Remember South Sudan? Washington Would Prefer Not to
Its freedom fighters have turned into brutal oppressors, and it is near to becoming another failed state, despondent U.S. supporters say.
A senior official from South Sudan traveled to Washington this week to solicit U.S. support—and money—for a fragile new peace deal aimed at ending the country’s five-year civil war. In the past, billions of U.S. dollars have flowed into the new nation, along with a great deal of tender American attention. But the mood in Washington is much different now.
This time, the Americans scoffed at and castigated the visitor, Taban Deng Gai, the first vice president of South Sudan, as he tried to assure them the new peace plan would stick.
Through its own abuses and corruption—and after just seven years of existence—South Sudan has gone from being a poor but hopeful nation to something close to a failed state led by a corrupt, oppressive military elite.
Deng met a group of nearly two dozen current and former U.S. officials at a closed-door event this week marked by tense exchanges. He was there to sell Washington on a peace plan signed last month to end the violence that has fractured the country since 2013, two years after it gained independence from Sudan.
It is the latest of more than a dozen cease-fires or peace plans in recent years, all of which have collapsed.
“We believe this peace is not perfect but of course it is better than [the] alternative, which is war,” Deng said to openly skeptical officials at the event hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
Some of Deng’s assertions—that his country was developing rule of law, tackling corruption, and that it was civilians, not the military, carrying out brutal atrocities against the country’s population—were met with a mixture of gasps, muffled laughter, and eye rolls by those in attendance.
When Deng denied that his government security forces were carrying out these attacks and insisted instead it was civilians committing the atrocities, one participant in the event whispered under his breath, “Are you fucking kidding me?”
State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development officials, as well as senior congressional staff and former senior officials, participated in the event—some of whom had devoted decades of their careers to work on South Sudan. Foreign Policy was also in attendance.
“There are people who have worked on South Sudan for decades,” said Joshua Meservey, an Africa expert at the Heritage Foundation. “They poured their professional lives into the Sudan and southern Sudan conflict, and South Sudanese independence was seen as this extraordinarily hopeful moment. For it to go so spectacularly wrong so quickly was a very disillusioning moment for these people.”
Cameron Hudson, a former National Security Council and State Department official who attended the event, told FP afterward that it was easy to feel the frustration in the room. “What you saw around that room was literally hundreds of years’ worth of American blood, sweat, and tears to support these people,” he said. “That’s why the sentiment and emotion … [were] so charged.”
Kate Almquist Knopf, the director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told Deng that the United States had spent $14 billion on South Sudan alone since 2005 to help shepherd its independence and address the burgeoning humanitarian crisis. Deng’s response, blaming U.S. aid for stoking the conflict, drew audible gasps: “This $14 billion, if it was put into proper use, maybe South Sudan would not be in war today.” He then said he would be requesting more financial assistance from the U.S. government.
Another member of Deng’s delegation brushed off the dollar figure, saying the statistics were manipulated and biased.
“It’s somewhat insulting to all of us who have been working to support the people of South Sudan for so many years to say that those numbers are not reliable numbers,” retorted a visibly frustrated Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2013 to 2017. “Americans who have supported South Sudan, we deserve more, and I think the people of South Sudan deserve more.”
The sparring, fraught with emotion and frustration, underscored how far South Sudan has fallen in the eyes of many current and former U.S. policymakers who helped orchestrate the country’s independence from Sudan.
South Sudan is a rare test case of the United States midwifing a country into existence, trying to help create a new democracy from scratch. When the country first gained independence seven years ago, after five decades of a bloody guerrilla struggle with Sudan, it was received with a surge of optimism. Perhaps nowhere outside of South Sudan was there as much optimism as in Washington, where U.S. officials across three presidential administrations had developed relationships with South Sudanese figures over the decades they fought for independence.
“Today is a reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible,” then-President Barack Obama said on July 9, 2011, the day South Sudan formally marked independence.
That optimism crumbled in 2013 after political clashes between President Salva Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar spilled into a violent rebellion. It followed two years of political strife, economic woes, and little if any progress on development despite billions of dollars in foreign aid, blunted in part by government corruption.
What separates South Sudan from other humanitarian crises, Hudson said, is that U.S. officials for decades have cultivated close ties with South Sudanese rebels-turned-freedom fighters-turned-government officials, adding an emotional investment from the U.S. side that other conflicts may lack.
Kiir, the president, still wears a trademark cowboy hat after one was given to him by President George W. Bush in 2006—one small symbol of the South Sudanese leadership’s long attachment to the United States.
New estimates have put the death toll in South Sudan at more than 380,000—proportionally a higher death toll than the conflict in Syria based on the two countries’ populations. Currently, there are some 2.5 million South Sudanese refugees who have fled the conflict to six neighboring countries, including Sudan, the country that South Sudanese sparred with for decades to gain independence.
According to Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, nearly 63 percent of the country’s population faces food insecurity in conditions that brush close to famine.
The conflict is also marked by atrocities by both government security and opposition forces, including executions, torture, gang rape, and sexual slavery, according to the State Department’s 2017 human rights report on South Sudan and studies by international human rights groups.
Last month, Kiir, Machar—now the head of the leading rebel group—and other rival factions signed the latest attempt at a peace deal following the collapse of one in 2015. Deng, speaking in Washington, insisted that his country had learned the lessons of the last collapsed peace deal.
Under the terms of the new peace deal, South Sudan will have five vice presidents and expand its parliament to 550 to include members from all rival factions. Deng said the peace deal emphasizes inclusivity among all parties, something the last peace deal failed to consider. Critics say the plan will only reinforce tribalism and ethnic divides without addressing the root causes of the conflict.
“Don’t attack it. Don’t understand it with the frame of mind of a Westerner or an American frame of mind,” Deng said, defending the deal. “We are still a Bedouin society where accommodation also is important. Accommodation also brings peace.”
The U.S. government, in a joint statement with the United Kingdom and Norway issued last month, said it remains committed to peace in South Sudan but skeptical it will stick given continued violence and blocking of access to humanitarian aid. “[I]n order to be convinced of the parties’ commitment, we will need to see a significant change in their approach,” the governments said.
Deng’s assurances didn’t appear to placate anyone in the room, all of whom kept pressing him on questions of whether the country would release political prisoners, how it would handle bringing war criminals to justice if the peace held, and how it would tackle corruption and governance issues, as well as becoming increasingly unsatisfied and exasperated with Deng’s answers.
Transparency International, an organization that monitors corruption, ranked South Sudan 179th out of 180 countries in its corruption index. An investigation released in March by the Enough Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors South Sudan, concluded that South Sudanese government officials and elite had plundered the country’s oil wealth to bankroll militias that carried out atrocities against civilians.
“The reality of the regime is anyone in any position of authority is almost certainly going to be deeply, deeply corrupt,” said Meservey, the Heritage Foundation expert.
At the end of the event, after Deng wrapped up his remarks, the other participants got up and left, some sighing and shaking their heads, others brushing past the South Sudanese delegation without saying goodbye to a leader in a country they themselves helped found.
“That was just incredible,” said one participant in attendance who declined to speak on record. “I came to see if they’re taking this peace deal seriously, if they’re taking the U.S. seriously, and it’s clear they’re not. It’s so sad.”
“The audaciousness of this visit and his messages were pretty beyond the pale,” said Hudson, the former U.S. official. “This isn’t like Syria. It’s not like Yemen. We invested in this relationship over decades. And after making all of these deposits of political, social, and economic good will, this is what we’re left with: a failed state.”