We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
UN peacekeepers patrol the streets in the disputed Abyei area on the border of Sudan and South Sudan in May 2011, shortly before South Sudan gained its independence. / Photo by Stuart Price, United Nations Photo
Colonial rule ended in Sudan in 1956. As the British and Egyptian flags were lowered, a struggle for power between rival factions was already under way. Fifty-five years later Sudan was partitioned and a new nation came into existence: South Sudan, whose population had spent decades waging a succession of wars against the regime in Khartoum, was now an independent country, the world’s most recent, recognized by the UN, the African Union (AU), and Sudan itself.
Since independence day in July 2011, Africa’s fifty-fourth sovereign state has fallen rapidly into strife and disarray. Tensions erupted in the capital, Juba, at the end of 2013 and spread to three large provincial cities. By the following year, thousands were dead and the AU had appointed a five-person Commission of Inquiry (AUCISS), chaired by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. The commission spent several months travelling in South Sudan, mostly in UN helicopters: May 26–June 4 (Juba, Bor, Bentiu, Malakal), July 31–August 3 (Bentiu, Rubkona, Leer County), August 3–5 (Malakal, Nasir), August 6–7 (Bor), August 8–11 (Yambio, Juba). When the commission delivered its findings in 2014, I was the only one of five members who dissented. In the official report, the violence in South Sudan was characterized as mainly “criminal,” but in a minority view entitled A Separate Opinion, I argued that it was more than a breakdown of law and order. Rather, the violence was political. Criminal violence is the action of individual perpetrators, to which the response is simply to judge and punish. But political violence requires a constituency and raises more difficult questions—among them, how to isolate the perpetrators of political violence from their supporters. To begin to answer these questions, we need an accurate description of what happened, however complicated the situation appears as a result.
A Review of What Happened
Two main ethnic groups dominate South Sudan: the Dinka (the larger group) and the Nuer. Juba is settled along ethnic lines, and the killings in the capital at the end of 2013—by Dinka militias—were organized as a house-to-house operation in Nuer residential areas. The political objective was to cleanse Juba of its Nuer population, divide the inhabitants of the country along ethnic lines, and destroy any basis for consensus, polarizing 11 million citizens in the new state into us and them. A displaced person in a UN compound told the Commission: “They put a knife into what bound us, turned the crisis from political to ethnic.” By “they” was meant the government that assumed office on independence; the crisis turned ethnic at the end of 2013 after an explosive meeting of the National Liberation Council (NLC), the executive committee of the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The divide that opened up at that meeting of the National Liberation Council in Juba took on an ethnic dimension and led to the violence we were called in to investigate.
The tension had been simmering throughout 2013 and rose dramatically when three members of the NLC announced their intention to contest the chairmanship, a position that would automatically qualify its holder as the ruling party’s candidate for the presidency in the upcoming 2015 election. In April the presiding NLC chair and president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, who is Dinka, removed the executive powers of his vice-president Riek Machar, who is Nuer. In July Kiir dismissed all his ministers and then embarked on a tour of the Bahr el Ghazal region in the predominantly Dinka northwest, delivering provocative speeches that were broadcast on the national TV network. A member of Machar’s delegation quoted him as saying: “I have now decided to fight my enemies, and my nickname is Tiger; I have decided to scratch anyone who opposes me.” By the time he called for the NLC to meet on December 14, the stage was set for a showdown.
Several influential parties tried to postpone the meeting, including South Sudan’s senior military and intelligence officers, its church leaders, and the AU High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan, led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki. These efforts were to no avail; the meeting went ahead, and violence erupted the following night. There were different versions of events: a coup attempt by opponents of Kiir; an attempt by his followers to disarm Nuer soldiers serving in the presidential brigade, coup or no coup; and a mutiny by Nuer soldiers, who tried to break into the armory in Juba. Among those in the army command we spoke to, hardly anyone supported Kiir’s claim that there had been a coup attempt, nor was there any evidence of an attempt to disarm Nuer soldiers. Yet no one denied that there was an attempt to break into the armory that night and that, as a result, the commander of the presidential brigade, a Nuer, killed his deputy, a Dinka, who refused to open the armory. The common explanation was that the attempted break-in was a reaction by Nuer soldiers to rumors that they were under threat—rumors that members of the NLC and senior officials did nothing to allay.
