Last week President Salva Kiir of South Sudan rejected all the main proposals put forward by the African Union to bring peace to Africa’s newest state. Standing on the temporary podium erected for Independence Day just over three and a half years ago, he refused all attempts at compromise with Riek Machar, the former Vice President. Standing in a black suit and cowboy hat, surrounded by praise singers, ministers, religious leaders, foreign ambassadors and school children, he read laboriously from a script. With a few thousand others I stood in the searing Sudan sun listening to his rejection of a peace deal.
No to more parliamentary seats, he said. No to more ministers. No to federation - unless the people demand it. That was, I suspect a private joke: no one is allowed to demand anything here. There were no substantive concessions to anything that Machar, now at war with the president, is demanding. President Kiir rejected the idea of a ceremonial head of state with an executive presidency. “Riek must be number two to me,” he said. He did offer an amnesty but that they “must accept the line I give them”.
This means war.
The crowd was peppered with suited security men. Some of them stopped me and asked why I was not wearing a pass. I didn’t have one. They didn’t know what to do next so I wandered freely around the podium but as I, and two western journalists left, we were stopped and questioned. “Why are you leaving before the President finished speaking? You are insulting the President.” Of course I denied it but it would have been a perfectly sensible reaction.
What, I kept thinking, have the Southern Sudanese learnt from the rest of Africa’s post-independence mistakes over the last 50 years? How could South Sudan avoid the coups and bitter personal enmities that rivals tribalised to make war on each other? Who was able to stop the gross theft of state funds? Why did so many African rulers live in paranoid secrecy and total security? Above all why did those rulers lack any interest in development for their own people? I had seen it in Idi Amin’s Uganda, in Moi’s Kenya, in Mobutu’s Congo, in Abacha’s Nigeria, in Houphouet-Boigny’s Cote d’Ivoire. And here, now, in 2015, in Africa’s newest country all those criminals are being mimicked by this scarcely literate clown in a black cowboy hat.
The rival armies have already fought a few rounds. As the war develops further a few more fighters will be killed but thousands of South Sudanese, mainly women and children, will die of preventable diseases having been forced to flee from their homes. I was in South Sudan in 1991, the last time they fell out with each other. They seemed to fight with more bitterness towards each other than they fought the Khartoum government. Whole villages were sacked and burned and women and children slaughtered. Maybe, despite being handed one of the most beautiful and potentially wealthy countries in the world, the leaders simply decided that killing, looting and raping were more rewarding than development.
There is not much to choose between the two warlords and their numerous fickle allies. Riek is admittedly a far better educated man. He holds a PhD from Bradford University in engineering and can discuss global issues with great insight and knowledge. He deploys great charm to foreigners. But he is allied to the White Army, a militia of young Nuer killers and rapists who have committed some of the worst atrocities. If the International Criminal Court had been a success, Machar would be a prime target.
Perhaps war is what they are most comfortable with. The region has been a warzone on and off for more than 1000 years. From the 10th Century, maybe longer, Arabs began to raid what is now South Sudan for slaves. In the 19th Century the British took over the region to control the Nile from the source to the sea, but their administration was more like an imperial military occupation than colonialism. There was no development for the people except what the Christian churches managed to organise. Each denomination was given an area to Christianize.
Independence came suddenly in 1956 and the south was then ruled from Khartoum. War broke out immediately but paused in 1972, which allowed 11 years of peace and a little development. That changed in 1983 when Colonel John Garang, one of the few southerners with a university education, launched the Sudan People’s Liberation Army - not to fight for independence, but to turn the whole of Sudan into a “united, democratic and secular Sudan”.
The war officially ended in a US brokered peace agreement in 2002 and South Sudan became independent with the agreement of the north nine years later. That brought another brief period of peace but also theft on a vast scale as some ministers have simply stolen the entire budgets of their departments. In 2011 the American ambassador had some of these thefts tracked, made a list of the names and bank accounts, and handed it to the President. Nothing happened. As Alex de Waal wrote in African Affairs in July last year: “Kiir’s strategy for managing the SPLM/A’s fractious leaders was to indulge their appetite for self-enrichment.” He argues that when the money ran out the recipients simply went back to war – it being what they were used to.
One positive thing that has emerged from this horrific tragedy is an African Union report that has been leaked. African Union reports do not normally leak and if they do, they are so anodyne and inconsequential that no one can be bothered to read them. But this report is different. It is bluntly honest, quotes ordinary South Sudanese, attributes blame to individuals – including the President - and recommends extraordinary measures.
It reveals that a South Sudan Army has never been created. It remains a collection of tribal militias amounting to officially, but improbably, 480,000 men. Each general – for which you can read ‘warlord’ – gets paid and is supposed to pay his men. Many do not. That is in part what caused the return to war.
