With friends like these

Few places in the world have taken a beating like South Sudan. How did it come to this?

South Sudan's presidential guard (Photo: Wikicommons).

At the end of May, the fourth ceasefire in as many years was declared in the South Sudanese civil war. President Salva Kiir, head of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), promised a unilateral end to hostilities and guaranteed the release of all political prisoners.

A little over a month earlier, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the military wing of the SPLM, had sent its notorious Lion Brigade, under the command of Santino Deng Wol, to the town of Pajok. 17 civilians were shot dead and thousands more were driven from their homes. UN peacekeepers were denied access to the area in the aftermath.

On October 4th, fighting between opposition and government forces broke out in Bieh state. The numbers are conflicting, but it appears that hundreds may have died. The violence, it seems, continues.

“The Dinkas are the only people who liberated South Sudan,” Minister of Defence Kuol Manyang is reported to have told a meeting of senior officers last year. It won’t surprise you to learn that Manyang is himself a Dinka, as is Kiir. The people of Pajok, to their detriment, were Acholi.

Pajok and its Acholi citizens are another casualty in the decades-old struggle between the SPLM and SPLM-iO (in opposition), rival incarnations of the same idea. They are acronyms—like IGAD, ARCSS, IGAD-PLUS, and UNMISS—that rule over millions of lives.

The entire country is now a food crisis zone. Reports of war crimes continue to flood in, pushing the boundaries of the grotesque by leaps and bounds. It was reported earlier this year that 1.8 million people had been displaced since fighting began in 2013. Worse, the will of local and international actors to broker an end to the violence has vanished completely. The guns on the ground hold sway, and with increasing boldness, as aid workers are shot and the government in Juba denies further expansion of the UN’s peacekeeping mission.

We have to look to the SPLM and its rival claimants for an answer to this crisis. The SPLM has been the face of South Sudan’s struggle for self-determination since its founding in 1983. After the 2005 helicopter crash that killed John Garang, the charismatic, American-backed (and autocratic) head of South Sudan’s liberation movement, violent factionalism has more-or-less replaced an earlier rhetoric of unitary, national progress. The men who’ve come up behind him—Kiir is 66, Machar, 64—are long-time vanguards of a crude, ethnic sectarianism. Their scores have waited a long time to be settled.

And those scores have a real urgency to them, because for the victor there will be spoils. The problem in this, one of the world’s poorest countries, is that there is a lot of money to be made. When George H.W.Bush—then America’s ambassador to the UN—let it be known to Colonel Gaafar Muhammad al-Nimeiry, Sudan’s president in the early 1970’s, that US satellite images showed evidence of oil in the Upper Nile, he was delivering the first words of a monstrous tragedy. At least 3.75 billion barrels are known to be untapped, and potential reserves could be much higher. Never mind that war has temporarily turned the taps off; with that much crude in the ground, everyone has an incentive to get them open again.

For the time being, Kiir seems to have convinced the world that he’s their man. The flagship petroleum companies of China, Malaysia, and India all returned to the job this year. And in March, Nigeria’s Oranto, a subsidiary of Dubai-based Atlas Petroleum, scored exploration rights to 25 thousand square kilometers of Block B, the largest unexploited reserve in the country. There they will join France’s Total, already hard at work.

Kiir isn’t wrong to feel bold. Since the collapse last year of 2015’s ARCSS—the IGAD-authored and US-sponsored Agreement to Resolve the Conflict in South Sudan—Machar’s star has been waning. Festus Mogae, former President of Botswana and chairman of the UN’s Joint Monitoring & Evaluation Commission, recommended in a January interview with the BBC that Machar be prevented from re-entering the country. He has been in hiding since fleeing Juba in a hail of bullets after talks broke down in July, first in the DRC, then South Africa. In November of last year, he was stopped in Addis Ababa’s airport while on his way to Sudan for medical treatment and told to turn around. “‘The Ethiopians told him there were two planes sitting on the tarmac – one heading to Juba and the other to Joburg,’” a diplomatic source told Reuters. This was a huge blow to the SPLM/A-iO, because Ethiopia has been one of its traditional safe havens. 228,000 Nuer (the group to which Machar belongs) live in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region along the South Sudanese border.

The problem is that the international community is impatient with the peace process. Comprehensive, multilateral agreements have done nothing but create one of the world’s worst disaster zones. Consensus has gone by the wayside, replaced by bilateral negotiation and the calculation of national interest. Instability reigns and exacerbates the situation on the ground, with no side’s position remaining clear. Machar and Ethiopia’s foreign minister were smiling and shaking hands together for a photograph only a few days into October.

