Largely knocked out of the news by the crises in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Gaza (to name a few), a civil war has nonetheless devastated South Sudan since December 2013. It has left thousands dead and more than a million have been internally displaced or forced into refugee camps.
The recent shooting down of a UN helicopter briefly restored the country to the international headlines—but this isolated incident is just the latest outrage in the short history of the world’s youngest country, which still faces a deeply uncertain future.
Journalistic accounts of the conflict’s origins, where they exist, usually highlight historical rivalries between the president, Salva Kiir, and his former vice president—now rebel leader—Riek Machar, and ethnic warfare between the Dinka and Nuer people.
This narrative is a highly simplistic way of explaining what’s been happening in South Sudan. But it does at least point to the ultimate source of the problems: the interplay of complex historical identity politics and shameless, short-term elite politicking. This toxic blend is what makes South Sudan’s current crisis so difficult to explain.
The helicopter incident, which killed three crew members and seriously injured another, nonetheless demonstrated just how inadequate most current analysis of the South Sudanese situation really is.
The received wisdom is that South Sudan’s independence was won by a single, united movement, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), whose protracted war against the government in Khartoum over several decades led to a peace agreement in 2005, and then the 2011 independence referendum.
The violence that broke out in December 2013 was an internal SPLA conflict between factions loyal to Kiir and Machar. This echoed an old and traumatic rift in the movement in the early 1990s, which took a decade to undo and which has left deep scars on the Juba elite.
But the faction apparently responsible for the downing of the UN helicopter is formally independent of both Kiir and Machar (though at present pragmatically aligned with the latter), and consists of the remnants of a separate rebel movement, the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA).
Its leader, Peter Gadet, was originally a member of another rebel group, the South Sudan Defence Force. He joined the SPLA in 2006 but left to found the SSLA in 2011, claiming to be dissatisfied with the Juba administration’s narrow division of the spoils of war along ethnic lines, and its favouring of powerful allies.
Peter Gadet addresses troops in 2008, before he left the SPLA. Tim McUlcka/UN/EPA
Gadet’s SSLA was re-integrated into the SPLA (by then the South Sudanese military) later in 2011. But last December it mutinied and, in alignment with Machar’s rebel soldiers, its members seized the town of Bor in the oil-rich Jonglei state.
Gadet is not the only rebel leader to control a swathe of South Sudan without being a formal part of either warring faction. Nor are his troops the only active militia to have grown up outside the SPLA during the civil war, been integrated into the movement and then left it in disgust at their meagre rewards.
The truth is that the SPLA was, and remains, just one of many military organisations in South Sudan; it is simply the largest and best resourced. Most of the country’s political difficulties stem from the Juba administration’s failure to bring these other myriad groups to the negotiating table.
That failure, in turn, reflects the regime’s abysmal record of cronyism. Keeping the short-term support of key allies by doling out state resources and offices to them, at the expense of outsiders, has been Kiir’s modus operandi ever since he took charge of the SPLA in 2005.
That has turned the nascent South Sudanese state into little more than a slush fund for rewarding and paying off particularist groups. Three years after winning independence, it is as far as ever from unity, peace and prosperity.
So much for the government, then, but Machar’s rebels, the principal opposition in the continuing conflict, are doing little better.
I spent some time in the presence of the rebel delegation to the Addis Ababa peace talks in March-May this year. What was disquieting was not so much the disproportionate time spent by its members in swanky hotel bars and restaurants rather than the mostly empty conference rooms, but the rate at which splits visibly opened up both within the delegation and between it and the rebel leadership it represented.
Rebel leader Riek Machar.EPA
Over the course of several weeks, I could see the rebel cause steadily fragmenting into ever-smaller pieces, with each faction becoming absorbed in grievances ever more removed from those of the people they claimed to represent.
The violence of recent months and the stagnant peace deliberations should not be seen as merely the birth pangs of a new nation. What is happening in South Sudan today is not inevitable; nor is it a painful-but-necessary part of the nation-building process. It is what happens when rebels fight for—and win—power without a post-victory plan.
Failure to launch
The SPLA is only the latest insurgency to become a government in this part of the world; Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Eritrea, for instance, are all ruled by former guerrilla movements. What distinguishes those groups from the SPLA, though, is that they all had a vision for government while “in the bush”.
That meant that, once in power, each movement aimed to use its new-found authority to tackle the political, religious and especially ethnic divisions that had driven them to rebel in the first place. Though these regimes have since reneged on many of their founding principles—particularly regarding democracy—they at least remain theoretically committed to building new societies and states rather than just preserving themselves and their allies.
Their counterparts in Juba, however, failed to agree on their vision for the country during much of the war against Khartoum. Eventually, they were able to unite around the most basic one: independence. Now the country has it, South Sudan’s elite needs to look beyond itself to the people it seeks to govern for a sense of what the country wants and needs.
As this year’s negotiations have shown, that cannot be done from luxury hotels in Addis Ababa or mansions in Nairobi.
Jonathan Fisher has previously received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. He also held an Honorary Research Fellowship in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Africa Directorate between 2013-2014. He has participated in several rounds of regional workshops on Eastern African security relationships funded and facilitated by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES)'s Addis Ababa Office since October 2013 and part of this article's analysis is based on insights garnered during a trip to Ethiopia partly-financed by FES.