South Sudan’s civil war: towards a progressive analysis

The world's newest state exploded into violence at the end of 2013. The reasons are varied and defy the common, simplistic portrait of a "tribal war", says Gérard Prunier.

Gérard Prunier
2 July 2014

On 15 December 2013, South Sudan, the planet’s newest state, born in July 2011 out of a nineteen-year war of independence against its Khartoum-ruled quasi-colonial metropolis, exploded into renewed civil war. July 2011 had been a moment of unabated rejoicing and celebration, seen as the final end of many years of suffering - no wonder, for even that later conflict had been a second bout of fighting after a first, seventeen-year war. Two years and five months on, all this hope and celebration collapsed into massive bloodshed.

There was, apparently no rational cause. The “explanations” given for that sudden outburst of violence tended to be simplified and reductionist: it was described either as a “tribal war” between the majority Dinka tribe and the second-largest South Sudan tribe, the Nuer. Or, even worse, as a kind of savage fight between two rival warlords, the new country's Dinka president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and his Nuer former vice-president, Riak Machar Teny Dhurgon - who were seen as motivated by “kleptocratic interests”.

Underlying these already ugly assessments was another unspoken but ever-present “analysis”, contemptuously thrown in by Khartoum’s Arab leadership and more discreetly hinted at in London, Brussels and Washington: these people are uneducated savages who are incapable of governing themselves.

The problem with such clichés is that they are, unfortunately, partly true. For embarrassing as they can be, without their percentage of truth they would be easy to discount. And an added difficulty is that this sliver of truth, however telling it can be, is not taken as just that, an angle of vision, but rather as the truth, the be-all and end-all that explains everything.

So, in an effort at understanding what seems to be a shocking paradox - sixty years of nationalist struggle leading to independence, only to fall almost immediately into savage internecine fighting - let us try to look a little bit at the bowels of the situation.

The road to disaster

The primary cause of the problem, chronologically, is the unexamined sleepwalking into a situation of governance by an unreformed “national-liberation”, Leninist, guerrilla organisation. How did it happen? The Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) was created in 1983 by Colonel John Garang de Mabior, a Sudan army staff officer who had been teaching at the military college in Khartoum. He piggy-backed an army rebellion in the south that was motivated by a whole bevy of factors (including some very personal ones) that "globalised" the failure of the Khartoum government to honestly implement the provisions of the Addis Ababa peace agreement of 1972 which had ended the first North-South war.

The SPLA was a typical “national-liberation” movement sponsored by the Ethiopian communist regime of Menguistu Haile Mariam, with a hierarchical top-down authoritarian leadership and zero-democracy content. From the Algerian FLN to the Angolan MPLA, from the Eritrean EPLF to the Rwandese RPF, Africa is littered with the political debris of that era. The only difference between these radically anti-democratic organisations is their degree of competence. The South Sudanese SPLA was both authoritarian and incompetent. Why? Because the organisation’s absolute leader, John Garang, feared competition and managed to keep educated people at arm’s length, going as far as killing them if they insisted on pushing their way in.

The other side of the coin was that this authoritarian tyrant was at the same time an accomplished politician and even potential statesman. He was intelligent, energetic and blessed with an incredible amount of political stamina. He had a vision for Sudan which, interestingly enough, was not one of southern independence. He wanted to free the whole of Sudan and usher a revolutionary transformation of the whole country, both north and south. But his “New Sudan” dream came to an abrupt end when he died in a helicopter crash on 31 July 2005, before the peace agreement signed in Nairobi six months earlier could be implemented. By default, his much smaller successor Salva Kiir Mayardit, who knew he had no chance of winning the all-Sudan presidency in the upcoming 2010 elections, fell back onto the safety-net provided by the Machakos agreement of 2002 which gave the SPLA the right to demand a referendum on independence.

Since most of the southern population had never really bought into Garang’s comprehensive “New Sudan” dream, the support for independence was massive, 98% of voters in the referendum chose the option. But this was a triumph by default, which catapulted into power in a non-existent “state” a group of rough predatory soldiers without any political experience and a crudely Maoist vision of governance. Their power came indeed "from the barrel of a gun" - and that limited (gun)sight was usually where their perspective ended. Guns, no government and no political concept of the common good quickly led to a blunt result: a government of robbers, by robbers and for robbers.

The astonished South Sudanese population discovered to its great dismay that it had exchanged a government by Arab slavers for a government by institutionalised military thieves. 98% of the budget was financed by the oil revenues, something which gave the men in power an easily controlled centralised sucking capacity. By his own admission, President Salva Kiir reckoned in a public letter that his administration had stolen $4 billions, out of approximately $7 billions, making it one of the most parasitical “governments” on the continent; and this was probably a conservative estimate.