Here are some of the gems from the report:
A quote from the street:
“They put a knife into what bound us, turned the crisis from political to ethnic.”
The population of South Sudan is 10 million people and its revenue is $5 billion. 75% of the population is illiterate. One in 50 dies at childbirth (this is the worst indicator in the world). There are a large number of returnees from Sudan. 70% of government budget goes to pay people in arms. Small arms are proliferating. Socially excluded youth have evolved into a volatile force, and a very large group of unemployed youth are ripe for manipulation.
The violence, which originated as a schism in the governing elite of South Sudan, targeted one particular ethnicity, the Nuer. Its intent and effect was to divide the civilian population along ethnic lines, to destroy the middle ground, thereby to polarize the society into ‘us’ and ‘them.’
“Every time we integrate, someone declares in Khartoum that we have a militia. We integrate them and give them a rank. Most of these militias are illiterate – led by illiterate Major-Generals. Even today, we have not integrated them. We tried to demobilize them, but that was difficult. You cannot demobilize someone who has a gun. You give him money under DDR. When the money is finished, he will go back to the bush.”
South Sudan has never had an election. Salva Kiir was elected Vice President of Sudan, but never President of a state called South Sudan. It is wrong to think of South Sudan as a failed state – for the simple reason that South Sudan never was a state. There was no bureaucracy, no judiciary, there was nothing to fail. There were only fighting forces, most of the time fighting one another and a make believe state whose leadership was propped up and fêted by important sections of the international community. South Sudan may exist as a state on paper, but more as a juridical fiction than an institutional reality.
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 – a political compact – has yet to be forged within the elite and between the communities that comprise the country.
Jok Madut Jok, a South Sudanese academic, described the looting spree during the CPA: “The period following 2005 was a period of entitlement, we are entitled to eat, we liberated this country. But…flagrant theft of public money created serious injustices.”
President Kiir publicly accused 75 top officials of being responsible for the cumulative theft of $4.5 billion. There are three main sources of corruption in South Sudan: oil money, government employment and land. Haile Menkerios, former Special Representative of the Secretary General of the UN (SRSG) to Sudan and South Sudan, told the Commission: “Oil revenue for Sudan as a whole was $50-60 billion from 2005 of which 50% came to South Sudan. There is nothing to show for it.” He said oil is sold in two ways, in the open market and in the spot market: “None of the spot market money got into the bank. It is divided between individuals.”
“International donors,” wrote Peter Ajak, the presidential advisor, “deployed legions of foreign technical assistants who, eager to showcase immediate results, ended up doing everything themselves, transferring little know-how to South Sudanese civil servants.”
The prime targets of large scale land acquisition, what has come to be called ‘land-grabbing’, are the areas of peasant cultivation in the south of the country, mainly Equatoria. The editor of Juba Monitor told the Commission: “Equatorians are very unhappy. Their major grievance arises from land grabbing. A lot of land around the President’s house was taken with no compensation.”
Elite reconciliation has evaded South Sudan for decades. The only program around in which different factions managed to come together was the campaign for independence. Since independence, the South Sudan political class has lacked a project around which to coalesce. The responsibility for this falls squarely on the shoulders of those who designed and steered the six year transition period ushered in by the CPA. By focusing on Sudan to the north as the enemy to be confronted the CPA lost an opportunity both to confront its past failure at reconciliation and forge a national project around which the South Sudan political elite could unite.
The split in the SPLA in 1991 was never resolved - it was simply deferred. The accommodation that was made at Wunlit in 1999 was pragmatic, not principled. Former President Thabo Mbeki recalled 1991 as a recurring theme in his discussions with President Kiir: “Salva told us: Riek killed a lot of Dinka, and we will not give him the opportunity to do so again. Rebecca (Garang) said we agree with Machar that Salva must go but I will never allow Riek to be President – never a fellow who did that.”
Hilde Johnson, UN Representative, “This crisis is beyond anything we have seen in scale, magnitude and depth. A quick fix power-sharing agreement will not work – problems of the country and leadership are too deep.” She repeated, for emphasis: “We need to re-boot South Sudan – no quick fix, no deal, will do it.”
The ambassadors of the Troika (the U.S., U.K. and Norway) agreed that President Kiir should step down and, indeed, both Kiir and Machar should both step aside.
The British envoy: “Dinka without Kiir will not settle; Nuer without Machar will not settle; and yet, the two will not work together.” The US envoy said “there is so much hatred they can’t move forward even with both of them there.” The Norwegian envoy concurred: “There is no reflection yet on why things went wrong.”
Commission therefore recommends a transitional period with three distinctive features: (a) a High Level Oversight panel to guide the period of transition; (b) a transitional government that excludes those politically accountable for the crisis; and (c) a transitional program that address the question of justice in different forms.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.