How the U.S. Triumph in South Sudan Came Undone
The White House bet on guerrilla fighters changing their warring ways. Turns out it was a bad bet.
In August, 2009, the South Sudanese politician and former guerrilla fighter Riek Machar invited President Barack Obama's envoy, Scott Gration, over for a few bottles of White Bull Lager on his patio overlooking the Upper Nile River.
In August, 2009, the South Sudanese politician and former guerrilla fighter Riek Machar invited President Barack Obama’s envoy, Scott Gration, over for a few bottles of White Bull Lager on his patio overlooking the Upper Nile River.
Seated under the shade of a Mango tree, Machar confessed to struggling with the challenges of governing under a power sharing arrangement with the Sudanese leadership in Khartoum, an erstwhile enemy. "He told me that war was easier than politics because in war you knew who was shooting at you," recalled Cameron Hudson, who served as an advisor to Gration and many other U.S. envoys to Sudan.
Earlier this month, Machar, South Sudan’s first vice president, returned to what he knows best, leading an armed insurgency being fought by members of his Nuer tribe. In recent days, the fighting has escalated sharply, engulfing several of the country’s 10 provinces, and bringing the young nation to the brink of civil war.
The stakes are high for the United States, as fighting threatens to upend one of the most important foreign policy initiatives of the last two decades in sub-Saharan Africa — one that unified Republicans, Democrats, African Americans, human rights advocates, and Christians. On Saturday, four U.S. troops were wounded when their V-22 Osprey came under fire during an aborted operation to evacuate U.S. nationals from the town of Bor. An additional 150 Marines have been sent to the region to prep for possible future evacuations.
It’s an extraordinary and painful development, given America’s major role in securing independence for South Sudan. But the toughest part for Americans to swallow may be that it’s the U.S.-backed leaders of South Sudan — the supposed good guys — that are responsible for plunging the country into chaos and threatening to wreck America’s signature achievement in the region.
"A whole generation of U.S. leaders that are invested in the success of South Sudan are heartbroken; I’m heartbroken about what going on there, especially because you don’t see the hand of Khartoum in this," said Hudson. "I think it’s going to be very [difficult] to get the genie back in to the bottle. These guys are good at fighting and they are comfortable doing it."
Forces loyal to the U.S.-backed Machar seized the strategic town of Bor in Jonglei State and the town of Bentiu, capital of the oil-rich Unity State. That prompted a massive government military build-up aimed at retaking the territory. In the past 10 days, as South Sudan’s hopes of a peaceful transition came undone, more than 100,000 civilians fled their homes from the violence, 40,000 of them congregated around a series of U.N. peacekeeping camps to seek protection from marauding soldiers and militias. Desperate to halt the march to war, the U.N. Security Council is poised to adopt an American-drafted Security Council resolution condemning both sides for alleged human rights violations and authorizing the deployment of nearly 6,000 additional international peacekeepers and police to reinforce the existing force of more than 7,000 blue helmets in South Sudan.
"There is a palpable fear among civilians of both Dinka and Nuer backgrounds that they will be killed on the basis of their ethnicity," Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Tuesday, noting that mass graves have been found in Bentiu and in the South Sudanese capital of Juba.
It is not the first time that Machar has rebelled against his southern allies, having challenged South Sudan’s late, legendary leader John Garang in 1991. Six years later, Machar signed a peace pact with the Sudanese government in Khartoum that elevated him to vice president, before switching sides again and rejoining his old comrades in arms in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in 2002. This time, Machar is taking up arms against his own president, Salva Kiir, a fellow southerner from the Dinka tribe, who fired Machar along with his entire cabinet in July for insubordination.
The country’s quick descent into the inter-ethnic violence has stunned American observers, who had long viewed the Sudanese government in Khartoum as posing the greatest threat to South Sudan’s future. But it’s South Sudan’s own unresolved internal political and ethnic differences that appear to be endangering the country’s hopes. Sudan was the site of one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest civil wars, with as many as 2 million dying from combat, hunger, and disease in a conflict that lasted 22 years. The war formally ended in 2005 with a U.S.-brokered peace agreement paving the way for the separation of South Sudan, which achieved its independence in July 2011. Last week, President Barack Obama warned that South Sudan’s "future is at risk," and that the ethnic violence "threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past."
