As Africa’s newest state, South Sudan was meant to be an example of what cooperation between the international community and African political actors could achieve. According to the African experts interviewed in this sixth episode of the Peacebuilders podcast series, South Sudan’s devastating descent into civil conflict has instead transformed the young country into a laboratory for competing security solutions and a humanitarian catastrophe with no clear end. Hosts Aaron Stanley and Scott Malcomson speak with experts from the region in this fourth episode of the Peacebuilders series.
MALCOMSON: Welcome to Diffusion, a podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York. I’m Scott Malcomson.
STANLEY: and I’m Aaron Stanley. In episode 6 we are discussing South Sudan. The world’s newest State, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. South Sudan’s road to independence was a long one. Most experts date the civil war that led to independence back to 1983.
MALCOMSON: In 2005, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – or SPLM - and the Government of the Republic of Sudan signed on to the IGAD mediated Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Ultimately, that peace agreement began a referendum process on South Sudan’s independence. The referendum was held in January 2011. Over 98% of the population voted for independence from the Republic of Sudan.
STANLEY: John Garang was the leader of the SPLM and its armed wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, SPLA. He died in a helicopter crash weeks after signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Republic of Sudan.
MALCOMSON: Jok Madut Jok, executive director of The Sudd Institute and a former government official, begins by explaining the importance of John Garang’s leadership.
JOK: There is a lot of nostalgia for him, especially among the former fighters and anybody who knew him personally, or at least even anybody who has been in an audience that John Garang has addressed, whether in the diaspora or back home, in rural areas or military camps or in the urban centers. And most especially, his addressed in Khartoum after the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement, which then brought him to the vice presidency of Sudan. That address still rings very, very clearly in the minds of a lot of people who heard it, including almost predicting his demise, saying that I have delivered the country to you on a silver platter. Now, it is up to you to see what you do with it.
BROADCAST OF JOHN GARANG SPEECH: “This agreement belongs to all of the Sudan, to its neighbors, to Africa, to the Arab world, and indeed to the rest of the world.
JOK: And then, 25 days later, he went down. So there is a really strong emotional weight that we all carry as a result of that.
STANLEY: Nicodemus Minde is a Social Science Research Council Next Generation fellow who has conducted extensive field research in South Sudan.
MINDE: Just look at the referendum, actually 98-point-something [percent] actually supported secession. Even without doing on-ground research, that figure is enough to tell you of the enthusiasm, the expectations of us having a new country of our own after decades of disenfranchisement, after decades of marginalization. That itself is very much. It tells you that the people had high expectations.
The challenge came piecemeal in state construction. I think it becomes a challenge in a sense because the government finds itself, you know, grapples with these high expectations. Maybe these high expectations were not met, and people felt maybe disappointed, so the whole — the romanticism around secession and a free country all dried up, maybe lost hopes.
MALCOMSON: Returning to Jok Madut Jok.
JOK: SPLA was regarded by most people all across South Sudan as the People's Army, and they supported it with recruits, with food, cattle, goods, everything. The Army did not have a salary. The Army did not have any major logistical support from outside. It lived off the people. So everybody was giving it support.
But, occasionally, it ran into conflict with some communities over accusations that it had become an occupation army, some ethnic group which says the SPLA has eaten all my cows, and we don't want it anymore. And the SPLA then, were seeing that as a subversive act against them. And so a conflict would erupt between the SPLA and the Mundari around Juba, the SPLA and the Lotuko or the Didinga in Eastern Equatoria, and so forth and so on. And that has created a great deal of violence between not just the SPLA and the specific group, but the members of the SPLA who happen to be from another ethnic group, who then get killed, and the whole SPLA retaliates against the other new group that killed them. So it wedged a very serious rift between communities.
So what I'm saying is that while South Sudanese were all agreed that the SPLA needed to be supported — and their eyes were on the bigger prize, which was the war against the North — many South Sudanese did a lot of horrible things against one another in the meantime, so there were layers of conflict during that time. Now, they were often swept under the carpet with the idea that, when we have achieved our big prize, which is the independence of South Sudan, we would then revisit those conflicts and try to confront them. The injustices and the atrocities that have taken place can now be investigated. They now can be put on the table so that we can stare our history in the face and say we were doing this because there was a bigger prize than each one of us, and now that we have achieved this, let us find a way to resolve these things, whether it's compensation or even admission that terrible things were done, or acknowledgment of atrocities and identification of people who died.
I mean, the writing of history in general, writing the history of the liberation war, which then gives — that highlights the positive achievements as well as the negative things that have happened, such that a citizen now begins to realize that the price they paid in the form of their loved ones can be compensated for by the positive presence of the state in their lives — which did not happen. And then when it didn't happen, it has perpetuated violence to this day. There are many, many conflicts that are still ongoing now, sometimes low-key, sometimes erupting in more flagrant ways, but it is due to the fact that the narrative and the history of the liberation war has not been faced and confronted in a more collective way so that citizens have a way to express their grievances against the rebel leaders who have now become the rulers.
