Since violence first broke out on 15 December, the conflict in South Sudan has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more. Representatives of President Salva Kiir and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar, are meeting in Addis Ababa to attempt to negotiate a settlement and a cease-fire. Meanwhile, think tanks, academics and experts have been scrambling to explain the causes of the bitter acrimony and bloodshed that has engulfed the country.
What is the role of the armed forces?
“The current conflict has three main dimensions - a political dispute within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM); a regional and ethnic war; and a crisis within the army itself,” Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed wrote in Foreign Affairs.
International Crisis Group notes: “What has for some time been a political crisis within the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) has now spilled over into an army that has long been riven by internal problems, including ethnic divisions and tensions. The blurred lines between these institutions, senior political figures and ethnic communities - as well as wide-scale arms proliferation - make the current situation particularly volatile.”
The dysfunctional army, de Waal and Mohammed argue, traces back to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005: “When the CPA was signed, the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] was, in fact, just one of many military forces in South Sudan. Arguably as strong as the SPLA was the rival South Sudan Defense Forces, which is organized and funded by Khartoum and has a strong ethnic-regional base. Many feared a southern civil war following the peace with the north. But Kiir, newly installed in 2005, reached out to the SSDF leadership and other militia commanders to offer them membership in both the army and government.”
The government spent 55 percent of their budget on defence, and more than 80 percent of that went to the salaries of the more than 200,000 people employed by the SPLA. “Over time, the payout created insurmountable obstacles to army reform and professionalization. The army was little more than a coalition of ethnic units tied together by cash handouts,” they said.
Jok Madut Jok, executive director of the Sudd Institute, a think tank in Juba, also points to the fissures built up during previous conflicts. “Intense competition for political power within the ruling SPLM was bound to spark violence, as it was likely to touch the wounds of the last three decades of liberation wars, during which South Sudanese had turned guns against one another over leadership of the movement.”
These conflicts “were often patched up or swept under the rug in the interest of keeping the eyes on the common goal, but they were never sufficiently resolved, and far too many communities were left wanting for justice.”
He mainly blames the outbreak in violence on “the failure of the post-war development programs to meet the dividends that the citizens highly expected going into independence”. Most people in the country have not seen the development, wealth, reconciliation and security that they expected when South Sudan became an independent state.
What about ethnicity?
Hannah Bryce, an international security expert at Chatham House, argues that this has been primarily an ethnic conflict: “The dynamics of the leadership struggle between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and former vice president Riek Macher, a Nuer, colours politics throughout the country, illustrating the prevalence of political tribalism at the highest office.” She also argues that there is a strong perception by other ethnic groups that the SPLM and SPLA are dominated by the Dinka.
But Amir Idris, a professor and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, strongly disagrees. “Much of the colonial writing on the social and political cultures of South Sudan have focused on two groups: the Dinka and the Nuer. Very few have focused on other ethnic groups. Politics, therefore, came to be seen and defined through the lenses of these two groups.
“It is inaccurate to interpret the recent political crisis as an ethnic conflict between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, for it assumes that the political stability can be restored if the two ethnic groups agree to share political power,” he said.
He notes that the participation of all groups in peace agreements is crucial to the success of peace talks. “The ongoing conflict is neither ethnic nor cultural; it’s a political one. Second, these conflicting ethnic identities, such as the Nuer and the Dinka, are not static. They could become peaceful identities if the state was redefined and restructured in a way that makes the managing of and coexistence between overlapping identities possible in postcolonial South Sudan,” he said. This, he thinks, requires a political solution.
Are administration failures to blame?
Steve McDonald, director of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center, says top leaders failed to do their jobs. “Since independence, the government of South Sudan has been wracked with incompetence, malfeasance and corruption,” he said. “Elites were lining their pockets, while the vast majority went hungry. Warlords were making deals with international entrepreneurs in their sectors, but the central government seemed totally ineffective.”
