Personality conflicts, proxy wars to blame for South Sudan’s slide toward genocide

Saturday May 3 2014

Peter Kagwanja

Peter Kagwanja 

By Peter Kagwanja

When you see vultures gathering, there is a carcass or something is about to die. Vultures have been hovering over South Sudan.”

This is how South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir prefaced his speech to African leaders at the 3rd Tana High Level Forum on African Security at the Ethiopian lakeside resort of Bahir Dar on April 26.

Coming four months after South Sudan fell into violent conflict, this statement is chilling. Africa’s youngest nation is hurtling down the road to genocide. A comprehensive agenda for peace is needed to silence the guns, halt the killings and put the country back on the road to peace and development.

Complex conflict

Two inter-linked narratives explain the conflict in South Sudan. The first is that the conflict is ethnic, not so different from the one that rocked Rwanda in 1994 or Kenya in 2008.

The conflict pits the two largest communities, President Kiir’s Dinka and the Nuer, led by his former deputy Riek Machar, against each other.


The second theory is that the war is a battle for the soul of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) and South Sudan between the president and Dr Machar.

A clear understanding of the dynamics of the clash of ethnicities and personalities in the conflict is important in resolving the conflict and building lasting peace. The immediate trigger of the conflict is also clear.

It started as a quarrel within the Presidential Guard that quickly morphed into a gun fight between Nuer and Dinka officers and quickly spread into Juba and the oil-rich Unity and Jonglei States. The president saw the rebellion as an attempted coup led by Dr Machar, who denied the claim.  

But Juba’s meltdown is conceptually and systemically rooted in the failure of state formation in South Sudan. It signifies the collapse of the nationalist consensus, which held together the fractious elite at the helm of the ruling SPLM.

As Prof Mahmoud Mamdani has rightly argued, “The immediate background to the crisis is the declining support for Kiir,” who had hitherto monopolised the party and state power.

Proxy wars

Jolted by rumours about an impeding coup in late 2012, President Kiir purged the military, government and party of officers and leaders suspected of disloyalty, and concentrated power in his hands, turning South Sudan over to a “one-man rule.”

In July 2013, he dismissed Dr Machar as vice-president along with the entire Cabinet and disbanded all the top-level organs of SPLM in November. Dr Machar and his supporters accused the president of dictatorship and declared that he would run in the 2015 presidential election.

Externally, a web of proxy wars involving the long-standing Sudan-Uganda rivalry and the Ethiopia-Eritrea supremacy conflict is fuelling South Sudan’s conflict.

Although Ethiopia provided diplomatic support to end the South Sudan conflict, Uganda intervened militarily in support of President Kiir.

Sudan and Eritrea have closed ranks on the Juba issue. Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir travelled to Asmara in January and, on return to Khartoum, he demanded that Uganda pull out its forces out of South Sudan, warning that Kampala’s military presence threatened Sudan’s national security.

Humanitarian crisis

Later, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) officials claimed that they had intercepted a barge ferrying arms from Khartoum to the rebels. This appeared to corroborate the claims that the arms being used in the rebellion are coming from Sudan and Eritrea.

The conflict has caused a profound political and humanitarian crisis that has killed thousands of people and displaced over a million others, with 200,000 of them crossing into neighbouring Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya. 

UN experts in Juba are warning that “the greatest death toll of this crisis may not come from the killings, but from hunger and disease.” The UN estimates that 3.7 million South Sudanese are at severe risk of food insecurity.

Incipient genocide

From the outset, the conflict in Sudan raised the fear of genocide. The threat of genocide loomed even larger as the rebels took over Bentiu, the capital of the oil-rich Unity state.

On April 21, a statement by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said that the rebels had committed atrocities against civilians, separating residents according to their ethnicity before killing hundreds of unarmed civilians who had taken refuge in churches, mosques and hospitals. 

The atrocities targeted Nuers perceived not to support the rebels, non-Nuers and Sudanese refugees, mainly Darfuris aligned to the Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which the rebels accuse of fighting for President Kiir.

Reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide, the rebels have broadcast hate speech and urged “vengeful sexual violence against women from another ethnic community” on the local radio network.

The rebels’ plan is to destabilise or take over oil fields in the Unity and Jonglei states in order to economically choke the government — which draws 80 per cent of its revenue from oil — into submission. Already, oil production has dropped from 150,000 barrels per day to 50,000 barrels.