STANLEY: In December 2013, two years after independence, South Sudan broke into renewed civil war. Despite a mediation process led by the regional economic community known as IGAD — discussed in episode 4 — as well as a United Nations peacekeeping mission, and multiple cease-fires, clashes continue in parts of the country
JOK: It's the burden of the liberation period that made it difficult for this to be achieved. That's the first thing. What I mean by burden of the liberation war is that South Sudan one of the most destroyed territories on Earth since Second World War, with millions of people who perished, with any semblance of state infrastructure that existed obliterated entirely. South Sudan had some of the worst indices in the world, rates of infant mortality, of maternal mortality, even life expectancy for the country remains one of the worst in the world today, all due to that conflict that lasted for 25 years. Now, when you became an independent country, of course, the first thing you want to do is address those, that burden. But the resources available to meet the expectations of the people were not on par with the challenges.
STANLEY: Even though, at the time, South Sudan was a major oil producer.
JOK: Yeah. South Sudan was a middle-income country at independence.
STANLEY: But the challenges were just so large…
JOK: They were so much greater. But then there comes a second reason, which is mismanagement and corruption. A lot of public resources were siphoned off the country by those elites that came to power at the instant of the end of the Civil War. Almost all of them — I cannot think of any single individual who can say that they have distinguished themselves above the fray of all the leaders who have taken from the public resources. And as a result, not only did you divert the resource away from addressing these consequences of a very long and disastrous war, you also showed a lack of remorse and shame that was expected of you by people who had done so much to get their country out of the jaws of a very vicious opponent, the government of Sudan.
And so corruption became not just a diversion of resources from tackling postwar problems, it led to a very quick rise of a kind of class society, where a small handful of people almost, at the top of a plateau, and the rest of the country being the body of that plateau. So it was not a class society even in the classical sense. It was a class society where there's, like, ten people over there, and the rest of us. So that really quickly disappointed people, even in the idea of independence. So many people were saying, What was the point of this war to liberate the country? Liberated to what end? And then some of these leaders, military generals and politicians who took power who had come from the liberation background and who have, to be fair to them, had done so much to make that possible. But they became offended by this idea that they should not enrich themselves so quickly at the expense of their people. And there was a sense of entitlement that, “We liberated it”, to which then the ordinary citizen says, “So that you do what with it. You liberate it so you can destroy it?” And another question is, you were not liberating it for me. You were liberating it for you and me and everybody. So, I did not hire you. I did not ask you to go and liberate me. So you shouldn't have a sense that you must be paid for your liberating role. Some of us think if they who liberate us, in inverted commas, were far-seeing and had exercised the same dedication they had shown in war, they would have simply put down a plan that says 50% of the oil money will be invested in capital projects. We'll do the roads. We'll build the electricity. We'll invest in other cultures. We have more cows in South Sudan than people; we would invest in livestock for export and for local consumption. We have the Nile. The biggest part of the Nile is within South Sudan, and the land is fertile, and there is no reason for South Sudanese to die from hunger. It's simply bad investment, bad plans.
Even at the independence, my view is that many of these liberation leaders may not have been confident enough in the country they have just delivered. That perhaps it will not be viable. It might collapse and all this. So they stole the money, and then they sell it out.
I think it is also born of resource curse. So you have a lot of natural resources. You have a mindset that the natural resources will always be there, when the global market had its own ideas. The available resources, to what extent they can be finite is usually not considered.
MALCOMSON: And also, I mean, usually in the resource curse, the other part of that is that the government doesn't depend on taxes from citizens for its own sustenance, so the dependency of the leadership on the citizens is missing when all of the income comes from large companies pumping things out of the ground.
JOK: Exactly. So basically, extractive industries, particularly oil and minerals and all these things, are antithetical to democracy by their very nature, in the sense that it's not taxpayers' money, and therefore, the demand to account for it is usually not as strong as it would be if people were paying taxes. And I think that is a major part in the crisis in South Sudan, where people don't know how much oil was sold, how much money came in. The oil companies and the government are the only ones who are privy to the accounts. And even watchdog groups don't have access to the records in a country where you don't have a lot of expertise in oil industry. There is no question that the people of South Sudan have been cheated by the oil companies, whether deliberately through cahoots with the government, or through lack of expert involvement of South Sudanese in the mechanics of oil production. That is definitely part of the crisis. And it is not unique to South Sudan. That was the issue in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. It's the same thing in the Cabinda enclave in Angola. All these oil-producing countries.