Alex Vines of Chatham House, in an opinion piece in The Guardian, wrote, “This current conflict is about poor political leadership within a country that is still in need of a massive state-building exercise.”
He added: “An elite power struggle within the tiny leadership looks to be drawing the whole country into a full civil war that is rapidly developing ethnic dimensions.”
John Campbell, senior fellow for African Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that poor leadership has resulted from structural problems. “The SPLA was a liberation movement, not a political party. Beyond independence and ‘development’, it has no coherent political program.”
“It is apparent that South Sudan, two years after independence, is yet to establish legitimacy as a state with a functioning government that can keep its people safe and provide services to them,” said Josephine Kibe and Mwangi S. Kimenyi of the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative. They accuse the top leaders of corruption. “The legitimacy of the state can only be achieved if it provides essential services such as education, health and security to the citizens,” they wrote.
What was the international community’s role?
“While commentators can argue about who or what is most at fault in this terrible turn of events, one fact is clear: the international community - the many regional and international players who have been supporting the transition in South Sudan - shoulders some of the responsibility,” said Sara Pantuliano, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute.
She notes that the international community had “high expectations for peace” after the CPA was signed, and looked at the north-south conflict as the main obstacle to peace, failing to focus on divisions within the south.
“Concerns and warnings about the role that patronage and ethnicity play in South Sudan’s politics, as well as calls to better understand the causes of vulnerability, power relations and drivers of instability, were largely ignored.” The international community focused on development-based “technical” fixes, according to Pantuliano.
“Many in the aid sector in South Sudan have been operating on the assumption that greater development - improved services, infrastructure, access to food - would lead to stability and lasting peace,” she said. “Technical fixes have failed South Sudan: it’s time to put politics at the heart of the nation-building project at last.”
How to get justice and accountability?
An article for the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), by Princeton Lyman, Jon Temin and Susan Stigant, called the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-hosted talks in Addis Ababa between the Kiir and Machar camps a “positive first step to bring an immediate end to the killing, destruction and displacement.”
However, they noted that “this is only the first of many steps. Horrific as the violence since mid-December has been, the crisis also presents an opportunity to address unresolved issues and put South Sudan back on the path of democratization, good governance and peace - a path from which it deviated well before the current crisis.”
“Peace processes in South Sudan have a long track record of prioritizing reconciliation at all costs and failing to secure remedies for people affected by conflict,” note David Deng, research director for the South Sudan Law Society (SSLS), and Elizabeth Deng, a human rights lawyer based in Nairobi. “To avoid repeating past mistakes, an integrated process of truth-telling, justice and reconciliation should be included in any mediated agreement between Kiir and Machar.”
The authors suggest establishing a hybrid court, administered by both national and international staff, similar to those employed in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Kosovo and Cambodia. “Given the lack of capacity, credibility and independence of the justice system, it is clear that without international support, impartial investigations and prosecutions cannot take place,” they said.
“Whatever solutions [are] arrived at, they must include some form of justice mechanism built into the final deal so as to ensure that the victims of these atrocities are not just swept aside as collateral damage, as they were under the CPA,” said Jok, of the Sudd Institute.
Beyond the current crisis, USIP recommends restarting the constitution-writing process. “The process of developing a permanent constitution has the potential to be a vehicle for nation building and reform in South Sudan.”
But for the process to be meaningful, “there must be sufficient resources and support,” they argue. “There must be an understanding that constitution-making is not strictly a technical exercise. Rather, constitution-making should be a vehicle to define a national vision, forge a national identity, and rebuild trust between citizens and leaders, among citizens and between communities.”
“Ultimately, any solution that fails to change the fundamental way politics is done in South Sudan is no solution at all,” said Peter Greste, a journalist for Al Jazeera. “If we wind up with a 'power sharing' deal that papers over the structural cracks without tackling the political culture, the country will settle back into an uneasy calm but it will, inevitably, explode once again.”