistributed the country’s wealth to their own supporters in return for factional loyalty, and also enriched themselves in the process. Oil revenue constituted over 95 per cent of government income. This governing system relied on a constant inflow of oil funds, and after South Sudan shut down its national oil production in January 2012 (in a dispute with northern Sudan), the money to keep the system running was no longer available.

The outbreak of war in December 2013 didn’t change this system. Rather than rallying to defeat the insurgency, or to promote peace, the ruling elite instead used the conflict as an opportunity for intensifying their political-business model, pushing South Sudan deeper into crisis.

After much international diplomatic pressure, President Salva Kiir and his opponent Riek Machar signed a peace accord in the end of August. Is this accord in your opinion an appropriate starting point for ending the war in South Sudan?

The accord is primarily a power-sharing agreement. It could have been workable if the resources available for sharing had been increasing, as each could have rewarded his followers appropriately and kept them in line. As the resources are diminishing, this isn’t possible. Given that neither leader has changed his political business strategy, the peace deal can work only if one or both of them finds another source of political finance. The most likely source of this is marginalizing other groups and taking their assets, chiefly land. The peace deal is likely to lead to additional conflict.

Do you think – in view of the high international pressure needed to convince Kiir to sign – that both sides of the conflict show a real desire for putting the interests of the South Sudanese people first before their personal concerns?

There is absolutely no goodwill or mutual confidence by either man.

The peace deal does not touch those allegedly responsible for war crimes, human rights abuses and the looting of public resources. What does this mean for the prospects of tackling the root causes of the conflict?

There is a widespread popular demand for justice in South Sudan. Surveys by the South Sudan Law Society show that most people have suffered or witnessed grievous abuses. They have no confidence in the South Sudanese judicial system to bring offenders to justice. The current “Compromise Peace Agreement” has provisions for transitional justice in the form of a hybrid court, but few have much expectation that this will be swift, comprehensive or effective.

South Sudan is interesting in that, for the first time in international discourse, accountability for economic crimes, that means corruption, is twinned with accountability for political crimes – violations of the laws of war. This suggests that a new framework for transitional justice may be emerging that deals with the nexus between corruption and human rights violations.

The fact that people want justice, and want it unconditionally and rapidly, does not mean that it is necessarily possible or desirable to push for transitional justice alongside peace. Communities are polarized and reciprocal grievances are deep. There is much work to be done to promote reconciliation as an element in justice.

We witness currently the formation of armed groups that are not or do not want to be part of the peace deal and continue fighting instead. What to do about this development?

Some of the armed factions that emerged in the last few months will fall into line or disappear. But others will not, and the dynamics of an exclusionary peace settlement – one that rewards a narrow group and does not provide for others – is deeply worrying.

There are two basic means of achieving peace in South Sudan today. One is a political “buy-in”: The ruling cartel has enough resources to bribe all its rivals or challengers into their system. Under this, all others put aside their political grievances and are prepared to cooperate with the rulers in exchange for the chance to get rich. This is not an option because the money simply isn’t there.

The second is a democratic, or at least an inclusive, political pact in which all members of the elite make a compromise for the common good. This is what will need to happen in South Sudan. However, the peace mediators so far have included only the political and military top leadership, and have not consulted the South Sudanese people. The peace agreement has provisions for elections, but the basics of democratic life are not present such as a free press, ability of groups to mobilize and form political parties, an independent judiciary. Without these, elections will not promote democracy and inclusivity and could indeed be the occasion for further violence or repression.

What role plays ethnic mobilisation in the conflict?

Ethnic differences are not the cause of this conflict, but when any political conflict erupts in South Sudan, the political elites mobilize along ethnic lines. The foundation of this is the organization of the military forces: Each military commander tends to employ troops who are closely related to him, on the grounds that they will be more loyal, and are less likely to mutiny if they are not paid. The shortcomings of the ethnic animosity framework for understanding South Sudanese conflict is that every conflict at every level, from the internal disputes among the subclans of the Nuer to the conflict between President Salva Kiir and his challenger Riek Machar, can be seen as ethnic or tribal in some sense. An explanation that is relevant everywhere but does not explain why different kinds of ethnic mobilization occur in different places, does not help in explaining why a particular conflict occurs.

Given that an efficient state is not conceivable and financially feasible – do we have to expect a disintegration of South Sudan because of ethnic moblisations?

South Sudan cannot hold together without either an elite buyout by a central leader who monopolises control over the majority of incoming resources (oil, aid), or an elite pact enforced by those who control that money – and also who can directly reach and influence the field commanders. Currently there isn’t enough money available to buy off all the political-military elites, and the mechanisms for trying to incentivize an elite pact – peacekeepers and targeted sanctions – are far too feeble to work. Unless the recent “Compromise Peace Agreement” is backed by enough money to enable the two leaders to pay off the spectrum of South Sudanese elites, it will collapse. Indeed that is already happening as President Kiir clamps down on opposition in Equatoria and cracks down on the media.

The New York Times stated in early 2014 that South Sudan is in many respects an American creation. Do you agree?
South Sudan as an independent country is the creation of the South Sudanese. The kleptocratic practices of its leaders are in emulation of their northern Sudanese counterparts. The international community, especially the US, has allowed and even encouraged the creation of a kleptocratic system without any accountability. The country isn’t an American creation, but the misrule of its leaders is.

This interview appeared in the December 2015 issue of Blätter des Informationszentrums 3. Welt (iz3w). You can download the pages of the interview in German here.

Picture: Kristin Little/World Peace Foundation




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