Reflections on South Sudan

One would have thought that the international community, including the UN, the US and the EU, would have been swift to have condemned a failed coup d'état, i.e. the seeking of seizing power and control of the country by the barrel of a gun rather than through the ballot box.

President Salva Kiir of South Sudan asks a very straightforward question.

"If former Vice President Riek Machar was unhappy with how South Sudan was being governed, why did Machar not wait until next year to launch a democratic challenge either to be elected ruler of the SPLN Party, or set up a new Party to contest the Presidential elections next year?"

This is a good question.

Nowhere has Machar explained to the world what was his "causus belli" with either President Salva Kiir or the Government of South Sudan, and nowhere has Machar explained why he wasn't willing to wait to challenge the President in due democratic process next year.

The international media have sought to portray what has happened in South Sudan as either being:

•An ethnic conflict between Dinka and Nuer, or

•As the Financial Times sought to summarise the situation, "the South Sudan crises erupted in Juba the capital last December, after a fall-out between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar, his sacked Deputy, led to clashes between rival army factions that quickly split the country in two". (FT: 14.2.14).

These assertions deserve closer examination.

After decades of tension and conflict with Khartoum, the people of South Sudan voted in a referendum overwhelmingly to become a separate sovereign, de jure, state.

So in 2011, South Sudan seceded from Sudan, following decades of conflict between the mainly Muslim North and the predominantly Christian South Sudan.

In a contested Presidential election, President Salva Kiir was successful with a resounding 93% of the vote.

Riek Machar was elected Deputy Chairman of the SPLN Party and appointed Vice President of the country.

So there can be no doubt that South Sudan is a de jure state, that South Sudan elected its President and Government democratically and that the President and Government of South Sudan had, and have, a full and legitimate mandate.

There was nothing under the rules of the SPLN to prevent Riek Machar challenging the President for the leadership of that political Party, and under the rules of the Party, whoever leads the Party, is the nominated candidate for the Presidential elections.

Alternatively, there was nothing to stop Riek Machar from resigning from the Government and setting up his own political Party to challenge the Presidential elections in 2015.

Machar did neither.

In early December last year, the SPLN Ruling Council had a meeting to agree a number of changes in the Party's constitution, as a consequence of the creation of South Sudan and the fact that the Party was now only concerned with South Sudan and not, as previously, with Sudan as a whole.

This is often the way with organisations agreeing constitutional changes. These changes were debated clause by clause, paragraph by paragraph, followed by a vote on each clause.

On the 15th December there was a vote on a particular clause, amongst the Council of the SPLN, which Riek Machar and six others voted against, and approximately 130 voted for.

The meeting was adjourned until the afternoon to provide for further discussion and the hope that a way might be found forward to meet the concerns of the seven who had voted against.

When the conference resumed that afternoon, Riek Machar was not present, nor were any of the others who had voted against the majority in the morning.

That night fighting broke out in Juba and in other parts of South Sudan.

The attacks were of such a scale and covered so many parts of the country that the only reasonable inference is that they were premeditated, organised and pre-planned.

Indeed, the only thing which prevented this armed uprising initiated by Riek Machar becoming a successful coup d'etat was the swift intervention of Ugandan Special Forces who swiftly secured Juba and in time pushed the rebels out of other parts of South Sudan.

The FT of the 14th February reports that " . . . a close aide to Mr. Machar said his side was looking for a "godfather" to send in military equipment, although both he and Mr. Machar declined to name a potential backer."

What possible justification can there be in international law or otherwise, for Mr. Machar to be seeking military assistance from wherever he can in the world to attack a democratically elected Government and a de jure state?

UK-educated Mr. Machar is much more adept at communicating with and through the international media.

The recent FT article of 14th February had no difficulty in communicating with Mr Machar speaking "in the bush", but the article contained no balancing comment from President Salva Kiir, or anyone in the South Sudanese Government.

One would have thought that the international community, including the UN, the US and the EU, would have been swift to have condemned a failed coup d'état, i.e. the seeking of seizing power and control of the country by the barrel of a gun rather than through the ballot box.

However, because the international media sought to describe attacks by those loyal to Mr. Machar as being "ethnic fighting" and describe the Government's response in similar terms, many international diplomats have sought to ascribe contributory equivalents to both sides, seemingly with little regard to basic principles of international law.

