The Blog

South Sudan: Why Peace Eludes Us All

Juba began to emulate its neighbor, Kenya, where electioneering is a daily norm. The camp under Riek Machar had the sympathies of millions who longed for a progressive change.

President Salva Kiir (right) and his former Deputy Riek Machar. © The Niles

I have restlessly watched my country drift into chaos in the past one year. On the night of December the 15th, 2013, Juba, the national capital was engulfed in artillery fire, sustained shelling and shootouts. In the ensuing days and months, we watched perfect savagery emanate from Juba and its margins. Death and destruction became rampant. External actors earnestly tried to broker a peace deal between the warring parties to no avail. The inability to end the war has cost the people of South Sudan, the women, the children and the elderly their dear lives. Thousands are dead and livelihoods have been irreparably ruined. Interethnic relations have soured across the nation. South Sudan now looks like a botched exercise in nation-making. The intervention of the regional IGAD group has been extremely unwieldy. In spite of various threats of sanctions, the parties to the conflict fight with reliable frequency. Ceasefire has ceased. And a year on since the war broke out, many are oblivious as to why peace eludes us all.

My hunch is that some of us have tried to temper with the facts of what truly led to the explosion. This sort of manipulation of the truth impedes our ability to end the senseless war speedily. If South Sudan cannot give a name to the disease, it cannot prescribe a cure. Aside from the apparent regionalization of the civil war, I would argue that the ultimate obstacles that prevent an amicable settlement from being clinched stem from internal complications. This first instalment is my take on how I believe the war ignited. Subsequent posts will tackle underlying triggers that prolong the civil war.

To start, the immediate cause of the ghastly violence was a power struggle within the ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, S.P.L.M. President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, is the Chairman of the party. Former Vice President, Riek Machar, a Nuer, was the First Deputy Chairman of the party. These two leaders shared power for eight years after the untimely death of the SPLM founding father, Dr. John Garang in 2005. Although rivalry permeated the duo's relationship throughout the interim period, they managed to steer South Sudan through a successful referendum and independence in 2011. Machar and Kiir were political odd couples from the get-go. In 1991, Machar deserted the SPLM and its armed wing, the SPLA, to wage a failed coup against the movement commanded then by Garang and Kiir, in concert with the Khartoum regime. In Garang's hometown of Bor, Machar's troops killed thousands of Dinka civilians in series of massacres, collectively known as the Bor Massacre. That dark chapter lurked after Machar even after he reconciled with Garang to come back to the fold before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the North-South Sudan civil war in 2005.

On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was born. Its people erupted in gleeful celebration. The world applauded. Irrespective of the euphoria that marked the birth of the new nation, its inherited challenges were enormous. Firstly, we had a determinedly hostile neighbor in the Sudan that did all it could to plant seeds of future discord. Khartoum regime sponsored various militia factions to undermine our sovereignty and spread lawlessness around. The regime also economically squeezed South Sudan into a tight corner. At this stage, the independence honeymoon had wane. The hoisting of our flag didn't make a dent in people's lives. Changes were imminent. It dawned on President Kiir that he had to break his networks of patronage to get basic services to the poor. He contemplated a change in business as usual with regards to his big tent coalition of disparate political groups that he had awarded lucrative posts in the administration to buy a temporary reprieve.

Of course, the rule by the former guerrillas has been unruly. Elites got the cake, the poor majority got death. Uncontrolled corruption and impunity took root. Bad governance was the hallmark of leadership. Intertribal clashes and cattle rustling became legendary in the restive state of Jonglei. South Sudan appeared ungovernable and ungoverned.

At the height of all these cataclysmic events in the nation, Machar sensed an opportunity. He sparred with Mr. Kiir in the media. What was a collective loss of direction, Machar put it squarely on the President and the party Chairman, his boss. He was fired in the government along with a powerful bloc made up of 'liberators.' The disgruntled core ganged up and fought Mr. Kiir hard around 'internal party reforms.'

First, the deposed wing of the SPLM went back to the dormant parliament and enlivened it. The alliance struck down a presidential cabinet nominee for justice in parliamentary vetting, a first and a test case for their influence. Still, the emerging opposition looked loose. Some of the 'liberators,' known as "Garang's Boys" felt eerie about Riek, recalling his past deeds. A member of the "Garang's Boys" summed up their then relationship with Riek Machar this way to me: "The enemy of your enemy is your friend."

Juba began to emulate its neighbor, Kenya, where electioneering is a daily norm. The camp under Riek Machar had the sympathies of millions who longed for a progressive change. Oh boy, the opposition rolled the dice during the rainy season like they were in America: December 6, 2013, the opposition held an unprecedented press conference where they sharply criticized Mr. Kiir. No violence. No arrest. Masses were relieved.

Among key points that Machar raised was that the President was training thousands of his own private army from his home area. A couple of days later, the SPLM wing of Mr. Kiir countered the accusations levelled against their chairman in another spirited media event.

Everybody held their breath nervously. The stage appeared ripe for something. Of what make, it was only a guess and certainly a matter of time.

Suddenly, a meeting of the SPLM National Liberation Council was hastily called. This move went against the counsel of church elders who begged for time to defuse tension.

On December 14, all the SPLM wings attended the opening of the NLC. A lot of vitriol could be detected in the air. The next day, the opposition boycotted. Kiir super majority in the party also dislodged the secretary general, a Machar ally, and passed the manifesto and basic rules that the opposition fought.

On that momentous night, December the 15th, the war exploded at an army barracks in Juba. Was that battle premeditated? Was it an attempted coup by Machar's army loyalists? I will leave that to ardent researchers.

What was very crystal clear to me was that the violence wasn't spontaneous. Everybody knew the game. The main army was dominated by Machar's Nuer ethnic group and thousands of those joined him in the rebellion against Mr. Kiir. I am inclined to think that a swift deployment of the President's loyalist troops around Juba saved his embattled presidency.

To be continued......