Men from Dinka tribe stand amongst their cattle at dusk in a camp near Rumbek, capital of the Lakes State in central South Sudan, December 14, 2013.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Today, there is still no end in sight to the civil war raging in South Sudan. In March, I traveled there, speaking with the country’s leaders and citizens about the Southern crisis and learning about the three divergent narratives circulating in Juba these days that attempt to explain its roots: a failure to build a functioning state, myopic leadership, and northern Sudanese interference. But these accounts, while insightful, are incomplete. The current conflict is much more complex and discontent began to stir in the region long before violence erupted in 2013. In fact, the beginnings of the war can be traced back to just after the South won independence in 2011. That is when the unstable alliance between the country’s various tribes began to breakdown.


The South Sudanese civil war began just a few days before Christmas 2013. On December 15, fighting broke out in Juba, South Sudan, between tribal elements of the presidential guard and quickly spread across the city. In the days and months that followed, 50,000 South Sudanese were massacred and 2.5 million civilians were either internally displaced or fled to neighboring countries. A new civil war had erupted in a country not yet four years old.

South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar, July 8, 2015.
Thomas Mukoya / Reuters
The bloody confrontation that took place between the Nuer and Dinka soldiers and militias reflected the tribal divisions in the South Sudanese leadership between President Salva Kiir Mayardit (a Dinka) and his former Vice President, Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon (a Nuer), whom Kiir had sacked on July 23, 2013. What followed can only be described as an attempt by Kiir’s government to ethnically cleanse Juba of Nuer men—although elderly people, women, and children were murdered as well. Kiir used the police, a tribal militia from his home state, and some elements of the South’s military (called the SPLA) to slaughter an estimated 6,000 to 30,000. Kiir defended his actions by claiming that he was merely halting a coup attempt led by Machar. Retaliatory violence followed and quickly spread north into areas of mixed Nuer and Dinka population. There, Nuer soldiers slaughtered Dinkas, including unarmed civilians. Human rights groups and UN agencies also have extensive evidence of widespread rape committed by both Dinka and Nuer troops. The BBC reported in June of the rape of teenage girls by the SPLA in Machar’s home turf of Unity State (the location of much of the South’s oil). The rapists burned the girls alive in their homes to dispose of the evidence. UNICEF has reported that, in recent weeks, the SPLA brutalized Nuer boys in the same area and then drowned them en masse. According to a June report by USAID, a famine is developing in Unity State, which could kill tens of thousands. The Dinka remains the largest tribe in South Sudan and at the time, dominated the Southern government. Nuer are the second largest and the Dinkas’ traditional rivals.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, October 8, 2011.
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters
The South Sudanese conflict did not begin as a tribal struggle for power. Appealing to divisive tribal loyalties was, however, the most effective means for leaders to mobilize the population (and recruit troops to fight the new civil war), rather than debating issues through some political process or election campaign. Because about 65 percent of the post-independence SPLA were Nuer, Kiir did not fully trust his own army. In addition, General James Hoth, a Nuer, commanded the SPLA at the time. He had resisted drawing the army into a domestic political dispute when he was ordered to arrest Kiir’s opponents. Instead, Kiir’s tribe from his home province of Bahr al-Ghazal formed a militia that would protect him from a feared coup. (The Dinka tribe is made up of 25 sub-tribes, of which six constitute the Bahr al-Ghazal Dinkas, Kiir’s sub-tribal grouping.) Most of these “soldiers” were illiterate and undisciplined young men who were taught to fire a weapon, but who had not received any other military training.

Each side in the conflict has created a competing narrative of what happened in December 2013. These stories begin with either a denial of the coup attempt or insistence that one was underway. In fact, that is the easiest way to determine which side of the war a South Sudanese is on. U.S. diplomats (along with virtually any international staff one talks to in Juba) told me they saw no evidence of a coup in December 2013. But Western diplomats did repeatedly warn Machar, after his firing, not to settle his dispute with Kiir through violence, since they feared that Marchar would then indeed resort to a coup. I met with both Kiir (in Juba) and Machar (in Addis Ababa) during my trip to the region, and both began the conversation with a recounting of what they believe occurred at the end of 2013. Most of the South Sudanese I interviewed, including SPLA generals, told me that they were not proud of what had happened; and Rwandan diplomats (who suffered during their own 1994 genocide) asked the South Sudanese how they could have allowed such a massacre to take place.