The violence in South Sudan was more than a breakdown in law and order; it was political.
Two days after the meeting, on December 16, government tanks pounded Machar’s house, killing more than a dozen guards and destroying the property. Nuer soldiers, overpowered and on the run, made off toward Terekeka, north of Juba; by the time the organized killings of Nuer politicians and civilians began, there were no Nuer soldiers left in the city. Parliament remained silent, claiming it had initially been in recess, then busy with a budget session, and thereafter that it was preempted by the appointment of a government commission to tackle the situation, even though some members of parliament were among those targeted in the violence. A Nuer MP, now living in the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) compound, told us in a parliamentary meeting called to discuss with the commission that he’d known there was fighting in the barracks, that people came to his area in uniform asking residents to identify Nuer homes. A neighbor pointed out his house and when his young child went to open the gate, the soldiers killed him. “We ran out of the house and then into the neighbor’s house, and then to the UNMISS compound. I have not been to my house yet. . . . I come here to work in the daytime and go to the UNMISS compound to spend the night.” Parliament, for this honorable member, was a seamless extension of the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp at the UN compound, whose gates had been opened by UN personnel to fleeing civilians as killers pursued them—thus, by a sheer force of circumstance, turning the compound into an international safe haven. Were the UN and the special representative of the secretary-general to be applauded for this action, or rather held responsible for not using the troops at their disposal to stop the killing of civilians outside the gate of the UN compound? In other words, was this a latter day Srebrenica? What, if anything, had the UN learnt from the Rwanda genocide?
The killings in Juba lasted until December 18 and left hundreds of Nuer dead, but who carried them out? The most widespread explanation among senior military, intelligence, police, and government officials we talked to was that they were the work of several thousand irregulars recruited during border skirmishes with Sudan shortly after independence. Kiir set the number at 6000 and explained that the recruitment was the result of a general order intended to “diversify the army,” but that rogue elements had subsequently taken over. A more credible explanation came from two senior army and intelligence officers, who said that a small number of the recruits, around 320, had been seconded to the president’s home area, Luri, and based near his farm in Bahr el Ghazal. They were joined by civilians and others recruited from various security services (including National Security, Wildlife, even local police). A “secret mobilization” had begun in November, our sources in MI told us, with elders attending a meeting, chaired by the former chief justice, to determine who should be chosen “to protect the president.” The force was known as Rescue the President (Dot ke beny). People were mobilized in their thousands and the elders coordinated with Salva Kiir. The process was financed by the president’s office. The people who carried out the killings from December 16–18 were mostly from Bahr el Ghazal. As part of the preparation there was a general sprucing-up of the capital—a street sweeping operation to remove litter—by Tiger Battalion a week before the killings. Thid Lau cleaning, as it was known, was a pretext for Kiir’s loyalists to identify and demarcate areas in Juba that would be targeted when the massacres began.
Nuer communities in Juba responded to the killings with a rebellion and a local uprising. The rebellion followed a mutiny led by Peter Gadet, a division commander of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (which had fought against Khartoum for decades and become a national army at the moment of South Sudanese independence). A more spontaneous response came from community-based fighting formations outside Juba known as the White Army (the name refers to the ash of burned cow dung with which young Nuer smear their bodies). In December 2013, as word spread via cellphone that a slaughter of Nuer civilians was going on in the capital, the Nuer youth, 50,000 in all and fresh from a run of campaigns against the Murle ethnicity in 2012, converged, first on Bentiu, which they ransacked, and then on Juba.
The White Army is not an army, nor even a collection of militias, but an association of civilians bearing arms, but without the formal discipline, command, or hierarchy of the state army. It was motivated by a deep sense of grievance—revenge for the December massacres—and the promise of plunder. Its contingents left a trail of carnage and destruction in the towns and villages they swept through on their way to Juba. When the government retook these towns, there was further carnage and destruction, perpetuating a cycle of revenge. Rape, never before witnessed on this scale in South Sudan, became a regular occurrence in battle zones.
