The United States made South Sudan’s leaders sign a peace deal — but they can’t make it work without cash.
- By Alex de WaalAlex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power, is published this month.
Currently out of the headlines, South Sudan’s war, which began in December 2013, is a brutal competition for power between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar. This conflict in the world’s youngest state has left tens of thousands dead. In August, African mediators drafted a “Compromise Peace Agreement” to try to end the fighting. The U.S. role was to ratchet up pressure on the warring leaders to sign it. This was difficult enough — but maintaining smart pressure on those leaders for sufficient time to actually implement the deal will prove well-nigh impossible.
The United States’ support for peace in South Sudan offers a lesson in the shortcomings of the dominant American model for fixing countries in conflict: squeeze their leaders until they cry “uncle” and agree to pretend to be democrats. The problem with this is that the pretense cannot be upheld for long. Different, more complex tools are needed to consolidate a ceasefire and establish a workable power-sharing arrangement. To keep the peace, South Sudanese leaders need enough funds, and the discretion to use them, to grease the wheels of their patronage machines and buy a real peace that’s not just on paper. If the U.S. is to involve itself in fixing conflicts — and not just in South Sudan — it needs to recognize this disagreeable truth.
The Compromise Peace Agreement follows the standard template: power-sharing among belligerents; attempts to make security arrangements (a ceasefire and building a national military and security sector); division of national wealth; elections; and a truth, reconciliation, and justice process. It’s attractive on paper, but lacks the fundamental requirements of a working deal. There’s little goodwill, either between the leaders who signed the deal, or between them and the outside parties — their African neighbors and the United States — who imposed it. President Kiir was conspicuously reluctant, and felt insulted when his detailed reservations were unceremoniously discarded. Machar, too, has been visibly skeptical, dragging his feet on filling in the details of the security plan.
There’s good reason the parties to the peace deal are unenthusiastic — they lack the resources to implement it. Coercive diplomacy can bring South Sudan’s leaders to the negotiating table, and it can even compel them to sign a peace agreement — but it can’t make it stick. They need, quite simply, money. And the United States’ failure to recognize this is the basic flaw in the strategy for ending the war in South Sudan.
The United States’ policies toward South Sudan have been astonishingly naïve. In 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met the then-leader of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), John Garang, in an apparent endorsement of the group. At the time, a senior official on Albright’s team said that the meeting represented a demonstration of support for a “[future] regime that will not let Khartoum become a viper’s nest for terrorist activities.” A bipartisan array of Washington advocates for South Sudan held out the hope that this guerrilla movement would shed its record of corruption and human rights violations, and transform into a model of good governance. That didn’t happen, of course. So when a fratricidal war erupted in December 2013, Washington behaved like a spurned lover, turning from uncritical adoration to condemnation and coercion.
Lost in the middle was understanding of what makes South Sudanese governance function: political payoffs. When northern Sudan ran the territory as a quasi-colony, it used the tried-and-tested imperial method of divide-and-rule, renting the allegiance of southern Sudanese chiefs and militia commanders at the going rate. Khartoum’s intelligence chiefs were malign but smart: they rarely overpaid their clients. When Kiir became the SPLM’s leader in 2005, he simply adapted this same marketplace system to his own goal — the independence of South Sudan.
He used South Sudan’s oil wealth to buy the loyalties of every militia commander in the market, in the process building up a putative army of 745 generals (41 more than the U.S.’s four combined services), and, in the process, bidding the price of loyalty higher than Khartoum could afford. Kiir won the auction handsomely in 2011 when South Sudanese voted for independence. But this kind of patronage market only works while the money keeps rolling in — and when South Sudan shut down its national oil production in 2012 in a dispute with northern Sudan, cutting off 98 percent of its government revenue, the money quickly ran out. Oil exports resumed in April 2013, but too late to replenish the coffers, and the SPLM crashed into civil war.
Every workable peace deal in Sudan or South Sudan — including the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the 2006 Juba Declaration — has been forged during a period of budgetary expansion. When funds are growing, leaders can apply public monies to their “political budgets” and thereby build a constituency for peace through bribes, allocations of government and army posts, and licenses for corrupt dealings. It’s not pretty — but it works.
The 2015 Compromise Peace Agreement tried to do something never achieved before: impose a deal on leaders who are strapped for cash. Kiir immediately did the only thing a political dealer in such a predicament could do: He squeezed out the outlying members of his political coalition and cracked down on opposition groups that represented their potential alternative constituencies, freeing up political funds and jobs. He also rushed through an administrative reform, increasing the number of states from ten to 28, thereby creating a host of new official posts he could hand out. Machar has, of course, rejected these, and is maneuvering to ensure that there are key positions for his own protégés, especially in the army.
The U.S. and other internationals are justifiably outraged at the war crimes committed in South Sudan, the mind-boggling extremes of its corruption, and the blatant self-interestedness of its leaders. There’s no doubt that according to any contemporary ethical standard, the entire political leadership warrants criminal investigation, and the summary punishments of targeted sanctions are well-deserved.
Unfortunately, measures such as targeted sanctions and crackdowns on corruption are constraining South Sudanese leaders’ political finances at this critical moment. Squeezing them won’t make them honest — it will just make them desperate. We may wish South Sudan to be led to peace, democracy and development by paragons of political virtue. But the reality is that the country is stuck, for now at least, with the leaders of today. And bitter experience suggests that these leaders can make peace only if their political budgets are filled with ready cash.
So, following the “Ikea Rule” — if you stick it together, it’s yours — the U.S.’s immediate fix for South Sudan is money. Not development aid or programs of institution building run by professional contractors, but ready cash. Either direct aid to the government and army, with few questions asked, or a deal with the Asian oil companies to reschedule the commercial debts that President Kiir has run up to pay for the war.
The other peace track is slow financial and democratic reform. Part of this is getting those who fund the government — Asian oil companies and Western donors — to use their financial clout more cleverly. Recognizing that political leaders need political budgets, these systems of reward can be mapped and formalized, so that political finance becomes an instrument for transparency and accountability, rather than larceny and gangsterism. We could call this “politically smart anti-corruption.” In South Sudan, a chamber of commerce is a stepping-stone to a democratic assembly.
The final element is to take a step never considered by the mediators of South Sudan’s conflict: go out and consult the people. On the unfailing principle that those who define the problem are those who have a chance of solving it, the implementation of the Compromise Peace Agreement should involve talking — at length — with South Sudan’s citizens and letting them set an agenda. This will be slow, noisy and unruly, but South Sudan’s long-suffering people will be sure to seize an unprecedented opportunity to express their views and propose what needs to be done. Unlike their political masters, ordinary people will not demand personal payoff in exchange for peace. Peace and democracy are best learned by practice, and an internationally-imposed peace process should provide the chance to do just this.
In the photo, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir walks away from the podium after addressing the India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi on October 29, 2015.
Photo credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images