Breakdown in South Sudan

What Went Wrong -- and How to Fix It

A soldier in Malakal, 308 miles northeast of Juba, December 30, 2013.
A soldier in Malakal, 308 miles northeast of Juba, December 30, 2013. (James Akena / Courtesy Reuters)

The South Sudanese people made extraordinary sacrifices to achieve independence two and a half years ago. That makes their leaders’ abject failure to build a viable South Sudan since then all the more galling. Now, a political crisis imperils the nation. But there is a silver lining: The turmoil could give South Sudan the opportunity to reset the national agenda. The country’s leaders cannot afford to squander this moment, and their first task is a sober appraisal of what has gone so disastrously wrong. 

PARTY TIME

The current conflict has three main dimensions -- a political dispute within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM); a regional and ethnic war; and a crisis within the army itself.

The political dispute is long-standing: Since before independence in July 2011, the SPLM leadership has been split several ways, including over whether to confront the government of Sudan in Khartoum or cooperate with it, as well as over the distribution of power and wealth within South Sudan. South Sudanese President Salva Kiir preferred good relations with Khartoum as a way to secure oil revenue; South Sudan’s oil exports depend on a pipeline through Sudan to the Red Sea. But other party leaders took the opposite view, arguing that South Sudan should take the opportunity for regime change in Khartoum by supporting northern rebels and seizing disputed areas by force. If that were not enough, Kiir and Riek Machar, South Sudan’s vice president, differed on domestic policies and on who should lead the party into the next election in 2015. 

With the government paralyzed by infighting, Kiir dismissed Machar and most of his cabinet in July. The dismissed politicians counterpunched through internal SPLM decision-making bodies such as the political bureau, in which they were confident they could command majority votes. In turn, Kiir froze those institutions. When he belatedly called a meeting of the National Liberation Council, the party’s highest decision-making body, on December 14, the dispute erupted into the open. The meeting closed in fractious division, and units of the presidential guard exchanged blows, then shots. A dispute that had been nonviolent drew first blood.

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