Someone needs to take charge of a broken political system
by PETER DOERRIE
The world’s youngest country is also one of the most troubled. Almost exactly five years to the day after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, vicious clashes erupted in the capital Juba on July 8, 2016.
Perhaps hundreds of people have died. Tens of thousands displaced.
A ceasefire announced on July 11 seems to be holding for now. But given South Sudan’s history, there’s little hope for long-term stability. Independence came as a consequence of a decades-long civil war against the Sudanese government, a conflict that left the country with barely any infrastructure … and many axes to grind.
Two years after independence, these axes came out when Pres. Salva Kiir preempted an alleged coup by forces loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, plunging South Sudan into all-out war.
It took months of negotiations and incredible loss of live to get the parties to agree to a peace deal in 2015 and, in 2016, form a Transitional Government of National Unity, which essentially restored the status quo and promised eventual reforms.
But violence continued in many parts of the country, making it obvious that the conflict had devolved from a national political crisis between two distinct interest groups into a series of disputes of varying intensity that connect the local to the regional and encompass many actors and agendas.
Speculations still run wild about who exactly started the recent violence — and why. Kiir and Machar seemed to have nothing to do with it. In fact, one of the most intense bouts of fighting happened around the presidential compound while the two men were holding a joint press conference inside.
Both have been demonstrated that they lack control over the forces nominally in their coalitions in the past. The generals in command of Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army In Opposition generally do as they please and align themselves with these umbrella organizations only when it’s convenient.
Competing narratives lay the blame for recent events at the feet of Machar or the influential general Paul Malong, who may very well be the real power behind Kiir’s throne. Both of them, plus Kiir himself and several other people, are realistic candidates. All of them have, in the past, proved that they are more than willing to sacrifice lives to gain even small political advantages.
The violence doesn’t represent any new dynamic. On the contrary, it’s all shockingly familiar. Which leaves the question of what can be done to break this cycle of violence before it causes South Sudan’s total collapse and endangers millions of people.
Scholar Alex de Waal has conceptualized a framework for comprehending South Sudan’s conflict. He describes the country as a “political marketplace.”
South Sudan, de Waal tells War Is Boring, is the victims of “a system of governance run on the basis of personal transactions in which political services and allegiances are exchanged for material reward in a competitive manner.”
“A ruler bargains with members of the political elite over how much he needs to pay — in cash, or in access to other lucrative resources such as contracts — in return for their support,” de Waal continues. “They exert pressure on him using their ability to mobilize votes, turn out crowds or inflict damaging violence.”
South Sudan’s political marketplace, de Waal argues, primarily feeds off the country’s oil revenue. In 2011, this was a tenable arrangement, as oil prices were high and government revenue rose by more than 25 percent each year. The system collapsed together with commodity prices a few years later, leading directly to civil war in 2013.
With income from the oil fields dwindling, only two solutions are available to resolve South Sudan’s conflict, de Waal says.
One of the various actors could win militarily. This, however, is an exceedingly unlikely prospect in a country that has little infrastructure, rough terrain, no access to high-tech weaponry and where the conflict has taken on an ethnic dimension that will make certain groups put up maximum resistance for fear of total annihilation.
The alternative is to put the marketplace under new management. A “CEO” would have to convince political investors to put new funds into the system and in return provide “regulatory oversight” over the marketplace’s local actors.
But as de Waal points out, the required skills have been in “short supply” and are certainly not evident in Kiir and Machar, currently the main public protagonists.
In an article for African Arguments, Peter Biar Ajak demanded rapid new elections at the expense of the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement. The thought is tempting — maybe new leadership can succeed where South Sudan’s current top honchos haven’t.
But elections are unlikely to change the current dynamics if they are not accompanied and preempted by other, even more radical steps.
The current government cannot be trusted to hold transparent and fair elections. The international community, including regional organizations such as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and the African Union would have to take over many government functions, essentially appointing their own CEO and severely limiting South Sudanese sovereignty.
There is already a substantial U.N. peacekeeping mission present in South Sudan, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees into Protection of Civilian sites. These camps, where many people have been held out for more than two years now, have come under fire both literally and metaphorically from various armed forces and critics arguing that they don’t do enough to protect their inhabitants.
One immediate action that the international community could take would be to enact an arms embargo against all factions in South Sudan, this making attacks against civilians harder. Countries could also substantially strengthen their own military presence at the various POC sites, maybe even extending the sites to cover larger areas.
In the medium to long term, the CEO of South Sudan’s political marketplace would have to take control of all major revenue streams. Payments for oil shipments and aid money would have to go into accounts controlled by the international community and the government would have to be cut out of the disbursement of government expenditure.
This would still leave the warlords and their militias in place, but it would open up the possibility of altering the incentives for perpetrating violence.
There is certainly no quick fix for a country like South Sudan, but if de Waal is right, offering the right incentives to the right people could succeed where attempts at a purely political solution haven’t.
Calls for outside intervention have intensified in the wake of the recent clashes. U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon has called on the Security Council to enact an arms embargo.
But there’s little international appetite for more meddling in the affairs of a country like South Sudan. Afghanistan and Iraq have shown the limits of even very well-resourced interventions, while the West’s unilateral actions in Libya have only provoked Russian and Chinese opposition.
A regional block such as the ICGLR or the African Union might possess the legitimacy required to take over management of South Sudan’s affairs, but given that these organizations have abstained from intervening in any significant way in Burundi, it’s hard to see how and why they should be motivated to treat South Sudan differently, especially because it would change power dynamics between South Sudan’s neighbors including Sudan and Uganda.