An intervention by the Ugandan army halted the march of the White Army. At the same time, the UN Mission opened its compound to protect IDPs from hostile forces on the government side. Both the Ugandans and the UN were credited at first with reducing the level of violence, even preventing a genocide; later, both were accused of prolonging the crisis: the Ugandan army because it propped up the government, and the UN Mission because it turned a blind eye to armed IDPs in the camps.
There are two major examples of secession in post-colonial Africa: Eritrea and South Sudan. Eritrean independence followed a military victory against the regime in Addis Ababa, but there was no military victory in South Sudan, even though the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had been at war with the government of Sudan for years. External factors militated in favor of South Sudan. Madeleine Albright’s decision to back SPLM against Khartoum in 1997 was a child of Washington’s war on terror. Only a reasonable fear that it could be the next target of U.S. aggression in a post–9/11 era that had begun with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq explains why the government of Sudan agreed to hold an independence referendum in the South and let half the country secede. Moreover, ideological Islamists inside the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Kharotum were convinced that the secession of a predominantly non-Muslim South was sure to tighten their grip on power in the North. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 when the South gained autonomy from Sudan in preparation for full independence in 2011, turned out to be a shoddy affair. In spite of opposition from some regional states to a short five-year time table, it was rushed to the table by a troika of western states—the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway—once it was clear that Washington’s interest in the Sudanese civil war had forced Khartoum onto the defensive. Without the threat of U.S. intervention against an African country identified as an enemy in the war on terror, Khartoum would not have signed the agreement.
What, if anything, had the UN learnt from the Rwanda genocide?
The CPA’s lamentable approach to the array of armed groups in the future state of South Sudan was based on the assumption that only those with the capacity to wage war have the right to determine the terms of the peace. The most alarming consequence of the agreement was that non-militarized political opposition, both in Sudan and the country that was about to come into being, was thoroughly marginalized. The SPLA, which was both an army and a movement, emerged in charge of South Sudan as a precocious double of the entrenched ruling party in Sudan, the National Congress Party (NCP). The CPA perpetuated the worst legacies of the liberation war, including the SPLA’s refusal to countenance internal reform, and sowed the seeds of the present crisis. It endorsed the power of the SPLA—the power of the gun—at the expense of the political class, civic associations, and the civilian population, and it put the new state in the hands of an unaccountable clique whose only background, as senior figures in the liberation army, lay in armed struggle. Enthusiastic voices from the rest of the world, in particular the troika, reinforced the illusion of the new regime, led by Kiir, that all it needed to ensure its continued hold on power was international support. It basked in the extenuations that the world now grants to victim cultures: the south, when it was part of Sudan, had been terrorized, starved, bombed, and brutalized, and it follows, as it does for post-genocide Rwanda, that whatever happens next, the victims in charge of their own destiny must be coddled and absolved of responsibility.
In Sudan six years ago, the regime in Khartoum was roundly and correctly accused of fraud when it took the country to the polls. But in South Sudan, a nation in the making at that point, the rigging of the referendum on self-determination, which produced a 99.8 percent yes vote, was approved with a cheerful smile by the international community. Two years later, when the ruling SPLA appeared to split more or less down the middle—each half intent on devouring the whole—the Western press was mystified. It had always commended the Christian and animist victims in the South against their Muslim and Arab oppressors in the North, and now reached for an equally formulaic explanation for the outbreak of civil war in the victims’ new territory, where all was supposed to turn out well. The new formula was an old one: ‘tribalism.’ The ethnic nature of the split in the National Liberation Council was the best to hand: it was, after all, a standoff between Nuer and Dinka. From this point of view, the current conflict, which has continued since 2013 and led to deaths estimated in the thousands, is between a Dinka-led government and a Nuer-led rebellion.
