Understanding the Suicidal War in South Sudan
This is one of the best analysis of the South Sudan crisis we have seen. We liked it so much we are posting an English translation from the original French article as a guest blog.
Translated from the French for AidLeap by Abiol Deng.
Africa’s newest state, South Sudan, is the scene of a deadly conflict, the stakes of which Professor Gérard Prunier breaks down.
What do we know in our part of the world about South Sudan, with Juba as its capital? If truth be told, not much. Maybe those French who are familiar with Post-colonial African upheavals will remember that the newest sovereign state on the black continent, which is as large as France, inhabited by 11 million souls and endowed with an enviable abundance of oil, came to being in July 2011. They are probably aware that South Sudan was born of a separation between the Sudan of Islamist Field Marshall and President Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes perpetrated by his militias in Darfur, and the predominantly Christian and animist rebellious southern territories. This Separation was bitterly negotiated at the end of more than two decades of carnage. As for those “addicted” to Sub-Saharan current events, they will know that this frail newborn has been stricken since mid-December by a deadly conflict which opposes President Salva Kiir of the Dinka ethnic group and his Nuer ex-Vice President Riek Machar, who was fired five months earlier under the pretext that he had hatched a putsch attempt. The current result: several thousand dead and 200,000 displaced.
A former researcher at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), longtime director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies and presently working as an independent consultant, Gérard Prunier bluntly breaks down the stakes and the hidden agendas of the confrontations that are setting ablaze five of the ten states which comprise the country. Moreover, it is from Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union and, since Monday, the site of laborious peace talks, that Prunier answered our questions.
What are the chances of success for the Addis Ababa talks?
Zero. They are non-existent. This is war. The winner will be he who ousts the other militarily and diplomatically. Only intense international pressure convinced the two delegations to meet here, even if it’s only for show.
Announced as imminent, would the recapture of Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, by President Salva Kiir’s forces sound the death-knell of the insurrection?
No, quite the opposite: If government troops take back the key cities, they will only control the urban centers but certainly not the rural areas which are destined to interminable guerilla warfare. Put simply, Juba finds itself in the situation of Khartoum ten or twenty years ago, master of the cities but not of the rest. Incidentally, know that this “coup d’état” story is total garbage. Hunted down, Riek Machar is probably only alive thanks to his bodyguards, who hid him as he slipped through a fence.
From a military standpoint, what are the power struggles?
Machar himself told me, he has more volunteers than needed but he lacks munitions and fuel. Put simply, if he doesn’t receive help from Ethiopia with the approval of the United States, he will be in a real bind. Thus, in the short term, the Bashir-Kiir team can prevail. In the long term this is out of the question.
Can the announced doubling of UNMISS troops (the United Nations contingent), meant to go from 6,000 to 12,500 men help to put out the fire?
By no means. In South Sudan the UN is useless.
What role does Omar al-Bashir, who has never recovered from the amputation of his “Sudan,” which was imposed by the international community, play on this chessboard?
Here’s what he said to a now very unpopular Kiir: “Salva, you’re hard up. I am coming to your rescue but in return give me back the oil wells. Don’t worry, I’ll leave you some crumbs, enough to buy yourself some apartments in London or some villas in Nairobi and to fill your bank accounts in the Virgin Islands or in Luxemburg.”
Is it truly the eviction of Riek Machar that sent the sparks flying?
Yes, even if the conflict began before that with the forced retirement of 170 officers who assisted the SPLM-North, a guerilla group of black Muslims who are hostile to Bashir. At the origin of this crisis, there is Salva Kiir’s realization that he had no chance of honestly winning the 2015 election. That’s why he bowed down to the master of Khartoum. Since the embraces of the two men on Monday, no more doubts are possible: Kiir has sold himself body and soul to the Arab enemy of yesteryear. This man is so stupid that he has managed, by behaving thus to strengthen a fierce opposition against him.
What is the role of ethnicity in the current conflict, marked by ethnic violence of Dinka against Nuer?
It is by no means an ethnic or clannish conflict. As often in Africa, war against the other is merely the collateral effect of a power struggle. The evidence here is that one finds Dinkas in the anti-Kiir camp.
Let’s now look at the position of the regional actors, starting with IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
Very simple: IGAD doesn’t exist. It’s a “thing” to reprise the name that Charles de Gaulle gave the UN, but a very small thing. Uganda is sticking to its support of Salva Kiir. And for a reason: hovering in the entourage of President Yoweri Museveni, who thinks he is Bismarck, are many businessmen who have economically colonized South Sudan. It’s the same for Kenya, even if Uhuru Kenyatta does not think of himself as a great man. This being said, the wind is changing. Nairobi, overcome by the fear of chaos, has begun an operation of backpedaling. As for Eritrea, they are supporting Salva Kiir. Ethiopia, which hasn’t had a real government since the death of Zenawi, hesitates and procrastinates. The military in Addis know very well that a victory by the president in place would lead straight to a guerilla war without end, hence the stalemate. Nevertheless, without a green light from the political class they cannot make any decisions.
What is the role of Bejing, the largest international buyer of Sudanese oil and the number one investor that is apparently very active in the diplomatic arena?
Truthfully, the Chinese are a bit lost. They don’t have any ambition other than to preserve their energy and financial interests.
Does South Sudan’s fragility have historic roots?
Yes. We find them first in the British colonial policy. In the 1930s and 40s, London refrained from forming a local elite. Nevertheless, later on, remarkable personalities emerged. However John Garang (historic leader of the Southern rebellion, killed in a plane crash in July 2005) feared their talents and pushed them away, even if it meant killing some of them. Therefore, all of the educated diaspora remained at a distance. Hence the arrival of an actor as mediocre as Salva Kiir, ex-sergeant of the Sudanese army, with a greater interest in whisky and women than in nation building and whom Khartoum manipulates like a puppet.
Gérard Prunier is a French academic and historian specializing in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.
Abiol Deng is an international development consultant based in Berlin, Germany.