The crisis is particularly tragic, since South Sudan appeared to be heading in the right direction after 22 years of bloody civil war, in which 2.4 million people died. The conflict had finally ended through a negotiated peace agreement called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Afterward, the economy boomed as billions of dollars in oil revenues poured into the new government’s treasury. Bus and air service to other countries in the region ended the South’s economic isolation, and Juba’s infrastructure and population grew at a remarkable rate. Although South Sudan’s future indeed looked superficially promising, some international observers warned of the numerous dangers lingering behind the façade of a happy future: rising levels of corruption among the South Sudanese elites; a lack of skilled administrators and near complete absence of formal institutions through which to govern; more than 85 percent illiteracy in some areas; a massive guerrilla army composed of undisciplined tribal militias; high youth expectations combined with 70 percent unemployment; a countryside awash in weapons; no physical infrastructure; an enormous public payroll (as high as 400,000 in a country of 11 million people); internal strains within the ruling party (SPLM); and continuing covert efforts by Khartoum’s intelligence service to foment tribal violence to ensure ongoing instability in the new nation.


The three narratives about the roots of the Southern crisis are reflected in this laundry list of risks within the new nation. The first is that the new nation did not confront its looming development challenges quickly enough. Although this narrative is certainly true, the notion that these issues could have reasonably been addressed in a few years contradicts all we know about development. In fact, building a state and a nation takes a generation or more, an effort the new civil war has set back decades. Moreover, the South has little to show for its billions in oil revenues since it spent it mostly on the salaries of its massive but unskilled public sector workforce.

The second explanation places most of the blame on the leadership of the new country: that Kiir never had the skills or temperament needed to lead the new nation, and his rival, Machar, is a bright, but corrupt, ruthless, and power hungry rival after Kiir’s job. They were motivated, so the argument goes, by greed, power, and tribal loyalties; they failed to consider the common good and public interest, seeking instead to enrich their narrow cliques.

Young South Sudanese I spoke to favor a political settlement in which both Kiir and Machar step aside, retire from public affairs, and let new younger leaders emerge to govern the South. Leaders of smaller tribes say that the Dinkas and Nuer are so morally compromised that it is impossible for them to govern the country.

This is the simplified explanation that many international observers ascribe to. As a result, they often support UN and donor government sanctions against, and war crime trials for, the elites on both sides of the conflict. But these sanctions have rattled and isolated the South Sudanese elite since they were imposed by the very countries they thought were their allies, protectors, and role models. Many feel betrayed by the West. Meanwhile, the Western democracies feel the South betrayed ideals of human rights and democracy. These limited sanctions have not brought the South closer to peace.

One element of Khartoum’s strategy to defeat the South during the earlier civil war was to encourage the Southern tribes to kill each other.

It became apparent during my interviews with the South Sudanese that this second explanation also fails to consider the fact that Kiir and Machar are not in full control of their own coalitions of ethnic groups, military forces, regions, and business leaders. Their military commanders and tribal elites have a heavy hand in most key decisions. Both men must deal with their own tribally based Councils of Elders made up of intellectuals, judges, traditional chiefs, business leaders, and political power brokers who give them advice on appointments and policy. They have reportedly threatened both Kiir and Machar if they do not take their “advice.” SPLA commanders told Kiir not to return to Juba if he signed a peace agreement with Machar, which was being negotiated in Addis Ababa in early 2015. Some of the Bahr al-Ghazal Dinka elite believe that a peace agreement will put them at risk of prosecution or retribution given their culpability in the Juba massacre. The SPLA commanders (post-massacre, 80 percent of the SPLA are Bahr al-Ghazal Dinkas according to one expert I interviewed, as the bulk of the Nuer units have defected to Machar) even issued a public policy paper explaining why any peace agreement, other than a Machar surrender, was unacceptable.