South Sudan is a multi-ethnic society. No ethnic group constitutes a majority, but the Dinka (3.2 million) and the Nuer (1.6 million) make up 57 percent of the new state’s population. The two ethnic groups have similar languages and an agro-pastoralist economy in common. The idea that the Nuer, and the Dinka to a lesser extent, are naturally warlike was first advanced by British anthropologists, led by Edward Evans-Pritchard. European colonial discourse depicted the southern parts of what was then a joint Anglo-Egyptian condominium as a land inhabited by an array of nomadic “tribal” groups vying for water and pasture. This relentless competition was thought to generate periodic cycles of warfare between rival ethnicities. Evans-Pritchard described the Nuer as a “wild offshoot of Dinka.” The difficulty, he wrote, was that “every Nuer, the product of hard and equalitarian upbringing, deeply democratic, and easily roused to violence, considers himself as good as his neighbor.” He was describing a deeply egalitarian culture whose real aversion was not so much to its neighbors as to centralized colonial rule, administered by the British. The chiefs appointed by the colonial authority made no headway in Nuer civil society: for generations they had appointed their own leaders, including spiritual leaders, nowadays known as prophets. Evans-Pritchard decided in the end that the Nuer were a refractory people and saw more promise in the Dinka. He was reassured by the Dinka belief that people, even within the same family, are “not as equal as sticks in a match box.” In a word, the Nuer were too egalitarian for British anthropology.
But anthropologists are not historians. The history of the region suggests that every political evolution in “Christian, African animist” southern Sudan coincides with Dinka and Nuer making common cause. Historians date the beginning of the Sudanese national movement to the formation of the anti-British White Flag League led by two South Sudanese Muslims in the 1920s, one of mixed Dinka and Nuba heritage (Ali Abd al-Latif), the other Nuer (Abdul Fadhil Almaz). Both became known for their role in the 1924 armed uprising against the British. A similar story is told of a mutinous collaboration between a Dinka (Kerubino Kuanyin Bol) and a Nuer (William Nyuon Bany), both former Sudanese army officers, which led to the founding of SPLA in 1983 and a new phase in the North-South struggle, which ended with the agreement on secession in January 2005.
The challenge for the British was how to administer mobile, semi-pastoral communities that had arrived at an understanding of the balance between autonomy and co-existence in a multi-ethnic region. The British solution was to sort one identity from another and politicize them all, assigning each a homeland, all administered by an ethnic authority appointed by the colonial power. These tribal authorities could allocate land and adjudicate local conflicts and call in the colonial power whenever their status—a British invention—was challenged. Ironically, when autonomous southern Sudan began making arrangements for local government after 2005 in preparation for full independence, it built on the British colonial model. The politicization of ethnicity fractured prospective citizenship along tribal lines. In one local authority after another, people who thought of themselves as indigenous to an area were now in dispute with others they believed had no customary right to the natural resources they had shared without question during the long years of war. Non-locals promptly demanded an ethnic homeland of their own. This is tribalism in its consummate form.
Conflicting Visions: An Independent South Sudan or a New Sudan?
Two demands, above all, drove the mobilization of political groups in South Sudan. One was the call for ethnic solidarity and ethnic representation. The other was the direction to be taken by the new power: a new Sudan or an independent South Sudan?
The first liberation war of the Anyanya was organized around the demand for an independent South Sudan. For John Garang, the demand for an independent South Sudan had made it possible for Khartoum to isolate the South by rallying the rest of the country against secession. Garang concluded that to succeed the SPLA needed to define an all-Sudan objective around which to rally discontented forces throughout the country, thereby to turn the tables politically on the power in Khartoum and to isolate it. Events proved Garang right. The SPLA’s greatest victories were in the border areas just across the north-south boundary (Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains) and in the western part of the country (Darfur) where its example led to the formation of a parallel movement for autonomy.
Garang’s great contribution was to inspire a vision that made possible a single rallying point around which to mobilize discontent throughout Sudan. His single most important failing was to subordinate this vision to the struggle for power and personal ambition. Faced with the demand for reform, he moved to consolidate power. The result was that every major struggle, whether ideological or personal, led to a spilling of more blood. And every subsequent blood-letting was resolved through a cosmetic power-sharing strategy, a sharing of positions and resources, which turned out to be no more than an interlude between bloody bouts.