In Washington, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who has championed South Sudan’s cause in the United States and at the United Nations for more than two decades, warned this weekend that the United States’ longstanding support was in jeopardy.
"For all those who choose the path of peace and democracy, know that the United States will continue to stand with you, as we have at every step of your journey," said Rice, who has spoken to both Kiir and Machar in recent days, according to a source close to her. "But, I must also be clear: If a different choice is made, if individuals or groups seek to take or hold power through force, mass violence, or intimidation, the United States will have no choice but to withdraw our traditional, robust support. Killing will only lead to deprivation and isolation for the people of South Sudan."
The latest conflict has brought renewed focus to the leadership of Salva Kiir, a former guerrilla fighter, who was thrust into the leadership role after South Sudan’s liberation leader, John Garang, was killed in a plane crash. A revered figure in Democratic and Republican circles, Kiir is routinely granted presidential and high-level cabinet meetings. When then-Senator John F. Kerry visited Juba, South Sudan, in 2011, he brought two gifts for Kiir, a white Stetson cowboy hat and a matching black Stetson. As the offerings were presented one of Kerry’s aides quipped, "the white one is for when you are doing good, the black one is for when you’re doing bad."
There have been few sightings of Kiir in his good hat in recent days. Critics say he has wielded power with an increasingly authoritarian hand, evicting U.N. human rights monitors, blocking the creation of political parties, jailing journalists, and dissolving his entire political cabinet. Some of his most influential lieutenants have been imprisoned.
In November, a group of 15 Sudanese and international human rights organizations voiced concern in a joint letter to Kiir about the intimidation, arrest, and harassment of journalists and human rights advocates in South Sudan. "Human rights defenders reporting on government and army human rights violations have been subject to intimidation, threats and institutional barriers to their work. A number have since fled into exile," the letter read. "There has been no progress by authorities in identifying the killers of a prominent commentator and journalist, Isaiah Abraham, who was shot by gunmen on December 5, 2012."
While the renewed fighting has been blamed on tribal tensions, the feud between Kiir and Machar was driven more by a quest for power than ethnicity.
Machar has long harbored president
ial ambitions, and had hoped to succeed Kiir when his first mandate expired in 2015. Late last year, Machar declared his plan to run for the chairmanship of the Sudanese People Liberation Movement, a position that would put him in line to become president.
But there was intense resistance within Kiir’s inner circle, many drawn from the Dinka tribe, to the political ascension of Machar, a man who has been linked by human rights groups to the November 1991 Bor Massacre of at least 2,000 Dinka.
Kiir allegedly cancelled a meeting of South Sudan’s governing body that was supposed to determine the rules for participation in the country’s new election. Machar responded by issuing a series of critical statements about the government and president Kiir. In response, Kiir stripped Machar in April of additional powers he had been granted, including the role of the government liaison with the United Nations. In July, Kiir fired Machar and his other cabinet members.
"General Kiir is driving our beloved Republic of South Sudan into chaos and disorder," Machar, Sudanese People Liberation Movement secretary general Pagan Amum, and other party leaders said at a Dec. 6 press conference.
It remains unclear who was responsible for triggering the latest round of violence, which began after a Dec. 14 meeting of the National Liberation Council that Kiir held with Machar and several other rivals. Machar was one of many who declined to the attend the second day’s meeting, at which Kiir reportedly decided to disarm the presidential guard, which included security forces drawn from a number of South Sudanese tribes, primarily Dinka and Nuer.
Accounts vary as to what happened next.
Kiir claims that he was the target of a coup d’etat, and ordered the arrest of at least 11 opposition leaders, including Pagan Amum. But others sources said that Nuer members of the presidential guard opened fire on their Dinka comrades after they discovered they were attempting to reclaim their weapons.
Some have come to Kiir’s defense.
"President Salva Kiir was elected democratically and he did his best to keep the country united and democratic, despite some setbacks," said Ted Dagne, a former advisor to Kiir. "Machar by his own admission is now attempting to overthrow a democratically elected government."
The United States and other outside powers, meanwhile, are pressing the two sides to begin peace talks. So far, Machar has demanded that the 11 opposition leaders be released from jail before he participates in talks. "President Kiir has said that he will sit down for negotiations with no preconditions," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters late Monday. "Riek Machar has now laid out his preconditions…. And we’re going to have to work that through, because for as long as these two individuals are at loggerheads, refusing to sit down with one another, innocent people are being killed."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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