No One Is Winning South Sudan’s Civil War
Which means neither side has a reason to call it quits
A great storm is coming to South Sudan, quite literally. Sometime during the next month, the rainy season will start in earnest and render much of the country inaccessible.
The rains will bring a reprieve for the country’s 16-month-old civil war — no roads means no troop movements. Neither the government nor the rebels have an air force to speak of, nor the airborne capacity to follow up on bombings with ground troops.
But Pres. Salva Kiir’s army — and rebels loyal to his former deputy Riek Machar — are ratcheting up the fighting to put themselves in the best position before the rains.
This makes it harder for humanitarian organizations to prepare. Just like last year, many of the country’s thousands of refugees will suffer and die in overcrowded and inundated camps, even though active fighting will subside.
When the rain clears in November, the war will in all likelihood continue.
In the meantime, a new round of peace talks will start. Like during previous attempts, mediators and negotiating teams will hole up in luxurious hotels in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.
Both rebels and government representatives will receive per diems of about $250 per head and have all their expenses, including room prices of $300 per night covered. That probably includes the mini bar.
The talks are unlikely to result in a peace deal worth the paper its written on. Neither the government, nor the rebels want to compromise. Kiir has said previously that he will not enter into any kind of power sharing deal with Machar, and Machar’s faction won’t stop fighting without one.
Similarly, neither faction has any reason to fear a drawn-out conflict.
Both sides lack the ability to effectively control the vast and inaccessible expanse that is South Sudan by either military or political means. That makes a clear military victory by the government or the rebels unlikely.
In the meantime, warlords and politicians on both sides can profit from the war economy and enjoy the amenities of Addis Ababa’s nicest hotels when its time for the next round of “negotiations.”
This kind of war profiteering is a tradition in South Sudan. The country never managed to leave its decades of civil war with the Republic of Sudan, from which it seceded in 2011, behind.
South Sudan’s dominant political party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, is in fact a mixture of political and armed groups that never got completely untangled from each other.
During the run-up to independence, the SPLM rapidly integrated dozens of militias and independent rebel groups — and gave hundreds of essentially illiterate “generals” generous monthly allowances.
Before the outbreak of the current civil war in 2013, during which large parts of the army defected, only Russia had more officers of general rank than South Sudan.
For a precious two years, the SPLA was able to hold up a facade of stability by pulling out the checkbook whenever one of the “generals” went back into the bush to air his grievances by pillaging, warring and killing. The current conflict follows the same dynamic, although on a larger scale and with even more suffering.
This isn’t to say the situation couldn’t get worse. On the contrary, it almost certainly will if the factions don’t have a dramatic change of heart.
So far, the conflict has only touched a few parts of South Sudan, with much of the current fighting concentrated in Upper Nile and Unity states. Both factions have only limited support, and Machar and Kiir are not indisputable leaders of their respective groups.
Should the conflict spread to other parts of the country, human suffering could multiply. Already, the South Sudanese government is allegedly targeting influential politicians from the Equatoria region bordering Uganda. The local politicians in Equatoria have stayed on the sidelines.
The longer the civil war goes on, the higher is the probability that South Sudan sees some form of “Balkanization” of the conflict with a proliferating number of independent and quasi-independent militias and warlords — making any attempt at ending the conflict ever more unlikely.
To make matters worse, the civil war has already become internationalized.
The Ugandan government was very quick to throw its weight behind Kiir, sending its army over the border to hold the regime in power. Kiir has reportedly also employed fighters of various Sudanese rebel groups as proxies against Machar’s troops.
This isn’t going to go over well with Sudan’s government. Khartoum has a long history of using its own proxies to further its interest in South Sudan. Both countries almost went to war with each other over control of the Heglig oil fields in 2012.
Sudan could also feel threatened by Uganda’s increasing influence in South Sudan, and decide to prop up Machar’s rebels as a counterweight.
Mediation attempts by South Sudan’s neighbors have so far proven to be useless. It’s no different for the international community.
The United States and the European Union have little to show for their efforts, especially since it was during their stewardship of the independence process that many of the current problems arose.
The European Union has already leveled sanctions against some of the protagonists of the conflict and the United Nations has threatened to do the same.
The sanctions are unlikely to hurt, as South Sudan doesn’t have a developed economy. Given that South Sudan’s elite is very proficient at profiting from conflict, it’s questionable that anything but the most severe sanctions can convince the warring parties to settle the conflict with peaceful means.
But there’s a sliver of hope that time will take care of things. Most of the leaders of both sides in the conflict are old, having been among the nation’s leadership since the days of the independence war.
A new generation of leaders could bring a different dynamic to politics in South Sudan, ideally one in which war is a very last resort.