When South Sudan celebrated its independence in July, 2011, rejoice reverberated throughout the nation, binding previous military rivals in their unified goal to free the largely Christian and Dinka south from domination by the Arab Muslim north. Despite this, there were unsettled issues with President Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan related to the division of oil fields and border demarcation as independence occurred. The hope was that a decade’s long war in the Sudan would come to a close.
No one underestimated the challenge of creating a new country with a poor rural based population and with virtually no state institutions in place. The development community was keen to play its role, not only to assist the new country, but also to show the International Criminal Court who indicted Mr. al-Bashir that he no longer held sway over the entire region. So why has it all gone so horribly wrong, bringing South Sudan to the brink of civil war?
Ironically, Mr. al-Bashir’s Sudan is largely not to blame this time, despite rivalries and contained conflict that occurred in late 2011 and 2012. Sudan has its own problems, such as a growing budget deficit, internal opposition and massive youth unemployment. The South Sudanese oil that is piped through Sudanese territory – some 245,000 barrels a day – provides much needed revenue to Sudan. Long term disruption in the south would affect this critical revenue stream.
No, it is the government of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir that is responsible for the current morass.
The rivalry between competing tribes, the Dinka led by Mr. Kiir and the Nuer led by his former vice-president Riek Machar has long been evident in Juba, the nation’s capital. Once the honeymoon period after independence was over, the rivalries that had been kept in control whilst the fight for independence occurred came to the fore. General Kiir has been accused of heavy handed behaviour and preferential treatment for his tribe. The organization of the new state has proceeded at a snail’s pace amid rumours of huge corruption. Mr. Kiir faced several putative coups and finally took action by dismissing many in his government last July, including Mr. Machar, who he felt threatened him.
The current action by government forces is justified because of reports of a new coup attempt against Mr. Kiir. Mr. Mr. Machar’s rebels seem to have little in common except a common grievance against the government. The more recent reports that the president’s troops fired on Nuers first, or whether Mr. Machar’s supporters fired first on Dinkas is of little concern: it underscores the deep rivalry in the country still.
Why does it matter? Apart from disruption to the flow of oil that provides virtually the only income South Sudan receives apart from development assistance, there are significant regional implications for neighbouring countries. Sudan apart, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has despatched troops to Juba to maintain security. No regional leader, in Rwanda, Uganda or even Kenya wants an insurrection on its borders; too much is at stake for investment and regional commerce. This is why peace negotiations led by the Africa Union in Addis Ababa will be pursued with all vigour by regional players supported by development partners, including Canada. The West is concerned that what might be seen as “merely” a regional conflict by some could turn into a humanitarian disaster.
This altercation will end, probably in an unsatisfactory fashion. No one wants to sacrifice the independence of South Sudan on the altar of regional instability. International development assistance will carry on (Canada alone provides over $100-million annually to both Sudan and South Sudan). The real issue is whether trust can be rebuilt within the political leadership of South Sudan. Because if the leaders in Juba cannot bury their tribal and other rivalries, the sweet dream of hope for a new country that I witnessed in Juba in July, 2011, at the Declaration of Independence ceremony will be a long time in coming, if it ever does. The people of South Sudan deserve better.
David Collins served as Canada’s first ambassador to South Sudan, is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a director of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and a member of the Program Advisory Committee of the Canadian Ditchley Foundation