With South Sudan Finally Truly Independent, Time to Focus on Governance

by Herman J. Cohen

The half-century war between North and South Sudan is finally over.

Wait a minute. How can one say that the war is finally over? Wasn’t there a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brokered by the United States in 2005? Also, after a six-year transition period, didn’t the people of South Sudan vote in a democratic referendum to break away from Sudan and become an independent nation? In 2011, with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir’s visible blessing, didn’t South Sudan actually raise its own flag?

So why do I say that the war for South Sudanese independence has only now come to an end, ten years after the CPA?

Despite the CPA and the South Sudanese referendum, the Sudanese Government never accepted South Sudan’s independence, and was determined to keep the new nation destabilized and under its thumb. The Khartoum regime accepted the CPA only under very heavy pressure from the Bush (41) administration, and South Sudan’s independence in 2011 was a result of promises from the Obama administration to lift twenty-year old sanctions. (These promises were never fulfilled.) But, in their heart of hearts, real independence for South Sudan was always seen as a threat to minority Arab rule in Khartoum, and therefore unacceptable. For the Sudanese Arab ruling class, South Sudanese independence has always been viewed as the first step toward regime change in Khartoum. After the Christian/animist ethnic groups in the south broke away, the majority Muslim Africans in northern Sudan would certainly want to do the same, in Khartoum’s paranoid view.

Khartoum’s instrument for keeping the infant South Sudan nation destabilized has been Riek Machar, South Sudan’s first Vice President, and military leader of the Nuer ethnic group. Within the first twelve months of South Sudan’s independence, Machar unleashed his tribal militia, with Khartoum’s money and arms, against the elected government under President Salva Kiir. His attempt failed, but only after hundreds of thousands of people were killed, millions displaced, and much property destroyed.

Internal ethnic fighting continued sporadically through 2014 and 2015, with Riek Machar watching from exile. An African Union brokered ceasefire and new agreement for governing was signed in 2015. This agreement called for Machar to return to his original position as First Vice President under Salva Kiir. Under the agreement, he could maintain an armed contingent in the capital city of Juba. Machar’s return to the capital took place in June 2016.

In July 2016, Machar’s military group in Juba tried to achieve an armed overthrow of the Salva Kiir government while Machar was participating in a cabinet meeting with a prohibited gun in his pocket. The attempted coup was defeated, and Machar barely escaped across the border into Ethiopia before making his way to Khartoum, where he was hospitalized. For the government in Khartoum, their determination to make Riak Machar their puppet President of South Sudan was finally dead and buried.

Machar’s reinstatement as First Vice President was the most important element of the 2015 agreement designed to cement a peace deal satisfactory to the powerful Nuer. After Machar’s failed coup attempt, and his flight into exile in July 2016, President Kiir formally dismissed Machar as First Vice President, and appointed in his place a Nuer politician named Taban Deng Gai. To make sure that this appointment would stick, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry announced that the appointment of Taban Deng Gai was legitimate under the 2015 agreement.

To many observers’ surprise, Khartoum welcomed Taban’s appointment, and actually began to cooperate with him to normalize relations in a constructive way. The first action was an agreement by Khartoum, at Taban’s request, to reopen the pipelines from South Sudan’s oil fields so that a revenue stream could be recaptured by both sides.

It is clear, with Machar totally out of the picture, and with Taban as a non-threatening South Sudanese vice president, that Khartoum has finally accepted the independence of South Sudan as a reality that they must live with. President Kiir was wise to appoint Taban, who has strong administrative talents, and who has family ties in the north. Kiir needs someone like Taban to run the government because he himself finds it virtually impossible to make a decision, or to implement a decision once it is made.

While it is clear that Khartoum no longer considers the destabilization of South Sudan to be feasible nor desirable, their support for Machar’s ethnic wars has left the infant nation heavily devastated in terms of the number of people killed, displaced, and suffering from malnutrition. Compounding the problem is the fact that the people of South Sudan never had the benefits of institution building and the development of minimum infrastructure that should have come from colonialism. The British colonials allowed their highly competent Arab civil service in Khartoum to “take care” of the south. Needless to say, they did nothing. After Sudan’s independence, direct Arab rule of the south was more than neglectful. It was repressive. As a result, in my view, South Sudan is in an unprecedented pre-colonial state.

In early 2015, I recommended that South Sudan be placed under United Nations administration for a transition period of between five and ten years. Previous experiences with UN administrations in Namibia, Cambodia and East Timor were considered positive. At that time, most observers said that my recommendation was not feasible. Now, I note that senior people at the US Institute of Peace and elsewhere are making the same recommendation. People who know South Sudan well tell me that Salva Kiir could not politically accept UN administration after having fought for so many years to achieve independence. But in view of the daunting job of reconstruction and institution building that remains to be done, Salva Kiir and his government should consider inviting the UN to help build the kind of administration that South Sudan does not now possess.

A previous version of this piece said that the CPA was completed in 2006 and that South Sudan gained its independence in 2012. The text has been corrected.

Photo: Riek Machar (L), Salva Kiir (C), and South Sudanese Second Vice-President James Wani Igga (R), taken in April (Source: UN Photo via Flickr)

A 38-year veteran of the US Foreign Service, Herman J. Cohen specialized in African affaires.  His last assignment prior to retirement was Assistant Secretary of State for Africa under President George H.W. Bush. His latest book is The Mind of the African Strong Man:  Conversations with Dictators, Statesmen and Father Figures, New Academia Books, 2015.

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  1. It is always good to hear what a Foreign Service Officer with extensive experience in a region has to say about it.

    To this non-professional observer, it is too bad John Garang de Mabior is no longer alive. He was both a great rebel leader and great unifier, with bot a practical and academic education, and the long term vision to see what would be needed for the development of the South in conjunction with the North, if the North would accept a federated status. I’ve sometimes wondered if his death was due to natural causes (poor weather visibility contributing to his plane crash, or some agency or other concerned that he might chart an independent course for his country)

    He would also have prevented the looting of Southern Sudan’s valuable resources- including its fertile land that the Chinese fifty years ago projected could produce enough rice, and millet, etc. to feed the whole continent of Africa- something that has been happening.

    My sense is that the conflict will not be over until there is a resolution of who owns what in the oil producing region which straddles the North and South.

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