The Cruel Emptiness of “Peace by Proxy” in South Sudan

[Note: This post has been modified for tone and accuracy.]

There’s is quite a lot more to the domestic realpolitik South Sudan and the spirit of the South Sudanese people than the author and other journalists seem aware of.

Author Austin Bay at demonstrates this critical misunderstanding when he calls President Kiir’s reformation of South Sudan’s 10 states into 28 “another example of a leader and his elite cadre undermining a political agreement that would have halted an impoverishing war”. (Source: South Sudan’s President Undermines Peace Deal,

Mr. Bay is wrong, at least about the viability of the agreement, and possibly naïve if he thinks South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar would not violate (or let be violated) a peace agreement if it would give his faction an advantage over that of his rival President Kiir.

In fact the failure of the United Nations, USA, U.K., et al. to see the reality of South Sudan has directly led to the country’s current level of violence. A similar misunderstanding tainted the 2014 peace agreement so wholly disconnected from the facts — it would certainly not have halted the war, since it ignored the needs of South Sudan’s communities while neglecting both the war’s real causes and the means of negotiating a real peace.

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Before South Sudan became a nation in 2011, “South Sudan” was an identity ascribed to a confederation of sub-Saharan ethnic groups. What mainly united that confederation was the response to an exogenous threat: South Sudanese opposition to the depredations of the northern Sudanese (enslavement, deliberate economic underdevelopment, etc.)

The title of “nation” followed independence and the South Sudanese have in them the promise of great things. But the reality — the confederation — was pulled apart by endogenous conflicts of interest.

On one side of those conflicts, elites were maneuvering to monopolize control of land, natural resources (mainly oil) and other commercial interests. On the other side were communities mobilizing for what they had fought for at such great loss: economic opportunity, public services (medical care, education), political representation, and peace most of all.

Both elites and these agitated communities knew the use of violence (or the threat thereof) to succeed where bargaining failed to deliver results. It’s not just human nature but also a strategy that had just won the South Sudanese their independence.

The playing out of these conflicting interests (especially elite maneuvering) hampered the already complex challenge of fulfilling South Sudan’s obligations to its communities a difficult environment: scarcely any physical infrastructure (roads, telephone, electricity, sanitation) or economic investment. Sudan’s government (as had their predecessors the Egyptians and Ottomans) succeeded at keeping South Sudan as deprived and isolated as possible.

Greed and need forcing an irreversible escalation of violence, resulting in another civil war: this was the greatest threat facing the young nation of South Sudan. Working against this return to war was — together with the indomitable will of the South Sudanese people and what oil revenue remained after Sudan’s predatory pipeline transit fees — a massive program of foreign aid, loans, and charities.

For a while it seemed this combined effort would keep the nascent South Sudanese nation moving forward. South Sudanese communities were finding peaceful solutions to local conflicts (e.g. over land and cattle). Landmines were being removed so farmers could work their land. A new generation full of hope was taking advantage of the peace by going to school, finding work and starting their own businesses.

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Perhaps too many bad things happened at once, or not enough good things happened in time. Investors were slow to put money into a newly formed African country. The global price of oil continued to fall. Neither the South Sudanese government nor local organizations nor international aid groups could meet demands for basic services. Tensions rose between the two leading political factions, who were also the two largest armed ethnic groups.

The fighting began in Juba and then moved to the northern states. Like Europe during the Thirty Years War, there was massive destruction of lives and property by the two main armies and quasi-aligned militias driven by opportunism (using the war as a pretense to seize property) and legitimate grievances (retaliation or defense). Communities drawn into the conflict would form new militias, attack one another, link up with a larger army, disband or switch factions.

The violence spawned further violence even as it deprived the war of oxygen. Eventually the main armies depleted their own financial resources, the fighting totally disrupted oil production and the international community imposed sanctions (of debatable effect) against leaders on both sides of the conflict. The lack of funds was hampering each faction’s ability to pay (let alone equip and feed) their regular forces. Militias aligned with one side or the other were frequently switching sides in pursuit of money or the promise of political favors.

What brought the warring parties to sign a deal in 2014 wasn’t a mutual commitment to peace or that the agreement seemed viable. It was a mutual expectation of funding and support from the International Community.

President Kiir needs both in order to keep the support of his army and deliver at least a minimum of government services to the people of South Sudan. Likewise with Dr. Machar; though he would just as willingly ride into office on a tank, a ballot blessed by the International Community is a more comfortable way to travel (and he wants to inherit the country intact).

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If an earlier lack of money stopped the worst of the fighting in South Sudan, a continuing lack of money will start the fighting again.

No matter how loudly the USA, the United Nations and the U.K. call attention to the signed 2014 agreement, the only way the heads of South Sudan’s leading groups can cement a new confederation for peace is a negotiated distribution of political offices and money. President Kiir’s and Dr. Machar’s factions see each other as mortal threats to themselves and the nation of South Sudan — for now, anything less than a balance of power with room to maneuver an unacceptable alternative to the battlefield.

That is the only alternative to a resumption of organized violence, since an Iraq-style regime change by U.S. Marine Corps is out of the question. “Plata O Plomo” (silver or lead, i.e. the bullet or the cash) — this is what researcher Alex De Waal calls Africa’s “Political Marketplace”.

Yet there is little money coming from the West even though it was promised as a “carrot” for signing the 2014 peace deal, because the condition for the “carrot” — i.e. the formation of a government — is unmet. In any case the West’s promised carrots rarely materialize in the Sudans — ask a South Sudanese about American private sector investment or a Khartoum official about reduced economic sanctions and removal from the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list.

Money from South Sudan’s petroleum industry is likewise insufficient, since the international oil market is still tanked (and Sudan still takes the majority of South Sudan’s oil revenue as transit fees). Even China and the United Arab Emirates have stopped writing checks.

This is the real context of President Kiir’s ordering the redesign of South Sudan’s 10 states into 28. It adds more bargaining chips to the table (and replaces a previous configuration that was insufficient to prevent the last war). Kiir’s government has also unpegged the South Sudanese Pound from the US Dollar in order to restore Dollar reserves. An added bonus for President Kiir: these measures don’t just put more on the bargaining table — they also provide money for his faction’s war chest.

Still, even this negotiating ammunition cannot achieve peace in South Sudan. As long as the parties lack sufficient money and political offices the negotiation will remain stalled, the peace agreement will remain unimplemented and the threat of a return to largescale fighting will come closer to fruition.

As long as the parties lack sufficient money and political offices the negotiation will remain stalled, the peace agreement will remain unimplemented and the threat of a return to largescale fighting will come closer to fruition. There is no “Peace by Proxy” and reality will not bend to a document signed out of convenience rather than conviction.

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Peace among South Sudan’s warring parties must be bought with money and political power. Only in that purchased peace would the parties have opportunity to try trusting one another in the game of political Give and Take.

Perhaps too in the breathing room afforded by that peace, the communities of South Sudan could create something better than their current government. They certainly have the right to do so — along with the natural resources, character, imagination and spirit.

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