This failure to build an institutional culture that would filter and manage internal differences among leaders contaminated all institutions, but above all the army. Internal differences festered and exploded into massive bloodletting, first in 1991, then in 2013.
And yet, the strategy seemed to be working. The reason was external: so long as Garang and those who followed him, accommodated themselves to the demands of external powers, whether during the era of the Cold War or more recently the War on Terror, they could count on full support from the outside. This was Garang as a proxy figure in war, defying his popular reputation as a mythological figure beyond critique.
1991: The Bor Massacre and After
The massacre of 1991 erupted when two senior SPLA commanders, Lam Akol in Upper Nile and Riek Machar in Nasir along the Ethiopian border, along with Gordon Kong, called for the replacement of John Garang as leader. The commanders mobilized around two demands: that Garang had tied the SPLA too closely to the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia, and that Ethiopian support was being used to forestall the demand for both an independent South Sudan and for internal reform.
In the fighting that ensued, Machar’s forces are said to have slaughtered around 2,000 Dinka civilians. Broad-based before the Bor massacre, the Nasir group narrowed into a more or less exclusively Nuer affair after the spilling of blood—and went on to sign an agreement with the Sudan government. As more groups joined, the collaboration that followed made it possible for the Sudan government to pump oil from South Sudan fields in Unity and Upper Nile.
The Khartoum Peace Agreement between Riek Machar and the Sudan government broke down in 2001. Machar and some of his forces returned to the SPLM but the rest, led by Paulino Matip and other generals, stayed behind in Khartoum and formed the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF), an organization that grew into a formidable force under the patronage of the Sudan army.
A Pragmatic Reconciliation: Wunlit
In the decade and a half between 1991 and 2006, before the last of the rebel forces led by Paulino Matip returned to the fold of SPLA, there was a pragmatic reconciliation between communities on the ground. These multiple initiatives were driven by an inescapable fact: neighboring communities had no choice but to accommodate one another, sooner or later. This ground level process took place inside communities, as it did between neighboring communities. The initiative came from local leaders, usually chiefs or religious leaders, and involved the active participation of women and youth.
In the decade that followed 1991, the best-known organized effort at community-level reconciliation was known as Wunlit, named after the town in Bahr el Ghazal where the Dinka-Nuer West Bank Peace and Reconciliation conference was held from February 27 to March 8, 1999. Wunlit had three limitations.
The first was spatial. Though it covered multiple communities and was trans-local, the Wunlit process did not cover all regions torn apart by the 1991 violence. It affected only one side of the Nile; it involved the Dinka of Bahr el Ghazal, but not the Bor Dinka.
The second was structural. Wunlit bore the hallmarks of the forces that drove it: churches and chiefs. The peculiarity of both churches and chiefs in South Sudan was that each had developed as an ethnic institution. In the colonial period, Britain divided the South into zones and distributed each zone to a different denomination: Presbyterians got Upper Nile; Catholics Upper Bahr el Ghazal; Anglicans got Equatoria. It is only after the Sudan government passed the 1962 Missionary Societies Act and expelled all missionaries that the leadership of ethnic Churches began to cooperate under a single umbrella, known as the Council of Churches. This history sketches both the sectarian beginning of Church organization and the imperative to transcend it in the face of government repression; it also underlines the inadequacy of the Church as a viable force for national reconciliation. The same can be said of chiefs who dispensed what was called traditional justice.
The problem in South Sudan originated in the proto-state, created in a hot-house fashion in the throes of the War on Terror.
The third was political. The scope of traditional justice is limited to community-based conflicts, not conflicts that arise from state-defined constructs. Thus, traditional justice has little to say about the relation between state and society, and thus about individual rights. The situation following December 15 has highlighted the limitations of traditional justice in the face of mass violence and large-scale ethnic cleansing, including mass appropriation of property, such as the grabbing of houses in urban areas and land in the countryside.
