In the wake of the recent death of US journalist, Christopher Allen, Washington has to reconsider their stance in South Sudan. The Trump administration has been blunt in relaying that funding and support may be pulled if President Kiir fails to quell the escalating unrest and violence that has engulfed the country.
In 2011, there was a burgeoning hope that South Sudan would be the first “success story” of African democracy. But South Sudan’s newfound independence has quickly devolved into a bloody civil war mired in tragedy and senseless violence. The UN has report that the conflict has resulted in deaths of tens of thousands, more than half of the 11m population is facing starvation and more than 3.5m have fled from their homes. The conflict has now devolved into genocide, with both sides reported to have committed acts of genocidal violence. The events of South Sudan’s civil war present a grand narrative of ethnic hatred that harkens back to the spectre of Rwanda. But to do so is to undermine the complexity of the conflict, which at its core is about a power struggle centred around money, corruption and access to natural resources.
The South Sudanese civil war is a conflict between government soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir – an ethnic Dinka – and rebel forces who support former Vice President, Riek Machar – a Nuer. The war began in 2013 when President Kiir fired former vice-president Riek Machar. The fighting abated with the emergence of a peace settlement mediated by the international community but the peace deal soon fell apart in July 2016 when fighting between the two fractions resumed.
Though South Sudan has undertones of ethnic tension it is but a symptom of the disease that has its roots in the Second Sudanese Civil War. The scale of the conflict masked long standing tensions between southern Sudanese ethnic communities and the distribution of natural resources such as fertile land and oil. In particular, the fixation over access to oil is a source of great contention, given the country’s estimated oil reserves of 3.5 billion barrels.
After independence was achieved these tensions continued to fester within an emerging kleptocracy. Reports have circulated detailing the gross corruption in which officials have stolen billions from public funds since the country’s independence. This corruption reached to the highest tiers of power; both President Kiir and Machar have been accused of accumulating wealth beyond their means, including multi-million mansions and stakes in business overseas. These developments amalgamated to create the conditions for the genocide that is taking place in the present day. In essence, it is the result of a power struggle between two rival kleptocratic fractions spearheaded by President Kiir and Riek Machar.
The ethnic tensions between the Dinka and the Nuer are exacerbated deliberately to conceal the on-going power dynamics and it is a conflict that is increasingly consuming the interest of regional and international actors such as Uganda, Sudan, China and the United States. Both Sudan and Uganda have been closely observing the civil war, given that Ugandan President Musevseni is a close ally of President Kiir and Sudan’s on-going negotiations over the extraction of oil from South Sudan’s oil fields. China in particular has a unique interest in South Sudan being a major consumer of the country’s oil, reportedly acquiring 80% South Sudan’s oil exports. But the conflict has predictably hampered production, with the UN stating production has fallen from 245,000 barrels per day in late 2013 to 1500,000 bpd by mid-2016. In addition, the country has been flooded with weapons with China, Russia and Sudan exporting weapons since 2014. The South Sudanese government purchased $20 million in weapons from China in 2014, many of these weapons eventually circulated amongst rebels through capture and re-distribution. While China stopped their weapons exportation in July 2014, the flow of weapons around the country has played a large role in perpetuating the violence in the country. The US has also staked an enormous amount of funding into the country’s development, reportedly investing over $2.7 billion since its independence. The Obama Administration in particular had high hopes for the country’s future, mediating heavily in the process that led to the country’s secession from Sudan. Despite these intersecting interests, the international community has failed to implement a coherent strategy to deal with escalating violence that has plagued the country since 2013. The conflict is a toxic mixture of the various interests that had failed to be addressed during the early planning stages of the country’s secession from Sudan.
Six years after its ascension to statehood, South Sudan is looking more and more like a failing state. Just like Rwanda, genocide is happening in South Sudan, but unlike Rwanda the country’s conflict was not instigated by the deep seated divisions caused by ethnic identity but by greed. South Sudan may be a failed project but the realities of the country’s bloody struggle are no less devastating.