Until the West starts making the war hurt for corrupt elites, the bloody civil war will go on.
- By Antony LoewensteinAntony Loewenstein is an independent journalist based in South Sudan, a Guardian columnist, and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
In the middle of a hot, clear day on Aug. 21, roughly 2,000 people packed around the John Garang Mausoleum in downtown Juba to shout down the latest deal to end South Sudan’s nearly two-year-long war. Organized by the government, it was an event for true believers, those somehow insulated from the economic ravages of the war: young boys and girls in school uniform, men in suits, and women in colorful dresses. As a DJ sang over pre-recorded music blaring on massive speakers, praising South Sudan and its president, Salva Kiir, participants held large signs written in English declaring “one army, not two” and “no regime change through violence.”
For regime loyalists in the crowd, the nation’s success or failure was connected inextricably to Kiir, seen by them as the liberating hero who brought independence to South Sudan. On Aug. 19, a letter was distributed on the letterhead of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling party, calling on the government not to sign any peace agreement with the opposition. It opposed the “recolonization” of South Sudan by foreign powers, Sudan, the U.N., or the African Union — a fear expressed by many locals.
It did not come as a surprise then that the cease-fire penned in the last days of August has failed, and did so almost as soon as it began. Despite both government and rebel forces agreeing to stop fighting from midnight on Aug. 29, days after Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel leader Riek Machar to stop the 20-month conflict in the country, little has changed on the ground. Clashes in Unity State are ongoing with the government and opposition both accusing the other of breaking the peace. In late August, a town in Payinjiar County was allegedly shelled by government troops trying to wrestle it back from the rebels.
Both Kiir and Machar have maintained that they are still committed to the deal — Kiir is set to present the agreement to the national legislature for ratification on Tuesday, and Machar has promised approval on a similar timeline — blaming the other for breaking the peace. But there is ample reason to doubt their commitment: If the deal fully falls apart, it will be at least the seventh to collapse just after being signed. And the West, so far, has appeared powerless to stop the carnage. On Friday, the U.N. Security Council met to discuss an arms embargo and sanctions against leaders who have thwarted the latest attempt at peace.
One of the most daunting impediments to a sustainable peace in the country is the people who run it — for the moment, the elites only stand to lose, both financially and politically, from a settlement. And the international community has struggled to address that ugly fact. Though the U.N. has threatened new sanctions, few would change the country’s dysfunctional patronage system. There has yet to be a concerted attempt to focus on vested interests, including asset freezes in outside countries. Although NGOs, such as the Enough Project’s recently launched endeavor The Sentry, have begun to target the financing of Africa’s worst conflicts, state efforts have lagged behind.
Even as he signed the latest cease-fire agreement, President Kiir made it clear that he was deeply suspicious of the deal pushed by African nations, the United Nations, and United States. “The current peace we are signing today has so many things we have to reject,” he said. “Such reservations, if ignored, would not be in the interests of just and lasting peace.” During the signing of the peace agreement, Kiir even attached a list of amendments, rejected by the Obama administration, outlining his concerns.
Components of the deal include demilitarizing the capital Juba, cessation of hostilities, reinstalling Machar as vice president, sharing oil fields, and improving humanitarian access for civilians. It also calls for a transitional government to take power in 90 days.
Arguably, Kiir only signed because Washington and the U.N. threatened an arms embargo and new sanctions designations against senior military and government figures; it’s a stalling tactic he has used before. On Sept. 1, the United States reiterated that threat: State Department spokesman Mark Toner reminded the warring parties that “anyone acting to spoil the peace agreement implementation will face consequences.” The State Department declined to comment further on the chances of the United States imposing sanctions if the conflict persisted.
South Sudan won its independence from Sudan in 2011, but the country collapsed into war in December 2013 as Kiir and Machar, his former deputy, fought over power sharing and access to copious oil reserves. Although reliable figures are hard to find, the International Crisis Group has publicly stated that the death toll could be at least 100,000. Hundreds of thousands of children are living without education, and 2.2 million — more than one-sixth of the country’s population — have been forced from their homes, with almost 200,000 taking shelter at U.N. bases. At least 40 percent of the population is severely hungry, and levels of brutality are extreme.
So what can the West do?
Humanitarian leaders have called for action that better targets the elites perpetuating the war. After the recent signing of the peace agreement, international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Enough Project, and Oxfam, continued advocating for tough measures against leaders and military heads who willfully caused civilian suffering. They also called for effective mechanisms to implement justice for victims and perpetrators. There is still no road map toward establishing a robust court capable of hearing cases of war crimes or genocide; a proposal in the peace agreement calls for a court with South Sudanese and Africans overseeing violations of international law. Meaningful sanctions with bite remain an option for America if war continues, though Washington’s engagement is likely to be minimal as the Obama administration is consumed with troubles in the Middle East.
Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation, recently wrote, “Political survival [in South Sudan] is determined by the iron laws of the marketplace: The politician needs a political budget sufficient to secure the loyalty of subordinates and to compete with rivals.” Kiir’s hesitation to agree to peace, de Waal explains, was “because he has a limited and shrinking political budget, the price of loyalty has not decreased, and the number of claimants on those funds is increasing. In the current political marketplace system, he cannot make peace without more money.” More pointedly, fighting will continue as long as the current patronage system for dividing wealth survives. Sanctions can’t fix it, but targeting assets is an important first step toward ultimately replacing the corrupt political system.
The U.N. and the United States, however, have so far been unable or unwilling to do so. Justine Fleischner, the Sudan and South Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, told me that her organization wants a court to “prosecute economic and atrocity crimes, including pillaging and grand corruption.” The U.S. Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, she said, “is another tool that may be deployed to support efforts to prosecute economic crimes,” but the political will to pursue those committing the crimes is absent.
An arms embargo, which was reportedly discussed at the U.N. on Friday, is “notoriously difficult to implement, and any effective arms embargo on South Sudan would have to be regionally and globally enforced,” she said. Weapons are coming from countries such as Uganda, China, Israel, and Sudan. Even with the peace agreement signed and the most serious sanctions taken off the table, Fleischner believes that the difficulties of enforcement aren’t a reason to avoid an arms embargo. “It would allow the U.N. Panel of Experts to more closely monitor arms flows. It would also provide a basis for secondary sanctions and public exposure directed at any state or entity facilitating arms deals.”
It’s a position shared by Human Rights Watch. Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, told me, “No matter what happens with this peace deal, we think the U.N. should be taking steps to impose an arms embargo, widen and implement sanctions [on] individuals responsible for serious crimes against civilians, and take concrete steps to plan a justice mechanism.”
While the U.N. contemplates updating the remit of its peacekeepers to help implement an already faltering peace agreement, the people of South Sudan are no closer to experiencing a peaceful present and future. Rhetorical battles over peace deals mean nothing for the millions of civilians caught in the crossfire. If the U.N. and Washington are serious about ending the endemic violence and corruption in South Sudan, a radical new strategy must be adopted, targeting the key players behind the violence. Unless this happens soon, the already bad situation can only get worse.
Photo credit: SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images