These commanders suffer from the delusion, common in the (North) Sudanese military, that they can win the civil war by military force. Ugandan troops (read mercenaries, as they are being paid out of South Sudan’s treasury) probably prevented Juba from falling to Machar’s forces early in the conflict, and are reportedly the strongest forces fighting in the war. As long as those troops remain in South Sudan, Machar is unlikely to defeat Kiir’s forces. But they are a drain on the South’s treasury and Ugandan involvement is an impediment to a negotiated peace agreement because the Machar and Nuer factions regard them as an invasion force and are extremely bitter about their presence in South Sudan. There are even rumors circulating in Juba that there is a coup plot against Kiir led by the new SPLA Chief of Staff, Paul Malong, a Bahr al-Ghazal Dinka who trained the militia (called the Tiger Battalion) that played a central role in the Juba massacre. No one knows for certain whether the elders or military commanders have the capacity (or stupidity) to oust Kiir. More recently, rumors of Kiir’s deteriorating health have led to a power struggle over his successor, pitting Malong against the Minister of Defense Kuol Manyang (a Bor County Dinka and old Garang loyalist) and James Wani Igga, the current vice president.

The third explanation, most common among Southerners themselves, suggests that the Omar al-Bashir government of Sudan has surreptitiously taken control of Juba through Kiir’s ill-advised appointments of those aligned with Bashir to top positions. In fact, Bashir’s loyalists do control the president’s office and several cabinet ministries. These men supported Khartoum during the war and also belonged to Bashir’s Islamist party, but they are from Kiir’s tribe and thus have his trust. Some of Bashir’s loyalists also serve in the National Assembly. And being loyal and trustworthy is at a premium in South Sudan these days.

Rebel fighters walk in a rebel controlled territory in Upper Nile State, February 14, 2014.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

This conspiracy theory is captured by the oft-repeated refrain of the old Southern elites: “The Garang Boys have been replaced by the Bashir Boys.” (John Garang led the South during the civil war, negotiated the CPA, and died in a helicopter crash six weeks after being named vice president of Sudan.) Other pundits claim that under the CPA and before the South separated, Sudan was governed by two systems (one controlled by Khartoum and another by Juba), but now one autocratic system governs both countries.

In the second week of June, Juba used another Khartoum-like tactic: Government officials expelled one of the most senior UN managers, Toby Lanzer, the widely respected humanitarian aid coordinator, after he criticized Juba for impeding humanitarian access to at-risk populations. Impeding humanitarian access to the South was a regular tactic of Khartoum’s during the North–South war. The UN protected over 100,000 Nuer and Dinka during the massacres by sheltering them in peacekeeping compounds (and thus prevented a genocide). Similarly, Juba’s response has been to accuse the UN of interfering in the civil war, harassing its peacekeepers, and threatening their expulsion.

One element of Khartoum’s strategy to defeat the South during the earlier civil war was to encourage the Southern tribes to kill each other. In fact, South-on-South violence, using northern weapons and logistics caused the majority of the 2.5 million Southern deaths. By the time of the January 2005 peace agreement ending the civil war, Khartoum had armed, paid, and provisioned dozens of tribally based militias to attack the SPLA. (The North pursued the same strategy in Darfur, which is why the region remains in chaos after the conflict erupted in 2003). To counter this northern strategy, the SPLA reluctantly tried to broaden its ethnic base beyond the Bor County Dinkas, which had dominated the SPLA since 1983.

After the 2005 signing of the CPA, Juba gradually absorbed most of these militias into the SPLA by offering their commanders money and jobs to join. However, these militias were never successfully integrated into the SPLA and remained loyal to their commanders, despite modest U.S. and British military technical assistance (but no weapons) to modernize the SPLA. When oil prices dropped by 50 percent in mid-2014, triggering budget and job cuts, their political loyalties to Juba eroded soon after. It was clear that the decades-long northern strategy to divide, conquer, and institutionalize tribal war in the South endured and created a balkanized South, setting the conditions for the current fracturing of the nascent South Sudanese state. Although it was and continues to be the South Sudanese who are complicit in carrying out this northern strategy, Khartoum has reinvigorated its past policy of providing weapons and funds to any dissatisfied militia leader or local official in the South, according to several reports by the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss research center. South Sudan has been and is still now what the north has been since independence in 1956: a marketplace for rebel commanders whose loyalties can be bought by the highest bidders.

In March, Bashir vowed to reunite the North and the South if he was reelected; he was not merely providing a throw-away campaign line, he was reflecting the views of many within his own political party who saw South Sudan’s independence as a temporary tactical maneuver.

