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. 


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.

Kiir has accused the dissenters of attempting a coup. They have accused him of abrogating the national constitution and the SPLM’s rules and procedures. But these arguments obscure a deeper point: The SPLM never functioned as a real party -- or even as a liberation movement.

In its early years of the 1980s, the SPLM was only an army. Its goal was regime change in Khartoum, and its politics were handled exclusively by John Garang, an army colonel with a Ph.D. who was its commander in chief. In 1991, a devastating internecine war between the SPLM’s ethnic groups rent the movement right down the middle. And even though the SPLM survived, it did so as a profoundly dysfunctional coalition that papered over deep cracks. It never developed party institutions, discipline, or a social agenda for the areas under its control. The SPLM did not hold its first congress until 1994 -- during which the leadership ignored its recommendations to formalize decision-making procedures. The congress did not meet again until 2008, and the event was paralyzed by infighting.

Throughout the period, the SPLM concealed its lack of any practical agenda for internal social change under the rhetoric of fighting external oppression. And unlike other national liberation movements, which established literacy programs, land reforms, and local democracy, the SPLM simply outsourced minimum social welfare to international humanitarian agencies. It also drew on foreign advisers for many elements of its diplomatic strategy, and -- uniquely -- called on the United Nations to dispatch a peacekeeping operation immediately after achieving independence. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that South Sudan’s ruling elites were more interested in power than in doing the hard work of nation building.

It is thus not surprising that today South Sudan’s political institutions are weak. South Sudan’s first priority now should be to rebuild those institutions. The ruling party must be reinvented, and the way to do so will be through a broader national dialogue involving the other political parties and social leaders. If that means postponing elections until after talks are completed, so be it.


The second dimension to the current conflict is ethnic and regional. Despite Garang’s talk of building a socially equitable Sudan, the SPLM from the beginning relied too heavily on appeals to racial and ethnic solidarity. That approach backfired disastrously when the movement split along ethnic lines in the early 1990s. Khartoum, which had already been trying to foment ethnic violence in South Sudan, fueled the divisions. Those wounds are still unhealed, and, more seriously, the mechanisms for addressing them have been neglected.

The sad truth of the war in South Sudan during the 1990s is that most of the fighting was southerners against southerners, and that the troops of the contending factions showed just as much disregard for human rights as the militiamen and jihadists of the north -- their ostensible enemies. Not only did the internal wars kill thousands through bloodshed and tens of thousands through famine, they threatened to tear the social fabric of South Sudan beyond repair.

South Sudan’s civil society -- with help from foreign backers -- led a slow and difficult process of “people to people” or “South-South” peace even as the war raged. African governments brought the factional leaders together, helping to keep the broader issues of Sudan-wide peace and democracy on the agenda. A group of Sudanese and African nongovernmental organizations discreetly set the intellectual strategy for peace building. Meanwhile, the formal North-South peace talks finally began in 2002 but were continually impeded by a paranoid SPLM leader who wanted peace on his own terms. One of the unspoken stories of this period is the role Garang played in obstructing peace initiatives and prolonging the war. And when he finally signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in January 2005, the internal South-South peace process was set aside.

The unhealed fissures within the south were not the driving force behind the political conflict in South Sudan over the last two years. But political leaders mobilize their power bases along ethnic lines, and different army units are drawn from different ethnic groups. As soon as shots were fired on December 14, the country blew apart along these fractures. A major part of any effort at resolving the crisis must be restarting the grassroots initiatives for reconciliation and healing.


The third element in today’s conflict is the army, still known by its old name, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Exceptionally brave in combat and ready to suffer appallingly high levels of casualties, the soldiers of the SPLA fought a long and bloody resistance struggle. But they were consistently undermined by poor organization. Fearful of providing a base on which internal rivals could mobilize, Garang refused to develop cohesive and professional military units, preferring instead to put together ad hoc forces for each battle. The SPLA did not win the war with the north; rather, the extraordinary capacity of its regular and irregular fighters to resist defeat showed Khartoum that it could never rule the South Sudanese against their will.

When the CPA was signed, the SPLA was in fact just one of many military forces in South Sudan. Arguably as strong as the SPLA was the rival South Sudan Defense Forces, which is organized and funded by Khartoum and has a strong ethnic-regional base. Many feared a southern civil war following the peace with the north. But Kiir, newly installed in 2005, reached out to the SSDF leadership and other militia commanders to offer them membership in both the army and government. The prize was not just internal peace but a share in oil revenues. The SPLA payroll expanded to well over 200,000 names. Fully 55 percent of the south’s budget went to defense -- and more than 80 percent of that went to salaries.

The Juba cease-fire agreement of January 2006, which cemented Kiir’s deal with militia leaders, was the president’s biggest achievement. It averted civil war. But over time, the payout created insurmountable obstacles to army reform and professionalization. The army was little more than a coalition of ethnic units tied together by cash handouts. Successive efforts to establish a centralized roster of soldiers were thwarted. Too often, disarmament operations became ethnically selective, leaving disarmed communities open to attack by their neighbors. In 2012, when Kiir promised to “name and shame” corrupt army commanders, those commanders forced him to retract. Unlike many other nations, South Sudan’s army is not an institution that builds a national ethos and common identity but is instead a civil war in waiting. 

For this reason, stopping the civil war is an absolute priority. The government and rebels must cease hostilities, stop ethnic-military mobilization, and start talking -- as African mediators demand. Then, the South Sudanese leadership and people, and their foreign friends, must begin the slow and delicate work of dismantling the warlordism that thrives under the flag of the SPLA.

In state building, nothing can substitute for experience. It is something that any nation’s leaders have to do for themselves. Today’s crisis shows that South Sudan’s leaders have failed. But after this false start, the crisis could become an opportunity for a comprehensive rethink of its national project.

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  • ALEX DE WAAL is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. ABDUL MOHAMMED is Chief of Staff of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan and South Sudan.
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