If Riek Machar and his supporters on 15th December 2013 launched a military attack against the Government of South Sudan, and against the people of South Sudan, that must constitute a crime against humanity, not least in the awful effect and consequences that the armed assault last year had brought about.

Last week the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation warned that South Sudan faces major acute food insecurity and food crisis.

Sue Lautze, the FAO Head of Office in South Sudan, said last week:

"South Sudan was already the scene of one of the world's largest humanitarian operations before the fighting began in mid-December last year and the situation is now deteriorating rapidly. Markets have collapsed. Infrastructure is damaged. Foreign traders have fled. Commodity supply corridors have been disrupted by violence and rural populations are unable to bring their crops, livestock and fish to markets for sale in towns."

Nearly two-thirds of South Sudan's 7 million population are now at risk of some level of food insecurity with over 3.5 million already facing acute or emergency levels.

Moreover the severe food insecurity will be further exacerbated if farmers miss the planting season starting next month. Missing the main planting season will have serious knock-on effects on food production and food availability in the country in 2014 and well into next year.

Livestock production is threatened by potential disease outbreaks, as unvaccinated herds mingle with vaccinated livestock - a situation worsened by the partial collapse of the cold chain for vaccine storage due to looting and ongoing violence.

It may be no coincidence that Machar and the rebel forces have sought to concentrate their attacks on the oil producing states of South Sudan to maximise the country's economic disruption. Or, as the FT put it: "..... Mr. Machar has shown his forces can still attack towns and bring oil production to a stop".

There seems to be something of a moral and political ambivalence of the West's present approach to South Sudan.

The West are never slow to argue that wherever possible Africa should be left to resolve African problems.

So one would have thought that the international community would have applauded the swift intervention of Uganda at the request of the Government of South Sudan, without which it is almost certain that a democratically elected Government in a de jure state would have collapsed.

However, instead of applauding the intervention by Uganda in support of the Government of South Sudan - and I would be intersected if anyone could explain how that intervention was in any way different from the intervention of British Forces in Sierra Leone to support the democratically elected Government of President Kabbah.

The United States and others appear to be demanding that the Ugandan troops should leave South Sudan.

Indeed, the FT reports that Riek Machar has " . . . tacit diplomatic support from the US".

What possible reason can there be for the United States to give support to Mr. Machar for leading an armed uprising against a democratically elected Government when, if he had only waited a year, he could have mounted a perfectly proper democratic contest against President Kiir and the existing Government?

When President Kiir is asked for his views on this conundrum, he says that he believes it is all to do with oil !

South Sudan is rich in oil.

In its natural resources, South Sudan is probably considerably wealthier than all the other nations of East Africa combined.

President Kiir's explanation is along the following lines:

That when South Sudan was part of Sudan, the whole of Sudan, including South Sudan, was subject to UN and international sanctions, for a whole number of alleged offences and crimes against humanity, including the disaster in Darfur. Indeed, the Head of State in Sudan is still subject to a warrant from the International Criminal Court.

As a consequence of Sudan being subject to sanctions, both France and the United States caused their oil companies to stop working in Sudan. A new de jure state of South Sudan was not subject to any international sanctions. A new de jure sovereign state of South Sudan was free to let oil blocs to whomever they felt it appropriate in South Sudan's own national interest.

Oil companies from Malaysia, China and other parts of Asia, were quick off the mark in securing oil blocs in South Sudan.

American and French oil companies felt slighted , and that, according to President Kiir, is why in the words of the FT, the US is giving "tacit diplomatic support" to Machar.

Perhaps it is time for the international community to approach the issues in South Sudan on the basis of established principles of international law. Perhaps it is time for the Government of South Sudan to share with the rest of the world, any and all the evidence which they possess, which indicates that the events of December last year were not some outbreak of tribal infighting, but a failed coup d'état and if so, by whom from outside was that coup d'état supported?

Tony Baldry is the Member of Parliament for Banbury, a former UK Foreign Office Minister, a former Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development. Tony Baldry was in South Sudan between 16th-19th February, where amongst others he met and interviewed President Salva Kiir. Tony Baldry is a Barrister and head of a Set of Chambers in the Temple in London.

Before You Go