However, the problem with this third narrative is that the roots of the current crisis extend beyond this bidding war, which was only a symptom of the unstable alliances between the South Sudanese tribes. Kiir indeed had the misfortune of plunging the South into a new civil war months before global oil prices fell by 50 percent, which degraded one of his most effective instruments of power—money, to buy off factions, commanders, and elites. But the erosion of tribal alliances started before that—as support for Kiir’s rule declined just after independence, particularly over his policies on North–South relations. And even before the formal independence of the South in 2011, several major factions made plans to oust Kiir whom they believed was not up to the task of leading the new state and to get control of the billions of dollars in oil revenues pouring into the new state’s treasury. South Sudan is a poster child for the resource curse.


After the start of the second civil war in 1983, four distinct tribal groupings allied: the Bahr al-Ghazal Dinkas, the Ngok and Bor County Dinkas, the Nuer, and the Equatorians. Other tribes such as the Shilluk found themselves marginalized, which is why some of their elites sided with the North during the civil war. Garang was able to unite most of the tribes and interests in 2002 with heavy pressure and support from the George W. Bush administration, which was trying to end the North–South war. This unifying effort is one reason why the North finally began to negotiate seriously an end to the war.

Kiir sought to maintain unity for seven years by buying off various elite groups with patronage, contracts, and cabinet appointments, which is also how he united the South to gain independence in 2011. Up to that point, Kiir’s strategy and leadership were reasonably successful. It was after independence that he began to falter: Criticism grew of grand corruption and unmet expectations for development, as well as a series of disastrous decisions in dealing with the North. These included the brief SPLA occupation of the Helig oil fields in the North that are claimed by the South; Juba’s shutdown of the South Sudanese oil fields in a dispute with Khartoum over oil revenue sharing (the pipeline from the South goes through the North to Port Sudan); and Juba’s support for rebellions against Khartoum in the North, centered in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile states.

As disapproval mounted, Kiir turned to the loyalists within his own tribe for support, which began the unraveling of Garang’s multi-tribe coalition that governed the country. The end of this alliance is the cause of the chaos in South Sudan right now. Even the current coalition between the Bahr al-Ghazal Dinkas and the Equatorians is increasingly fraught as the Dinkas have taken all of the most powerful ministries and left the dissatisfied Equatorians with the position of vice president. The Equatorians understandably fear that the country is balkanizing, and have set up training camps to build their own militias to defend their region of Equatoria if the Juba government should collapse or is so weakened it has no control outside of the capital. But even now, there are policy disputes between them.

Around 50,000 South Sudanese have been massacred and 2.5 million civilians are either internally displaced or have fled to neighboring countries.

Most of the Southern elites never really shared Garang’s vision of a united, multi-ethnic, democratic Sudan. Instead, they simply wanted the South to secede from the North. For tactical reasons, Garang developed his vision for a united Sudan to obtain support from African countries, such as Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam, many of which feared their own separatist insurgencies would break up their countries. Since Garang’s death in July 2005, the SPLM has been divided about North–South relations.

Kiir, whatever his weaknesses as a leader and role in the Juba massacre of December 2013, has taken a moderate position on North–South ties. He made this clear to me over many years in many conversations even before the Southern Sudanese chose to secede through a 98 percent vote in a free and fair referendum in January 2011. Kiir strongly supported southern independence, but his wish to accommodate Khartoum after independence separated him from many other southern leaders who feared the North would never allow the South to develop as a stable, democratic, and independent state. Garang’s old revolutionary elite for the most part disagreed with Kiir and sought to bring down the Bashir government and his Islamists at every turn (11 of these leaders were arrested during the Juba Massacre and accused of plotting against the government, and were only released when the South’s Supreme Court could find no evidence to support the charges). Kiir believed, rightly as it has turned out, that the South was too weak institutionally and too immature politically to sustain a continuing battle with the North after independence. He believed the South needed to strengthen itself internally before it could challenge the North.


The North has not helped matters since some of Khartoum’s elites are eager to reabsorb the South. The North–South split was messy and revanchist sentiments continue to fester in Khartoum. In March, Bashir vowed to reunite the North and the South if he was reelected; he was not merely providing a throwaway campaign line, he was reflecting the views of many within his own political party who saw South Sudan’s independence as a temporary tactical maneuver rather than as a permanent solution to end decades of civil war. Some articles in Northern media have cropped up, suggesting that the Southerners have squandered their opportunities and reunification with the North is the best alternative to the current war.