Absolutely no development work was undertaken during the transitional period (2005-11). After independence in 2011, the only difference in the thieving pattern was diversification: the military-grounded ruling class, which had meanwhile acquired a number of civilian hangers-on, discovered the potential of land-grabbing, influence-peddling and thin-air selling. It was within this dismal context that the problem of preparing for the 2015 elections began to surface. Since the SPLA had become a de facto one-party system, whoever won the SPLA nomination for 2015 would automatically become president, hardly even having to bother campaigning.

The tight mafia surrounding President Kiir had no intention of letting go. But it began to split into roughly three camps: those who were 100% sure that siding with a continued Kiir administration would ensure their continued capacity to steal; those who were unsure of their standing with the hard core and worried about their future; and those who knew they would be out, no matter what. Salva Kiir himself, who was in poor health and weary of carrying the burden of this dysfunctional “state” on his shoulders, wanted to give up and not even run in 2015.

Beyond categories

This is where the tribal factor kicked in. Kiir's support group, of western Dinka, did not leave him a choice and forced him into the running. External commentators have a tendency to treat the largest South Sudan tribes, Nuer or Dinka, as if they were unified, homogeneous groups. But these tribes are several millions strong and they do not exist as blocs. There are no “Dinkas” as such: there are Malwal, Awan, Tonj, Rek, Atwot, Ciec, Agar, Bor, Gok, Padang, Abyeilang, Ruweng, Ageer, Dongojol, Panaru, Ngok and many other subgroups. Same for the Nuer: there are Lou, Jikany, Gaajak, Gaajuk, Dok, Bul, Lek, Nyong, Ador, Gawaar and more. It is only from the outside that they are seen as one.

And this is not theoretical. The Rek and Awan Dinka for example support Salva 100%; the Malwal and the Atwot are of several minds; the Bor or the Ngok are frankly hostile. In fighting terms, the great battles of the civil war around Bentiu have been fought by Bul Nuer on both sides, some fighting for the government, some for the rebels. There are sub-section rivalries and personality clashes.

Is there an overall logic encompassing all this? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that being “in with” or “out of” the ruling mafia (the various Dinka sub-groups of western Bahr-el-Ghazal province) generally tended to sort out alliances. Since there is very little sense of the common good among the rulers, marginal interest-group calculations tended to determine positioning.

Yes also in the sense that those men or women who did feel that things were deeply wrong tended to regroup into a kind of loose “reformist” block. It is not all black and white: some of the “good boys” are bad and some of the “bad boys” are good. But there is a tendency for the pro-government camp and its massive conservatism to attract the worst types, such as the present new SPLA chief of staff Paul Malong Awan, a man of proven brutality, or his new secret-service nominee Marial Nur Jok, a notorious killer. There are also many careerists, such as ambassadors and other civil servants, who hang on to their positions because they fear unemployment and marginalisation.

But the answer is also no. In July 2013, when Salva Kiir was panicking about his capacity to wiggle the nomination out of an increasingly rebellious SPLA national-liberation council (the SPLA's real “parliament”), he fired his entire cabinet and his vice-president, Riak Machar. The reaction in public opinion was very mixed. Some victims of the layoffs - such as minister for higher education Peter Adwok Nyaba, deputy minister for defence Majok d’Agoot, under-secretary for youth and sports Jok Madut Jok, or security minister Gier Aluong - were lamented. Others - like SPLM national secretary Pagan Amum, finance minister Kosti Manibe, or cabinet-affairs minister Deng Alor Kuol - were seen as having received their just deserts.

That in itself is vital to understand: both the “villains” and the “heroes” were government people and they belonged to all tribes. This is a sign that the split was much more than a tribal one and that the cleavage-line, clearly evident in public opinion, was not ethnic but linked with honesty and a capacity to push for reforming a monstrously dysfunctional government system. It is at this point that it's necessary to look into the merits of the “clash of warlords”: the Riak vs Salva star wars. But that perspective does not work either.

The people's price

Why? In the first instance, because the so-called “coup” initially offered as an explanation for the explosion of violence on 15 December 2013 never happened. Even the Americans, early champions of the legitimacy of the Salva Kiir regime (their doubts are now growing), refused to accept this; the United States secretary of state Linda Thomas-Greenfield declared that, in spite of several inquiries, no evidence of a coup could be found.