As a pragmatic process, Wunlit papered over deep divisions opened up by 1991. The “reconciliation” that followed was driven by short-term considerations and was unable to avert the disaster in 2013. The impetus for these divisions came not from tribes in society but armed formations in the proto-state structure. When South Sudan became independent in 2011, there was not one army but at least three: the post-1991 SPLA, the Machar group which had returned in 2002, and the Matip-led SSDF which returned last, in 2006.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)
The SPLA is not a standing army. Soldiers are mobilized operation by operation and then disbanded. Its bears a strong resemblance to the White Army, even though it has a formal command structure and training procedures. It is said to comprise roughly 240,000 soldiers, including handicapped and retired fighters who remain on the payroll. There is a full complement of commanders: there were reportedly 700 generals at the time of the 2013 crisis, including four four-star generals, nine three-star generals, a hundred major-generals and uncountable numbers of brigadier-generals. Senior officers have a roster of soldiers at their disposal, but the central command does not have access to these rolls, which makes it impossible to organize mixed units of Dinka and Nuer. The army has come together in an ad hoc manner. After the split of 1991, the leaders of the rebellion who had joined Khartoum returned in 2002 as factional figureheads with their troops intact. Those who remained in Khartoum, organized as the SSDF, returned in 2006. The SSDF was a loose conglomeration of village-based militias, said to be about the same size as the SPLA before they merged: when they did, their leader was appointed deputy commander of the entire army under Salva Kiir.
Kiir’s inclusive policy has created a collection of separate militias, all drinking from the same bore hole: until they fell apart in 2013, all received funding, pay, and equipment from the new government in Juba. Seasoned soldiers found themselves working in the same army alongside—and sometimes under—men whom they had been fighting very recently. Some left, convinced that in addition to an ethnic divide between Dinka and Nuer, there was a political divide between liberators and collaborators. Kiir’s big tent was envisaged as a grand reconciliation, but it encouraged militias to barter for peace, and turn rebellion into a bargaining chip: those with a grievance rebelled, only to return with a reward, which was understood by rebels, non-rebels and the central command to be the prize for having kept the peace. The reconciliation policy became an incentive to rebel.
This was the case with David Yau Yau, a former schoolteacher who led a militia called SPLA Cobra through several rebellions, shifting his allegiance, and his fighters, back and forth between Juba and Khartoum. His most recent rebellion, in 2014, was followed by negotiations and the integration of his men into the SPLA. Yau Yau was appointed a general and given command over an area with a population of 127,000, which as the minister of defense explained, would now be “autonomous and under the office of the president, not a state and yet it will have the powers of a state.” One brigadier-general commented when we interviewed him that “David Yau Yau has been given what he wanted. His troops are under him but nominally inside the SPLA. We do not know where his troops are now.” A senior commander told us: “Most of these militias are illiterate, led by illiterate Major-Generals. Even today, we have not integrated them.” He compared trying to organize the army to “dealing with NGOs in South Sudan, all with their own leadership, each sponsored by a different country.” Demobilization was clearly a better option, but turned out to be very difficult: “You cannot demobilize someone who has a gun. You give him money under DDR [the demobilization program]; when the money is finished, he will go back to the bush.”
The specter of ongoing war with Sudan, the northern neighbor, meant in any case that the real task of reforming the army was overlooked by the leadership of South Sudan, and the troika, with the international community in tow: military figures were installed as ministers or heads of civil service departments; Kiir, commander-in-chief of the SPLA, became the civilian president; a general became the speaker of parliament; and brigadiers became provincial governors. Small arms were everywhere. Most soldiers lived in civilian neighborhoods with their families—not in barracks—and kept their weapons with them; demobilized soldiers hung on to their own. Any commander could do as he chose: there was no appeal against his decision. With the return and integration of the various factions, the SPLA became a majority Nuer army, drawing 55–60 percent of its soldiers from 20 percent of the population. But the Nuer-Dinka imbalance was only one of many tensions, including the hostility between soldiers who had earlier fought on opposing sides, irrespective of their ethnicity.
My thesis is simple: the problem in South Sudan did not spring from the society. Its genesis lay in the proto-state, created in a hot-house fashion in the throes of the War on Terror by the troika.