The problem is that a foreign policy based solely on ideals rather than strategic self-interest often does not have staying power over the long term. When civil society pressure diminishes, so does policy maker’s attention span. South Sudan is now suffering from Washington’s neglect.

Sudanese Islamist leaders, such as Hassan al-Turabi, saw and still see the South as the gateway to Africa: a platform to spread their ideology into Sub-Saharan Africa. The rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, al Shabaab in Somalia, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa, suggests that the violent Islamist vision for Africa remains very much alive. Other northern leaders saw the South’s enormous natural resources as a treasure they could not part with, and resisted a peace agreement for economic reasons. Some Khartoum elites feared a stable democratic South would pose as a threatening alternative to their repressive system. Others within the elite see the South as a source of continuing subversion that weakens their own fragile hold on power.

Some Western diplomats argue that Khartoum’s subversion is defensive rather than offensive: Bashir continues to arm Machar’s forces because Machar has threatened to shut down all of the remaining oil wells, which would damage the North’s anemic economy. Regardless of Khartoum’s motive, another trend is unfolding, which is of more immediate consequence: South Sudan’s economic unraveling, which provides a keen incentive to seek a political settlement to end the war.


The Juba government sits precariously on an economic time bomb, which will explode in slow motion over the remainder of this year. A meltdown of the oil-based urban economy of South Sudan is already underway and could result, shortly, in dislodging the Bahr al-Ghazal Dinka elites as the Juba government collapses, unless they share power in a political settlement, bring the oil fields back up to full production, and allow new oil fields to be opened. None of this is possible without peace.

Several factors are responsible for the present economic crisis. The North–South agreement on oil revenue requires the first $24 dollars of each barrel to go to Khartoum as rent for the oil pipeline through the North to Port Sudan. After Machar’s forces shut down about 30 percent of the oil well production in early 2014, the precipitous drop in oil prices (minus the northern share of production), left the South with a profit of between $7 and $12 per barrel (the June price for oil on the global market was $61).

Many of Juba’s ministries have shut down operationally by paying salaries but nothing else in order to save money (except for the Defense Ministry whose budget has increased to fight the war). The gold deposits in Equatoria are reportedly worth several billion dollars and Juba is so desperate for income that it will sign a deal with anyone, even the lowest bidder, to mine its ore. This move only mortgages the country’s finances, resources, and its future. Even if the war ends, Juba will only have enough revenue to pay its accumulated debt to the banking system from which it has been borrowing internally at about $170 million a month to pay its bills. But the gap between revenues and expenditures remains enormous. The South has been financing some of its deficit by printing money, which has increased the money supply at an alarming rate. Foreign currency reserves have been exhausted; much of the food that feeds Juba is imported from neighboring countries, so the local markets are fragile. Even gas (there are no oil refineries in the South) is in short supply.

A Sudanese engineer points at the damage to an oil pipeline in a largely damaged oilfield in Heglig, April 23, 2012.
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

A dual exchange rate (the official fixed rate and the “illegal” street rate) has been functioning for some time now, which means that the foreign currency exchange shops around Juba, many of which are run by SPLA generals, have been making good profits and have made attempts at reforming the deteriorating currency politically difficult.

The IMF has warned in private briefings in Juba that hyperinflation will consume the economy before the end of 2015. Between January and June, the South Sudanese currency fell in value from 4.5 to 11 against the US dollar. Hyperinflation will eventually make the southern pound, used to pay the SPLA, useless. An effectively unpaid army in the midst of war can be a destabilizing force, particularly in a failing state. A political settlement could help end the massive drain on the government budget (the SPLA amounts to 48 percent of Juba’s payroll) and allow Juba to use its money, instead, to rebuild the oil well infrastructure and invest in public services destroyed by the fighting.

Still, some southerners question the likelihood of eminent economic collapse. After all, the IMF, the UN, and the World Bank made the same predictions after the South shut down oil production in 2011. For reasons international economists still do not fully understand, that collapse never took place. Somehow, Juba kept the government functioning. But this time, the longer the war continues, the more likely that these dire predictions will come true.