There is more: the reformist camp is a hodgepodge of unlikely bedfellows regrouping Riak Machar (a Nuer), Mrs Rebecca Garang (John Garang’s widow, a Dinka), Mabior de Garang (Garang’s son, a Dinka), Peter Adwok Nyaba (a Shilluk) or Alfred Lado Gore (a Bari). But one thing unites them: they have all come to realise that South Sudan’s government is not a government, and that the state cannot continue to be ruled as the personal fief of a limited number of corrupt, officiliased warlords.

Riak Machar is only the figurehead of that reformist wing of the SPLA/SPLM - which is now beginning seriously to question the utility of that compromised label. But Riak’s strength is exactly in that heterogeneity: he is the military shield and sword of a whole slew of civilians who, without his capacity for military mobilisation, would have been wiped out by the government camp as punishment for their militancy and refusal to continue with institutionalised theft and disorder.

Both camps are extremely violent and, in the short term, the civilians are paying the price of the war: one million IDPs and 250,000 refugees abroad, almost 16% of the population directly affected (the 10,000 casualty rate of the UNMISS mission is an unrealistic evaluation of the losses; the casualties could easily reach eight or ten times that figure). Many civilians, due to the lack of information outside the urban centres, do not even know what is at stake or understand the nature of the conflict.

No peace without reform

But this does not mean that they could not grasp it if properly informed. Part of the myth about the Dinka/Nuer conflict has been brilliantly refuted by former minister Peter Adwok Nyaba in his June 1st letter of resignation from the SPLA/SPLM. Peter is a war veteran, a brilliant intellectual and a man of incontrovertible honesty, qualities rarely united in a single person in South Sudan. And he is a Shilluk, i.e. neither a Nuer nor a Dinka. He alludes to the tribalisation of political mobilisation but he never makes the mistake of seeing the war as tribal.

The last - and most hopeful – fact about this brutal crisis is the sudden emergence of a South Sudanese civil society. A year ago, it would have been difficult to identify. But in the face of what is now a struggle for survival, it has stepped forward, often with striking success. It largely comes from the diaspora as John Garang’s fear of educated competition and then later Salva Kiir’s “know nothing” style of government had obliged them to live abroad. But this makes for an astonishing flourishing and for the seeds of a potential national renewal. New political organisations are springing up everywhere, mutual-help groups appear, and rapid networking and partnering develop apace.

None of this effort is in support of the government, which is steadily moving from a lame-duck position to a sinking-ship one. Not so much through the military efforts of Riak Machar and his (mostly Nuer) fighters, although they made it possible. But it is a development where the Equatorian tribes (Bari Madi, Pojulu, Makraka, Kakwa, Lotuko, Lokoro, Moru and many others) and those of southwestern Bahr-el-Ghazal (Kresh, Fertit, Ndogo, Belanda) are now stepping forward.

During the war they were marginalised by the SPLA, which was largely a Nuer/Dinka duopoly, but they are now coming into their own. The movement is so sweeping that in early June 2014 there was a renewed flow of defections from the government, running from the Dinka general in command of the 6th division, Dau Aturjong, to the former SPLA/SPLM envoy to Brussels and New York, Francis Nazario (an Acholi), by way of the Moru revolutionary leader Richard Mulla, who fled to Nairobi, sweeping another fifteen MPs along with him.

Under these conditions it becomes somewhat unrealistic to speak of a "tribal war", even more as the rebel camp has already been received in several countries of the region (particularly in Kenya) as a quasi-state delegation. True, the coming rainy season is going to be terrible and there will be massive food problems. But peace without political reform is now a simple piece of wishful thinking. The war did not happen, as some “analysts” would have us believe, because one bunch of kleptocrats decided to fight another bunch of kleptocrats after disagreeing over the sharing of the loot, using tribe as a mobilising factor. Things are much more complicated – and even much more hopeful.

A number of people in South Sudan realised they were embarked on a governmental Titanic and they decided to jump ship. Yes, many of them have personal agendas (who does not in a revolution?) and yes, several civil servants in Salva’s regime are more guilty of timidity or careerism than of any greater crime. But the main error lies in the past: the SPLA, like several other “national liberation” movements in Africa, was given a pass mark when it applied for its promotion to government status. It had none of the qualifications and it has failed.

But there is hope: everything is being taken back to the drawing-board and, with luck and careful navigation, a rescued ship might eventually find some kind of harbour. We are not yet there. There is one positive factor, though: the hapless “international community”, mired in its own incompetence, plays very little role in all this. If the South Sudanese make it through this time, it will be due to their own capacity for organisation, their resilience, their capacity for enduring extraordinary levels of punishment and their trust in their own future.

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