The civil conflict in South Sudan began with gunfire at the headquarters of the presidential guard in the capital, Juba, on 15 December 2013. President Salva Kiir claimed that the former vice-president, Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, dismissed in July, had attempted a coup. Machar, whose bodyguards died protecting him, claimed the shooting was the result of the president’s attempt to get rid of the opposition.
US Assistant Secretary for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 9 January: “We have not seen any evidence that this was a coup attempt.” Machar confirmed this, adding: “I had to flee in my pyjamas.” Clashes between his supporters and the army have continued.
This young state was created in July 2011, after voting for secession from the north in a referendum. To understand why it has fallen into chaos, we must go back to the oil agreement of September 2012 between Khartoum and Juba, and to President Kiir’s decision to stand for re-election in 2015. His eight years in office (1) have not been successful, with ethnic violence, frequent rebellions, poor administration, a lack of economic development and massive corruption — Kiir has even called on his own ministers to refund $4bn they stole, as the country needs it for development.
The US has been an over-indulgent godfather to the new state. A diplomatic mafia supporting the Sudan’s People Liberation Movement (SPLM; the rebel movement opposed to the Khartoum government), which took power in Juba after independence, ensured the goodwill of the Obama administration and forbade all criticism of Washington’s favourite child.
Sudan took advantage. President Omar al-Bashir, who knew he controlled Kiir’s re-election, began a clever blackmail campaign intended to stifle the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), an alliance of factions opposed to his regime. The SRF has been fighting the government since autumn 2011, supported by Sudan’s black Muslims, who were for many years loyal to the Arabs on the basis of religion. But that loyalty dwindled during the long war (1983-2002) and eventually ran out.
A game of cat and mouse
Having been used against Sudanese Christians for many years, the black Muslims finally became conscious of their social and economic alienation, and changed sides. The Darfur crisis of 2003 (2) was the first stage in the process; but the independence of the Christian south in 2011 was decisive. The Islamist government in Khartoum now knows it is fighting for survival, and because the rebels are also Muslims, it can’t play the religion card, so it has logically resorted to racism, emphasising the threat of “the slaves” (al-abid), a term still widely used by Sudanese Arabs when referring to blacks.
Al-Bashir’s first demands were that South Sudan implement the oil agreement of September 2012 and that Kiir stop supporting the SRF. But he wanted more than that. The economic situation in Sudan was desperate, and al-Bashir insisted that South Sudan abandon the relatively favourable terms of the agreement (a $10.25 transit fee on each barrel of crude for the use of Sudan’s pipeline) and immediately begin paying the $3bn agreed as compensation for economic losses resulting from South Sudan’s independence, the schedule for which had yet to be decided.
To obtain this, Sudan needed still greater control over South Sudan. Al-Bashir pressured Kiir by suspending oil exports, then partially reinstating them in a game of cat and mouse. Kiir, having understood this plan, dismissed his entire cabinet and his vice-president, Machar, last July. Ten days later, he formed a new cabinet of men known to be friendly to Khartoum (Riak Gok, Telar Ring Deng, Abdallah Deng Nhial). The oil began to flow again, and the money too.
In November al-Bashir travelled to Juba to tell Kiir that the time had come to pay the compensation. Payment would begin immediately, through a gradual increase in transit fees. Kiir submitted, but the compensation demanded increased (3). Al-Bashir had won. Meanwhile, Juba was now governed by a cabal with a hard core of Rek and Agar Dinka (4).
The operation orchestrated by Sudan is stifling democracy in South Sudan, which is not a state but only a projection of the hyper-centralised structures of an authoritarian guerrilla movement, with an army of poorly integrated ethnic regiments formed from regional groups of war veterans. This fragmentation worsened as militias that had fought for Khartoum were gradually absorbed into the army without any attempt at homogenisation.
How the presidential election will be conducted is as much a question as who will win, and whether there will be a qualitative change that will allow South Sudan to move from gang rule to the rule of law. There was timid talk of a reform movement and a fight for democracy, but this no longer seems likely.
The brutality of the crisis does not stem from ethnic conflict, as is too often claimed, but is mostly the result of the gradual breakdown of an authoritarian regime hesitating between democratic modernisation and a hardening of its clientelist position. As is often the case in Africa, the principal actors identify with ethnic groups, but the real reasons lie in the much broader movement that has led some of the SPLM elite to change their minds because their interests were threatened. Most political debate does not take place in parliament but within the SPLM, which has preserved the vertically integrated organisation of its Leninist past. The National Liberation Council (NLC) acts as a “parliament of the party”, and Kiir is trying to curb its democratic talk.
Nuer against Dinka
Democratic reform could threaten Kiir’s position, and that of his supporters. On 15 December the emerging opposition was preparing to hold a joint discussion to demand a meeting of the NLC. The Dinka battalion of the presidential guard tried to disarm a Nuer battalion — Kiir is a Dinka, Machar a Nuer — while other troops arrested 11 reformist politicians that the government judged the most dangerous. Machar managed to escape, the Nuer units in the army rebelled and civil war broke out.
Nuer troops rose up spontaneously to defend their champion, Machar. In Juba, Dinka troops immediately began killing Nuers, civilian and military. But there are many exceptions to this divide. Rebecca Garang, widow of the independence movement leader, is a Dinka but has joined the reformists, and her eldest son is a member of Machar’s Nuer delegation. The politicians arrested belong to five ethnic groups, and include two Dinkas. In the north of the country, Nuer supporters of Kiir are fighting Nuers loyal to Machar around the oil town of Bentiu. In Equatoria, a region dominated by neither Nuers nor Dinkas, the small tribes (Madi, Bari, Lotuko, Toposa) are choosing which side to join, in most cases Machar and the reformists. Nowhere is there any evidence of blind loyalty to tribe.
The issues in these choices are often a matter of life and death. The violence is extreme and is intensifying quickly because the mediators — the members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (5) — are divided. Ethiopia is trying to remain neutral in a conflict that threatens its security. Kenya, at one time tempted to support Kiir, has withdrawn. Uganda has done worse: in supporting the “elected government” in Juba, President Yoweri Museveni has ordered the bombing of rebel areas and Ugandan troops have been involved in the large-scale military offensive that led to the recent recapture of two key towns and the signing of a ceasefire agreement.
Apart from general statements of principle, the wider international community (US, EU, China) has been strangely silent, as if this sudden crisis had left it speechless. China, the main customer for Sudanese oil, seems resigned to waiting to see what will happen. The US is embarrassed by its indirect responsibility. It has tolerated a violent departure from democracy and regrets this, although it does not accept that opposition to this departure has escalated into armed conflict.
If the violence, aggravated by Uganda’s involvement, does not stop soon, the country may slip into a spiral in which tribalism, set aside during the struggle for democratisation, dominates once again. The risk for such an under-institutionalised country would then be total disintegration, and this could mean regional disaster: the whole sub-region, from the Central African Republic to Somalia (both in civil war), and from Sudan, on the verge of economic collapse, to the Eritrean dictatorship, would be in crisis, and Ethiopia could become a victim.