For 25 years, NGOs, churches, and human rights organizations (I have been a member of all those communities and have pressed for and managed U.S. policy toward Sudan as a public official) have driven U.S. and European government policy toward Sudan. This is understandable, given the extraordinary level of atrocities, starvation deaths, and massacres orchestrated by several Khartoum regimes to maintain control; this abuse historically empowered these organizations to take leadership. The problem is that a foreign policy based solely on ideals rather than strategic self-interest often does not have staying power over the long term. When civil society pressure diminishes, so does policy maker’s attention span. South Sudan is now suffering from Washington’s neglect: As soon as the South achieved its independence, senior policymakers’ attentions were diverted to the next crisis. While the United States maintains its USAID program, many Europeans donors have, unwisely, massively reduced their commitments to South Sudan.

So then, what strategic interests does the United States share with South Sudan? Next to Israel and Jordan, the only ally that Washington can fully count on in the Middle East and North Africa, is Iraqi Kurdistan because of their common enemy, ISIS, and commitment to a secular government. Historically, South Sudan shares a great deal with the Iraqi Kurds and has the potential to become a strong U.S. ally against the rising offensive of radical Islamist insurgencies in Northern Africa and the Horn. South Sudanese at all levels of society are militant opponents of radical Islam, which they blame for Northern atrocities in the South during the civil war.

It was perhaps this central uniting ideology of the South that led to a 98 percent vote in a free and fair independence referendum in January 2011. South Sudan has enormous mineral, oil, and gas resources, and is one of several watersheds for the Nile River that is critically important to Sudan and Egypt’s survival. It is also strategically located at the center of the Horn of Africa. State collapse in South Sudan will destabilize the entire Horn as refugees pour out of the South along with its extensive weapons arsenals to neighboring countries: Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda, Ethiopia, the Congo, and Sudan itself, a threat Western countries appear to be ignoring.

Any peace settlement in the South will fail unless the United States and other interested parties can neutralize the North’s destabilizing role in the South.

The Pentagon has played too limited a role in modernizing and integrating the SPLA, especially when compared to its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the start, a full military mission was needed in Juba, as well as a full embassy with senior experienced diplomats. The State Department never deployed the same level of resources it did in countries of strategic interest to the United States. Should South Sudan achieve a political settlement, Washington should set up a full military mission in Juba to manage the U.S. role, along with other countries, in the modernization of the SPLA.

However, even with a robust U.S. presence in Juba, South Sudan’s relations with the North will limit the efficacy of any peace settlement. Thus, any attempt to construct a lasting peace settlement in the South must take into account the motives and military capability of the Bashir government (and other neighboring countries) and its evolving grand strategy.

In the past year, the Bashir government has taken several critical decisions that have separated it from its past policies of dividing the South and supporting U.S. enemies. First it has given the impression (though many remain skeptical of the reality) that it has shed itself of militant Islamist leaders and put the military and security apparatus in charge, as well as abrogated its 25-year alliance with Iran’s Ayatollahs. (Sudan had been the base of operations for Iranian intelligence operations in Africa and Port Sudan was the Iranian navy’s base of operations in the region.) Khartoum also appears to have cut off its support for the Houthi Shia tribal insurgency in Yemen. This was done to cultivate ties with Saudi Arabia and Sudan badly needs its backing. In response, the Saudis are rumored to have provided $4 billion in loans during Bashir’s reelection campaign and advanced weapons systems to support Bashir’s latest brutal attempt to crush the northern Sudanese insurgencies in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile State by destroying their villages and cutting off their food supply.

Any peace settlement in the South will fail unless the United States and other interested parties can neutralize the North’s destabilizing role in the South. Washington’s current attempt to negotiate normalization of diplomatic relations with Khartoum should include pressing it to end arms shipments and logistics support to any group in the South.

So far, the neighboring countries’ attempt to broker a peace agreement in the South has failed and should be abandoned. All of the mediating countries have conflicts of interest and few in the South, on either side, trust any of the regional powers. Two of the mediator countries—Kenya and Uganda—who claim to be Juba’s allies, have taken advantage of South Sudan’s weakness and grabbed southern territory by moving their borders north. The countries in the region have threatened to write their own southern peace agreement and simply impose it on the southern elites. Clearly, no imposed settlement, or for that matter negotiated settlement by the two leaders alone, will be sustainable without the support of military commanders on both sides, the tribal councils, and other groups beyond the Bahr al-Ghazal Dinkas and Nuer.