Preventing genocide

The atrocities in South Sudan are becoming a stain on the conscience of East Africa, galvanising action at multiple levels.

In a statement released on April 25, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is the chair of the East African Community (EAC) Summit, said: “We refuse to be witnesses to such atrocities and to remain helpless and hopeless in their wake. We especially reject the possibility that we are creeping into genocide again in our region. We shall not stand by and allow it to happen.”

This fear of another genocide its effectively transforming the EAC’s security architecture. On April 23, a meeting of East African defence and military officials held in Rwanda unveiled plans to establish the Eastern African Standby Force (EASF) by December 2014.

Besides combating terrorism, the force will also intervene to prevent conflicts. The regional force was the centrepiece of a meeting of the EAC Heads of State in Arusha on April 30.

But if its launch is delayed, the EASF may be too late. The warring parties have violated a ceasefire agreement signed in January 2014, brokered by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad).

But the peace talks are poised to resume in Addis Ababa on May 5. Juba has softened by releasing and dropping charges against four prominent politicians detained in December 2013.

On March 12, the African Union appointed a five-member commission led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to investigate reports of atrocities and human-rights violations, and make recommendations on the best ways to ensure accountability, reconciliation and nation building in South Sudan.

Diplomatic pressure

The West and the United Nations have stepped up diplomatic pressure, using peace talks and the threat of sanctions as tools.

On April 4, US President Barack Obama signed an executive order that authorised sanctions against anyone harming peacekeepers and abusing human rights or aggravating the conflict in South Sudan. 

On April 27, Secretary of State John Kerry called on President Kiir to halt the ongoing military offensive against the rebels and instead pursue a diplomatic solution.

Mr Kerry also asked the president to allow for UNMISS, the African Union Commission of Inquiry, and the Igad Monitoring and Verification Mechanism access throughout South Sudan to try to stop the conflict.

And ahead of a visit to Ethiopia on April 30, Mr Kerry told the Voice of America that the Obama administration is “very, very closely” looking at possible sanctions on people encouraging unrest in South Sudan.

The UN Security Council has threatened to impose sanctions against the government and rebel forces for targeting civilians. This followed increased attacks on UN sites.

On February 10, government troops and policemen surrounded the UN base in Juba demanding that the UN surrender Nuer civilians sheltering there. And on April 17, a group of people posing as peaceful protesters trying to present a petition to the UN stormed the UN base in Bor and shot at 5,000 people sheltering there, killing at least 58 and wounding more than 100.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the top UN official in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, warned that the world body would do “everything necessary to protect the lives of people in our protection, including the use of lethal force.”

The UN is also focusing on crimes arising from the conflict. On April 28, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dispatched two top UN officials — Navi Pillay, a leading human rights expert, and Adama Dieng, the UN’s Special Envoy for the Prevention of Genocide — to investigate the conflict.

Agenda for peace

There is no silver bullet to solve the South Sudan crisis. However, a five-point agenda for peace is likely to silence the guns, stop the slide into genocide and restore peace, democracy and development.  

  • Agree on a transitional government and a comprehensive reform agenda: The Igad-led peace talks should agree on an all-inclusive transitional government of national unity as a framework for implementing a comprehensive reform agenda to establish a democratic constitution, viable institutions, a mechanism for reconciliation and cohesion and a credible judicial system to tackle atrocities and arbitrate disputes, especially those relating to future elections. 
  • Form a strong regional stabilisation force: The African Union, Igad and EAC need to move quickly to establish a regional stabilisation force to restore law and order in South Sudan. The formation of the East African Standby Force is a giant step forward in this direction. 
  • Create and train an ethnically inclusive professional national army: An inclusive and professional South Sudan National Defence Force (SSNDF) and a disciplined and professional National Police Force should be formed.
  • Neutralise spoilers: The AU and the international community should help end proxy wars that continue to aggravate conflict in South Sudan.
  • Hold democratic elections: The African Union and South Sudan’s neighbours should assist South Sudan to prepare for and hold democratic elections in the shortest time possible to bring into power a legitimate and accountable government. 

This is urgent.

Prof Peter Kagwanja is the chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute. This article is part of the institute’s Citizen Security Project.