South Sudan’s Dream Is Over—The Nightmare Is Just Beginning
The world’s newest country pays the price for ignoring political problems as fighting kills hundreds
On Dec. 15, the first shots were fired in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Hundreds fled into the city’s United Nations compound and thousands more huddled in their homes as fighting continued through the night.
The next day, Pres. Salva Kiir, leader of the Sudan’s People Liberation Movement/Army, stood in front of cameras, wearing military fatigues instead of his trademark suit and cowboy hat. He told the assembled press that the “government is in control” after a coup attempt by his former deputy, Riek Machar.
Machar immediately disputed that accusation, arguing from an undisclosed location that Kiir wanted to use the violence to isolate him and his supporters and cement the power of the Dinka, the country’s most numerous ethnic group.
While speculation raged about the real reasons for the outbreak of violence, the conflict spread to Bor, a garrison town about 150 kilometers north of Juba. Soldiers loyal to local army commander Gen. Peter Gadet took the town. Gadet is member of Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuer.
As of this writing, the violence is still spreading. As many as 34,000 people have been displaced. Three Indian peacekeepers died when gunmen overran their camp near the border with Ethiopia.
Far from a simple coup attempt, South Sudan is experiencing its first major political crisis, a result of the systematic neglect of the country’s internal problems by its ruling class.
Sudan’s civil war that led to the South’s independence was an ugly affair. Kiir and Machar were at times fellow commanders in the SPLM/A, fighting against the North Sudanese government in Khartoum.
But Machar fell out with the SPLM/A leadership early on. He founded his own rebel movement in 1991 and even joined forces with the North for a time, fighting against the SPLM/A. He returned to the Southern fold in 2003, becoming vice president of South Sudan in 2005 when it was just an autonomous region. He continued to hold this post after the country’s independence in 2011.
In July this year, Machar was fired along with the rest of the government by Kiir, laying open the massive internal conflicts that have ravaged the SPLM/A.
Machar represents more or less the norm for South Sudanese politics. U.S. Pres. Barack Obama warned that South Sudan is on the “precipice” of a civil war, but that’s overlooking the fact that the country has been at war with itself since day one.
More than ‘ethnic conflict’
Enmity between the multitude of ethnic groups that make up South Sudan’s society is just a small part of the problem. While targeted killings based on ethnic profiling are already being reported in Juba and Bor, ethnic identity has never stopped South Sudanese warlords from making deals.
Mobilizing one’s ethnic group, as both Kiir and Machar are doing these days, is just a tool for political survival, a means to an end that extends far beyond ties based on blood and common language.
Power lies at the heart of the matter. And in South Sudan, power means oil. Completely bereft of infrastructure in every other sector, South Sudan utterly depends on its sizable oil reserves to generate wealth. Oil is why the world cares about South Sudan.
And because South Sudan’s ruling class is made up overwhelmingly of people who have spent their whole live as soldiers in a brutal civil war, its methods for dealing with problems is dominated by military thinking. It is evident in the very institutions of the young nation, with a system of government that centralizes power around the presidency.
And it is evident in a military budget that still comprises more than half the government’s total expenditure, even when only a fraction of the country can be accessed by all-weather roads.
South Sudan’s power brokers were unable or unwilling to resolve their internal conflicts peacefully in the last few years since the South became first an autonomous and then an independent state. Now they have returned to what they know best: war.
Most of them will likely not be worse off for it when they return to the negotiating table after some weeks, months or years of fighting. The real price is paid by the population.