Another problem is that getting these groups to agree on any peace settlement may be impossible. Currently, the Dinkas and Nuer appear to be locked into non-negotiable positions: Juba says it will never agree to a power-sharing deal with Machar and the Nuer commanders (and troops) will never agree to be led again by a Dinka officer corps and in fact, are insisting on an independent army. Juba will never allow South Sudan to return to a federal system of governance, and Machar will sign no agreement without it. Machar is demanding 50 percent of all oil revenues; the Dinka commanders think that agreeing to this demand would essentially be rewarding Nuer for attempting a coup. They therefore say Machar should get nothing. The Equatorians will never agree to give up their vice president position to the Nuer. So Machar cannot get his old job back. And so on.

The difficulty now is that the atrocities committed by both sides are so extensive, the suspicions among the various tribes are so profound, and the damage to the economy so severe, it is difficult to see how any peace settlement could be fashioned, let alone implemented.

One initiative, despite poor initial execution and even worse timing, has been to try to reconstitute the old SPLM (the political party parallel to the SPLA) power structure, which included a broader coalition of the tribal and policy factions of the South. In June, Pagan Amum, the titular leader of Garang’s followers, was reinstated as the Director General of the SPLM, and Machar as the Deputy Director General. Neither appointment has any operational consequences while the war continues, but it is a first step in an attempt to reconstruct some sort of coalition. The problem with this approach is that the SPLM has lost its legitimacy because it has become so corrupt. As one prominent local journalist put it, “When they [the SPLM] fight among themselves they kill everyone, and when they get along, they loot our country and its resources.” Any government, though, even if corrupt, is better than no government, which is the path that South Sudan is now headed.

An integrated U.S. strategy with other donor governments and support of regional powers might help the southern factions to end the conflict and pull the country back from the precipice it is now teetering on. But bringing both sides to Washington to press them to achieve a settlement would only work if the Dinka, Nuer, and other elites, both civilian and military, accompany the two leaders. The selective U.S. and UN sanctions (the ones about to be imposed as well as the ones now in place) against mid-level leaders on both sides of the conflict have increased pressure, but not enough to alter their willingness to negotiate a deal. Instead, the United States, as well as other countries, and the UN must put some positive incentives on the negotiations or the two sides will remain locked in their non-negotiable positions. Getting Uganda to threaten to withdraw its troops or the North to threaten to withdraw its support for Machar’s forces might change the negotiating deadlock. After all, Juba wants U.S. government support for Western mining companies to invest in the South after a peace settlement.

Peace in South Sudan also involves ordering Juba’s chaotic finances. One way of doing so is to get the southern elites to agree to put all southern oil revenues into a World Bank Trust Fund run by some international body. This scenario is unlikely, but an economic collapse might force the elites to compromise.

Even if a settlement is reached, it must be accompanied by reconciliation. Perhaps the only functioning indigenous institution in South Sudan with credibility and no blood on its hands are the Christian Churches (roughly 70 percent of South Sudanese are Christians). They led a very successful unified effort during the transition to independence to guide the South at the grassroots level by preaching tolerance of tribal differences, respect for human rights, and mediating local disputes before they flared up into widespread violence. But they went their own way after independence. Perhaps the global church community could provide support to their counterparts in South Sudan, building them up to play a leadership role during the reconciliation process. A grassroots effort involving the church and civil society, now being suppressed by internal security, will be needed. It will take a generation or more to achieve any lasting result, but without these efforts, there is no hope for a sustainable peace settlement.

The difficulty now is that the atrocities committed by both sides are so extensive, the suspicions among the various tribes are so profound, and the damage to the economy so severe, it is difficult to see how any peace settlement could be negotiated, let alone implemented. Even if a settlement is reached, South Sudan will never achieve stability until it overcomes its deep-seated tribalism and instills in its people a loyalty to the nation above the tribe. That may be the country’s most difficult task. There is hope as younger, educated South Sudanese are forming a movement to rid the country of tribalism. The hard evidence points to state failure, as Juba is paralyzed by an elite, particularly its military commanders, more interested in amassing wealth, than saving the country. And yet over the past decade, the southern leaders have demonstrated their capacity to rise to the occasion. In those times, they have rescued the country even when the dream of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic South was endangered. Perhaps they could do so again.

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  • ANDREW NATSIOS is Executive Professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University and was the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan from 2006–07. He is also the author of Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know.
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