The SPLM Dictatorship
It is these many thousands of gun-wielding South Sudanese and their commanders who were handed power in 2005, not because they won the war but because that is what the international sponsors—the troika especially—had in mind. A leading opposition politician in Juba told us that the agreement “gave the SPLM the power it could not have got by political means. It made it possible for the SPLM to entrench itself. . . . The state became the SPLM and the SPLM became the state.” The relationship of SPLA to other political forces in South Sudan underwent a change after the 2011 referendum. The All-South Sudan Political Parties Conference, held the previous year, had ended with a call for a transitional government of national unity, composed of all political parties and headed by Kiir; it resolved to hold a Constitutional Conference and another election in two years. But after the referendum, the SPLA revised the constitution and gave themselves the right to rule until 2015. Open before independence to negotiation with internal forces whose cooperation and support it needed, the SPLA now regarded them as a nuisance it could dispense with, given that it had unquestioning support from the troika.
The political order created under the CPA was not a dictatorship of a single party so much as a dictatorship of all armed groups: it legitimized any group bearing arms. As more and more experienced cadres were denied employment in the state sector—for not having participated in the struggle, or having worked in the North before independence, or speaking Arabic but not English—an artificial scarcity of human resources was created. Donors filled the gap. The result was a total disjunction between a donor-directed multi-national technical cadre and the political leadership. On the one hand, large numbers of people were trained; on the other, few were integrated into government structures, and the shortage of skilled functionaries became daily more acute, leaving the new country in a state of dependency, which the UN was happy to encourage as part of its paternalistic mission of “state-building and nation-building.” In charge of shepherding the transition from the CPA in 2005 to independence in 2011, the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan did much to ensure that the country became an international dependency.
How do we ensure that Africa’s independence is not compromised in the struggle for democracy?
In the absence of a working civil service, ministries were occupied—rather than run—by generals and their relatives. A participant in the Caucus of Women explained: “Employment in the Ministry, from the Director General to the cleaner, is for only one tribe. When a Minister is appointed, his first question is how many people from his tribe are there in the Ministry. If he thinks them not enough, then others are dismissed without due process and tribespersons are appointed.” The justifications are often the same: “We fought, and you did not; you were with the Jalaba [civilian traders], we were with SPLM; we were with the Red Army [the revolutionary youth army], you were not.”
The 2005 agreement is not comparable to the prototype Lancaster House conference, which prepared the ground for the independence of many a British colony, including Nigeria and Kenya. The all-party conference was the closest the country ever came to grounds for a durable settlement, but it was aborted in the aftermath of the referendum. To think of South Sudan as a failed state is to overlook the simple fact that the very political foundation for the existence of a state—administrative, technical, and legal infrastructure or a political compact as its foundation and direction—has yet to be forged, either within the elite or between the communities that comprise South Sudan. There was no bureaucracy, no judiciary, nothing to fail; the leadership of this non-existent state was propped up and lionized by important sections of the international community, led by the troika, and now the country is in chaos. Rather than a failed state, South Sudan was a failed transition.
The Way Forward
What, then, is the way forward? So far, both the UN Security Council and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD)—a trade bloc comprising Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, and Eritrea—have called for an agreement focused on redistributing official positions among those who must be held politically responsible for the carnage that began on December 16, 2013. But this approach evades both the question of accountability and the question of how to create a viable and accountable power structure in South Sudan.
More than any other single event, it was 1991 that shaped the collective psyche of the present generation of South Sudanese. It is noteworthy that this source of national trauma does not originate from the struggle against Khartoum but from the failure to handle internal conflicts within SPLA. 1991 was not resolved; it was deferred. A member of the Caucus of Women urged the AUCISS to acknowledge the meaning of the 1991 Bor massacre: “A big number of Dinka were killed. There was no accountability, efforts for reconciliation but no truth. The wound is still there in the hearts of many Dinka. The violence now is for me a continuation of the 1991 massacre.” 1991 is an argument against a power-sharing arrangement at the expense of truth and reform. It is an argument against impunity—which is demanded in various languages. Two that the commission heard often were sovereignty and democracy. You cannot remove an elected president, said the envoys of the troika, or a sitting president, said Salva Kiir’s supporters. But Kiir was elected vice president, not president. Furthermore, that election was organized by the Republic of Sudan, not by the government of South Sudan. For that matter, South Sudan has never had an election since it became independent.