In terms of livelihoods and standards of living in the countries, the governments of those countries have nothing to show for the oil money. How is it that a country with so many resources so quickly returned 7 million of its people to abject poverty, even worse than the days when we were fighting. How is that possible? Well, it's not corruption only, but also mismanagement and lack of clarity about how you ran a state.
We had no clue. They spend — these leaders spent 20 years in the bush, just drawing military plans in the sand, and suddenly now thrusted into the position of power. Many of them had left as university students, never worked in their lives. So one area where they missed the mark is this idea that the oil money will always flow, when you know very well: not only is oil, and any other extractive industry, is not only free money to the leaders, it's also an industry that requires a lot of skills. So you can't think of the oil itself as a source of jobs. And so for a country like South Sudan, where 70% of the population are below the age of 35 — majority, up to 80% of them, unemployed — and the few who are employed are in the army or in some militia or the other, what you needed to think about as a leader of that country is how can oil be a source of employment, because in itself, it cannot. So if you had to make a provision, parliamentary or otherwise, an act that says 50%, 60% of the oil money will go to these projects. You can employ up to 3 million people; out of 10 million, is not bad. Three million who are employed will pay taxes. And then you can use the taxes to run the state. The other 50% will go into a future generations fund or a kind of oil destabilization account, because oil prices are so volatile and schizophrenic almost—
MALCOMSON: That's exactly what Norway did.
JOK: Exactly. So you would put a lot of money in a rainy-day account, if you wish, so that, if the oil price goes down from where was at almost 140 at one point in 2011, $140 a barrel, to below 50 at a later time in 2015, then you can take from that account to fill the gap so you can plan at a similar level of income for ten years. And not only do you employ people in the industries that are funded by the oil, but you put money away. When our first chairman of the Central Bank, Elijah Malok, was relieved, the Bank of South Sudan had $5 billion in reserve. Today, we are $5 billion in red.
MALCOMSON: The United States, United Kingdom, and Norway were heavily involved in the resolution of the conflict between South Sudan and Sudan. These three countries were so influential that they were given the nickname The Troika.
JOK: The United States and countries like UK and Norway have forged a group of countries that, because they had supported the independence of South Sudan, they feel a responsibility to see that through, a country becoming a viable state. And they have invested a lot of money: the United States, more than $11 billion in 10 years. So when South Sudan collapses, it becomes a major — not just a disappointment to Washington and Oslo and London, but almost a sense of ungratefulness on the side of South Sudanese leaders to not live up to the expectations of their backers. So when you say we no longer are going do that because you have disappointed us, and you have failed your own people, it is not just an expression of that, but it is also to listen to the African continent, because the neoliberal thinking is that Africa has to lead the way in what happens in any country — because of the neocolonial, fears of neocolonial reemergence, because there is a fear that it will be seen as arms of Western imperialism, once again pressuring local governments in Africa. So the U.S. and other countries have deferred to Africa, the AU particularly. So that is what led to this, where the U.S. is interested in doing something directly, but they feel that maybe they will be accused of imperialism. Therefore, they want to listen to the Africans, so that the AU, the IGAD, the East African Community, would be the first to say this is the solution we seek, and this is the solution that we think fits with our context. And therefore, all we need is diplomatic backing, perhaps financial backing. But the solution in the end to problems in South Sudan will be African solutions.
STANLEY: And what's being done to get there, or what still needs to be done to get there, to that point? By Africa, IGAD, or the AU.
JOK: So in 2015, there was Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan, known as ARCSS for short, in which the government and armed opposition were now required to cease hostilities, to work towards a permanent ceasefire, and to set up a government of national unity, that is, an interim government, and make plans for elections at the end of that period. The problem is that it was not crafted in a way that would make it viable, that agreement. One of the most difficult things in that agreement was the creation of two armies: that the opposition will have its own small army, a protection force to be brought to Juba to protect the former vice president — who has now been reinstated by the agreement to become the first vice president — and that he would come with some of his small force, 1,300 fighting force, whereas the bulk of the army, both the government army and the opposition army, will be cantoned in various locations throughout the country. The bringing of two armies into one capital city after having spent two years in bitter wars was not a good idea, because you needed a period for the tensions to sort of level off. But you brought them in to Juba at once in order to implement that agreement. And what happened was that the tensions and the bitterness that had grown over three years of very vicious conflict simply could not be contained in one city.
