Who’s to blame for the political violence in South Sudan? What is the way forward?

Saturday July 16 2016

Steven, a young orphaned boy from the recent fighting in Juba who has lost his family from the fighting in Munuki stands on July 12, 2016 in Juba. AFP PHOTO | CHARLES LOMODONG

Since Independence Day in July 2011, South Sudan 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, chaired by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.

The commission spent several months in South Sudan. When it 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 characterised 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.

Ethnic lines

Two main ethnic groups dominate South Sudan: Dinka (the larger group) and Nuer. Juba is settled along ethnic lines, and the killings in the capital at the end of 2013 — by Dinka militias — were organised 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, polarising 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 at 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 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. By the time he called for the NLC to meet on December 14, the stage was set for a showdown.

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.

The people who carried out the killings from December 16–18 were mostly from Bahr el Ghazal.

Nuer communities in Juba responded to the killings with a rebellion and a local uprising. Community-based fighting formations outside Juba known as the White Army, 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.

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. External factors militated in favour 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 US 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.

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 US intervention against an African country identified as an enemy in the war on terror, Khartoum would not have signed the agreement.

Who determines terms of peace?

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-militarised political opposition, both in Sudan and the country that was about to come into being, was thoroughly marginalised.

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 terrorised, starved, bombed, and brutalised, 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, the rigging of the referendum on self-determination, which produced a 99.8 per cent 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.

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 organisation 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 demilitarised 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 the 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 demilitarisation and democratisation 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 demilitarisation of Juba is a starting point; for it to continue, demilitarisation 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.

Prof Mahmood Mamdani is the director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research