How do we reconcile rule of law with sovereignty? How do we ensure that Africa’s hard-won independence is not compromised in the African struggle for democracy? How do we ensure that in putting a sitting president on trial, we are also not putting the sovereignty of the country itself on trial? There is no one answer, no single formula, no best practice that can guide all regardless of context. There is no substitute to thinking on our own feet. It is this recognition that is behind the call for a contextual, Africa-oriented solution.
The single-formula dogma began in the sphere of economic policy and was enforced as a series of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) by the Washington Consensus in the 1980s. Its destructive effects are now both well documented and widely acknowledged. Today, that same remedy rules the roost in the field of conflict resolution and transitional justice, prescribing a single across-the-board solution: criminal accountability. Criminal justice is heralded as the gold standard, the antidote for all manifestations of extreme violence. This approach makes a simple declaration: a crime has been committed, and its perpetrators must be identified and punished. The question of justice is thereby reduced to an issue of crime and punishment. But the pursuit of criminal accountability cannot be at the expense of peace and political order. This is not to give up the demand for criminal accountability, but to acknowledge that its realization calls for the building of sufficient political consensus.
Who should be held responsible politically for the extreme violence that has destroyed lives of hundreds of thousands in South Sudan since December 2013? Two groups above all. First, the troika of Western states, and its friends such as IGAD, for their decisive role in framing an agreement that set up a politically unchallenged armed power in South Sudan. Second, the pre-July 2013 cabinet of the Government of South Sudan for the political crisis that led to the political meltdown on December 15, 2013.
The regional organization of states, IGAD, and the UN Security Council representing the international community have patched together another makeshift agreement to stop this round of fighting in South Sudan. The agreement has three key features: a coalition government based on a sharing of seats between the two sides to the civil war; a demilitarized Juba which will be the seat of this government; and an agreement to have a hybrid court try all those considered criminally culpable for the mass violence during the civil war. The obvious dilemma with this agreement is that those likely to be tried are the same as those who hold power. With this in mind, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar have written a joint op-ed in the New York Times proposing that there should be no trial but a reconciliation premised on forgiveness, though Machar disavowed the op-ed four days after it was published, claiming not to have been consulted about its contents. From the point of view of both IGAD and the troika, this proposal may be the least costly way forward. But it is unlikely to hold a key to a stable future.
An alternative way forward would require greater political will, more resources and a more radical vision from all parties concerned. It calls for a recognition that the transition that was the CPA failed; that it fed the worst anti-reform tendencies in the SPLA and turned into a breeding ground for the violence that erupted in December 2013. South Sudan needs a second transition. Instead of giving political power to those with the gun, this transition will seek to forge a political compact both at the level of society and that of the political class. It will seek to combine political justice with political reform. Political justice is about political accountability, at both the individual and the societal levels. Key to the pursuit of political justice will be the exclusion from high office of all those politically accountable for the mass violence that followed the crisis of December 15, 2013. Key to political reform will be demilitarization and democratization at the societal level so that the process of reform of militias at the local level goes hand-in-hand with that of creating self-governing democratic communities. The demilitarization of Juba is a starting point for this reform process; for it to continue, demilitarization will need to extend beyond Juba to most of the country.
The challenge in forging this transition is political. Is it possible to put together a political authority with the credibility, the vision, and the experience for a task that combines elements of tutelage with that of a democratic project? For this, I suggest a hybrid political authority led by an African team—the most likely being the AU’s High Level Panel on Sudan (both North and South), chaired by former South African President Thabo Mbeki—backed up by the joint authority of the African Union and the UN.
Mahmood Mamdani is the director of the Institute of Social Research at Makerere University, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University, and author of Saviors and Survivors and Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
In his new book, philosopher William MacAskill implies that humanity’s long-term survival matters more than preventing short-term suffering and death. His arguments are shaky.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.