So it blew up, in 2016. And to a certain extent, people are saying that it may look like an African solution because it was mediated by IGAD. But it was actually not an African solution, because the troika was hovering over their heads to tell them to--
MALCOMSON: Meaning the U.S., UK, and Norway--
JOK: The U.S.,UK, and Norway were the ones who pushed for this agreement. And as a result, it has now become clear that the U.S., Norway, and the UK have lost that clout that they used to have, because of their heavy-handed pressure that they brought to bear on the government of South Sudan, [saying] that the government of South Sudan must really work for peace otherwise, we will all see them as unfit for partnership on peace. And that is what has been stated even more strongly by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And as a result, right now, there is another level to try to revitalize that agreement that collapsed in 2016, leading to the flight of Riek Machar, who is now in detention or house arrest in South Africa because the countries of the region said that — and the United States as well — that Riek Machar should stay away because his coming back to South Sudan will simply reignite the conflict. So then what is being done now is to try to revitalize their agreement. And that revitalization is happening in Addis Ababa under the auspices of IGAD.
But the troika are still there. At this time, the troika are no longer being seen as neutral mediators. So they simply stay in the back, and they fund the process, but are no longer the primary mediators. And as a result, even the government of South Sudan, the delegation to the Addis Revitalization Forum, are not really talking to the troika. So in a sense, the global North, the West, as it were, has actually lost its capacity to remain effective in the effort to bring peace to South Sudan.
STANLEY: Rashid Abdi is the Horn of Africa director at International Crisis Group.
ABDI: Increasingly, I think there is a lot of — and this is, again, the collapse of the whole international multilateral systems — many countries are beginning to take very individual, very, sort of, I wouldn't call it isolationist, but very individual calculations about these sorts of conflicts. On the progressive end, they tend to take a much more multilateral view of the world. But increasingly, you are beginning to find, I think, nation-states who have presence in South Sudan beginning to take individual calculations. They sometimes act as a collective. So they may come together under a troika name. But we shouldn't be fooled. Many of these countries also have their own internal friction. Like for example now, there is what they call the [Addis] Revitalization Forum, a way to revive or revitalize a peace pact which is frozen, which hasn't made any advance or any progress. And the idea is that if you bring all the actors to the original peace process into a room and basically tell them, “Look, the world is not what you think it was 10, 15 years ago. It's a much deadlier place. And interests cannot be sustained for longer. If you guys”…basically read the riot act to them. They will get a sense, and then they will speedily sign and go back and try to make something out of what was there, because I think there is also international fatigue. In other words, this is a last-ditch effort, and everybody says that. “South Sudan, we are tired; and we are tired of this constant firefighting.” So, many countries have rallied around the idea. And so you have the United Kingdom, the U.S., the Norwegians, all part of pushing the Sudanese actors into some kind of a credible way out of the current impasse. Then you also have other actors not necessarily seeing that as positive. The Ethiopians are hosting this or doing this also for their own interests.
ABDI: They have a vested interest in keeping South Sudan stable, because they share a border. But they also have a vested interest in actually keeping South Sudan away from Egypt. And the South Sudanese wanted to create a system which is a ticket out of the Addis talks, the Revitalization Forum. So they created what is called the dialogue, National Dialogue. It's a kind of a parallel stabilization/peace—
MALCOMSON: Forum, right.
ABDI: --forum, yeah. And when we were in Sudan, we talked to the guy who is the strategist behind it. He's a very prominent academic. You may have heard. He's called Francis Deng.
ABDI: Yeah, so Francis Deng, we spoke to him, and we said, Is this not a parallel process? For him, this is not a parallel process. He actually thinks this is complementary. The way he conceives of this is that the national dialogue process will, first of all, build local momentum for some kind of a resolution of local conflicts. And then the national effort will culminate into some kind of a peace pact in Addis. Then they will all come together. That's the way he conceives it. It is quite conceivable that that can happen. You can marry the [two] processes.
MALCOMSON: Right. But I assume part of what Francis Deng has in mind with this is that the realities of non-South-Sudanese players in effect potentially permanently destabilizing South Sudan because of their competing interests means that there has to be something that's more locally based. Otherwise, it'll just continue to be at the mercy of whatever calculations external players might make.
ABDI: He's right, he's right. But I think you can see the suspicion among the international community of a government that is beleaguered, then wants to basically either water down, or fight back against the international pressure, by actually creating this parallel process.
MALCOMSON: Returning again to Jok Madut Jok.
STANLEY: What can the government do at this point, where it's still an active conflict, to begin — well, one, establishing these kinds of activities of trust that are required by a government?
JOK: Well, there may be a situation of active conflict ongoing in South Sudan. But the government has the upper hand in that struggle. So the government is not engaged in conflict on a daily basis. It still has a lot of room to do good by the citizens. The government has the upper hand in the war. The government is the bigger party. And therefore, it should show leadership by saying that: The country's at a crossroads. It's now a matter of whether we will continue to exist as a country, or we'll be obliterated.
STANLEY: Next week, in episode 7, we will be discussing refugees and migration with Caroline Njuki.
MALCOMSON: Peacebuilders is produced by Matt Fidler for Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.