South Sudan has been independent for nearly three years. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which had fought a decades-long war from the Republic of Sudan, assumed control of the government and began state-building.
By last July, ruling party rifts were playing out in public.
President Salva Kiir sacked a cabinet of dissenting voices, including vice president Riek Machar. In December, Machar and others had complained about a lack of democracy in decision-making in the government and party. Days later, fighting broke out in military barracks in Juba and the president accused Machar of attempting a coup – a charge Machar has denied. Machar and forces loyal to him fled the capital and regrouped to fight the government.
Observers say tensions had been growing for some time.
US special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, was a participant at a recent roundtable discussion on the situation at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.
Shrinking polical space
He said the violence represents a failure of leadership on all sides:
"Development efforts were given a back seat to individual ambitions," he explained. "The government attempted to contain and quell intercommunal violence without fully committing to the hard work of addressing its causes: economic disparity, historical grievances against other communities and political grievances due to real or perceived underrepresentation and disproportionate political influence at all levels of government.
"Institutions that were understandably weak at independence were allowed to stagnate, while the political elite vied instead for power in an ever - shrinking political space."
The Government of South Sudan rejects the accusation that there was a lack of political diversity in the government.
The Ambassador of South Sudan to the United States, Akec Khoc Aciew Khoc,
who was a guest of the Washington discussion, said the government did include consultations with other parties. He cited policies put in place following the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Republic of Sudan in 2005.
"All the actors following the conclusion of the CPA," asserted Khoc, have had [a high level of] political space allotted to them. The government included all the political parties in its governance. Many of [those who] today feel excluded were very much in charge of running the show: the implementation of CPA, organizing elections [in 2010] and the referendum [on independence in 2011], overseeing economic development. It is not fair to assume that political space was reduced for those who are in opposition today.
From liberation to governance
Another panel participant, Jok Maduk Jok, said it was clear the liberation movement that had led South Sudan to independence was having trouble in its transition to ruling party – and to governing effectively.
Jok, the executive director of the Sudd Institute in Juba and professor of history at Loyola Marymount University in California, said "the lavish expenditures in state capitals and Juba is quite visible [ but few services in rural areas]. All of this was bound to cause an explosion – it was just a matter of time . What we didn’t know was what shape it would take: a popular uprising like the North African [Arab Spring] protests, or more rebellions by army commanders. [Would there be] more intensity in tribal militia wars or more civil contests of power within the SPLM leadership?"
The South Sudan analyst also said the military had become unmanageable, and costly. He said it’s the largest institution in the country, and absorbs up to 60% of the national budget. The government integrated opposition militias into the army, which led to a military – in his words -- “without ethos” or shared values. However, Jok said over half of the army is still made up of one ethnic group [Dinka], and fails to reflect national diversity.
The analyst said the government has also failed to find work for youth. He said over 70% of the population is under 30 years of age, and are susceptible to calls to take up arms to improve their lives.
According to Jok, the government has also failed to effectively advance reconciliation. Instead, violence continued after the signing of the CPA.
Ambassador Booth said the way forward includes an end to impunity for those behind attacks on civilians.
A way forward
"Those responsible for perpetrating human rights violations need to be held accountable, and the nation must invest in political reconciliation processes that can can support political dialogue and reform going forward," he said. "The African Union is establishing a commission of inquiry for South Sudan which we believe can serve as credible mechanism to ensure accountability for atrocities. We urge that this mechanism move forward expeditiously on its work."
Some human rights activists support the work of the government-appointed Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation, which is chaired by Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan [and Bishop of Juba Diocese], Daniel Deng Bul and co-chaired by Bishop Emeritus of the Roman Catholic Church, Paride Taban.
However, analyst Jok Maduk Jok is skeptical of its ability to promote reconciliation.
"There’s nothing wrong with having church leaders lead reconciliation," said Jok. But we have to look at the personalities and the history of ethnic relations in South Sudan… Daniel Deng comes from an ethnic group [Dinka] accused by other ethnic groups of all types of issues – and to lead it you need someone who is more acceptable to everyone. So a look at a more comprehensive reconciliation process that every one will buy into [is necessary]….
"The impunity of past must stop, because it is one of the reasons for the revenge and counter revenge going on. This would need to be built into any political settlement that emerges from Addis."
US envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Donald Booth said Washington supports mediators in the Ethiopian capital – who have been instructed to develop a framework for the next phase of negotiations in South Sudan. He said the process should include public consultations, including participants from across society: women, youth, the internally displaced, the diaspora, and opposition political parties
Ambassador Khoc said the government supports such an approach– and has invited leaders of the political opposition including Lam Akol of the SPLM-DC, or Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – Democratic Change, and [Luo] militia leader David Yao Yao.
Roundtable panelists also warned against allowing the manipulation of humanitarian aid by armed actors. They said it relieves them of the responsibility of feeding their people, allowing them to spend funds on waging war…and prolonging conflict. They said Khartoum used this to its advantage in the long war against southern independence, extending the region’s fight to become a separate nation by years.
Booth warned against what he called “business as usual” and “a quick fix and political accommodation for elites.” That would be a recipe, he said, for renewed conflict.