The problem is as always that instability is hugely profitable. Weapons of considerable sophistication have poured into the country from all sides. The SPLA are using Russian Mi-24 military gunships (origin unknown) to attack SPLA-iO positions, even crossing the border into the Congo in August. In 2014, the UN security council revealed a receipt from Chinese defense contractor Norinco for $20 million worth of small arms. That was after the press broke a $38 million contract—Chinese officials claim it was signed before the outbreak of war in 2013—between Beijing and Juba, and the Chinese made a public declaration to arm neither side.

There is evidence to suggest that the SPLA-iO have been searching far and wide for the means to redress these imbalances, and that they’ve found a sympathetic ear in the West. Right now, most of what they’ve got to work with is old Sudanese Kalashnikovs. But in a 2014 report, UK-based Conflict Armaments Research observed two US-made recoilless rifle rounds in their original boxes in a cache of captured SPLM/A-iO weapons. The date at which they entered the conflict is still indeterminate, though their condition suggests that they may have been recent acquisitions. Naturally, a request for comment from the US permanent mission to the United Nations returned nothing.

The fact that these are American guns is important. No country has been more heavily involved in South Sudan over the past half-century than the US. Americans are hardly aware of this, of course—we’ve paid very little attention to the area since the days of Bush the younger, when resistance groups battling Khartoum’s heavy hand were an American cause célébre. But G.W.’s interest in the country was just another thing he inherited from his father. George Clooney may have got to Darfur in 2006, sure, but Chevron beat him there by about thirty years.

Garang was a graduate of American infantry school and had a degree in agriculture from Iowa State. He was a natural with American audiences, playing up the predominance of Christianity in Sudan’s south to great effect: American money poured in, even after his death. From 2005 to 2015, South Sudan, first as part of Sudan and then on its own, was the third-largest recipient of US humanitarian aid, behind only Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the country declared independence in 2011, the moment was celebrated by American observers with great optimism. “We know that southern Sudanese have claimed their sovereignty, and shown that neither their dignity nor their dream of self-determination can be denied,” Barack Obama said at the country’s ribbon cutting six years ago. But as with so many of the Obama era’s assumptions about the impacts of American foreign policy, there seemed to be no sense of history. When civil war flared up just two years later, the White House sounded as if it were regarding it through a telescope from the other side of the universe. “Now is the time for South Sudan’s leaders to show courage and leadership, to reaffirm their commitment to peace, to unity, and to a better future for their people,” a statement put out on December 20th, 2013 read.

Even to the end of its days, the Obama administration continued to behave as if they were outside of history, even their own. “It is the people of South Sudan who will pay an unbearable price,” then US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power told the Security Council after it failed to ratify a US-backed arms embargo in December of last year. If American foreign policy experts had a sense of irony, it should have gone off when an Obama administration official waxed sanctimonious about an arms ban. After all, it was Obama himself who, in 2012, lifted US restrictions on weapons sales to South Sudan.

It was rumored that John Kerry’s State Department took a hard stance on Kiir. If so, there seems to be continuity in the attitude of the new administration. Trump renewed Obama’s 2012 order designating the country a national emergency, which put restrictions on some Sudanese high officials. And in April this year, Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, appearing before the security council, openly blamed Kiir for exacerbating the famine, and called for another vote on an arms embargo.

That may only last as long as the personnel on the ground remain the same. Mary McPhee, sworn in as ambassador in 2015, just as ARCSS was put on the table, has a few months of her three-year FSO turn left. But the appearance of US weapons in SPLM-iO stockpiles may be a sign of things to come. The Trump administration is about to lift sanctions on Sudan, another Obama-era policy. Khartoum is no friend of Kiir. If the US is taking aim at Juba, the SPLM won’t go down lightly. Any attempt to swing the balance of forces in the country can only balloon the war’s already appalling human cost.

“No significant trade with South Sudan”: that’s the State Department’s terse statement on America’s interest in South Sudan. It may be the most telling sign of the US’s willingness to close the book on a war that for nearly half a century it has been the enthusiastic author of. “The United States will remain a steady partner of the South Sudanese people,” Obama told the country in 2013, just as Kiir and Machar’s men began tearing Juba to pieces. If the twentieth century has taught the world anything, it’s that our good intentions often come at a tremendous cost. With friends like these…

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