Deep Dive

Succession in South Sudan

America’s greatest success story in Africa has degenerated into its biggest failure.

Salva Kiir, then-acting president of the government of Southern Sudan
Salva Kiir, then-acting president of the government of Southern Sudan, leaves after casting his vote during the first day of voting for the independence referendum in the Southern Sudanese city of Juba on Jan. 9, 2011. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

I. Founding Fathers

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan’s first day of independence, the country’s new president, Salva Kiir, received a copy of Ron Chernow’s biography of the American Founding Father George Washington. It was a gift from a former American diplomat, intended to serve as a guide to democratic governance and to underscore the connection between the world’s oldest democracy and the nation it helped birth.

I. Founding Fathers

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan’s first day of independence, the country’s new president, Salva Kiir, received a copy of Ron Chernow’s biography of the American Founding Father George Washington. It was a gift from a former American diplomat, intended to serve as a guide to democratic governance and to underscore the connection between the world’s oldest democracy and the nation it helped birth.

Kiir, a former bush fighter who never finished grade school, frequently read the book for inspiration and to reflect on the importance of serving the public interest and the common good, recalled Andrew Natsios, the former U.S. diplomat who gave it to Kiir. Natsios, a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, served as President George W. Bush’s special envoy in Sudan from September 2006 to December 2007. South Sudan’s founding would have been unthinkable without the fervent backing of an assortment of American supporters, including Bush, who championed a landmark 2005 peace agreement that paved the way to independence.

But after a decade in office, South Sudan’s founding president has largely failed to establish a viable state, let alone a fledgling democracy modeled on Washington’s America. Instead he has led the country through a self-destructive ethnic civil war, repeatedly put off commitments to hold elections, and squandered the country’s considerable oil wealth to erect a security apparatus devoted to guaranteeing his political survival.

“I think [Kiir] was very well-intentioned to begin with,” Natsios said, noting that Kiir had played a critical early role in averting a resumption of war with the north in the years preceding independence, and he had tried to check corruption after taking office. “He has devolved into a very troubling, brutal dictator. He’s torturing people, he’s executing people. People are disappearing. Some of them are friends of mine, and I am very troubled by it.”

For many in South Sudan, any hope for a better future depends on the departure of Kiir, a leader of the Dinka, a group that accounts for more than a third of the country’s population. It will also require the exit of Kiir’s long-standing rival and vice president, Riek Machar, who is a leader of South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic group, the Nuer. Seven and a half years ago, the two leaders launched a bitter civil war that left nearly 400,000 people dead and forced millions from their homes.

On July 9, South Sudan prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of its independence, a commemoration that provides less cause for celebration than for reflection on the dire state of national affairs. South Sudan is home to around 12 million people, drawn from more than 60 tribes or ethnic groups, whose cultures, religions, and languages are distinct from the traditional Islamic Arab government in Sudan, to the north.

Today, South Sudan is as poor and reliant on foreign assistance as it has ever been. Despite billions of dollars in U.S. assistance over the past decade, including nearly $500 million in fiscal year 2021, the South Sudanese people’s need for humanitarian assistance has grown significantly. In 2021, the number of people there in need of support grew to 8.5 million, roughly two-thirds of the country’s entire population, representing a nearly 1.5 million increase from 2019, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. As of this March, several counties in South Sudan were enduring “famine-like conditions,” according to an April 15 report by the U.N. panel of experts focusing on South Sudan.

According to the U.N. panel, multiple senior South Sudanese officials have expressed concern that “Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar have become obstacles to democracy, economic development and human progress in South Sudan.” The panel’s report went on to recommend the two should step down “to allow the country to explore other political alternatives and prevent new conflict.”

But Kiir has failed to build state institutions that could guide the nation through its first major transition of power since independence. There is growing skepticism that South Sudan will be able to organize national elections slated for 2023.

“Kiir’s presidency has been a disaster, and most South Sudanese have come to that conclusion, but there is no clear path yet beyond Kiir’s presidency,” said Alan Boswell, a former reporter who covered South Sudan’s independence drive and who currently serves as a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“There are no institutions in the country; the only institution that exists is the army and it’s by and large a predatory institution,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center who previously served as chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and as director for African affairs at the National Security Council. And, Hudson added, “there is no George Washington figure inside or outside the country that can come in and unify the country along tribal lines.”


Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visits the village of Malau in South Sudan on May 24, 2011.

Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visits the village of Malau in South Sudan on May 24, 2011. Paul Banks/United Nations Missions in Sudan via REUTERS

II. Great Expectations

A decade ago, South Sudan’s independence day represented one of the greatest achievements of American diplomacy in Africa, offering a rare example of bipartisan cooperation as U.S. President Barack Obama’s U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and former President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell attended the independence ceremonies in Juba.

Today, South Sudan has become a symbol of American hubris and overreach, as American policymakers and advocates watch one of their greatest policy achievements in Africa unravel in the face of rampant corruption, violence, and administrative paralysis.

In addition to Bush and many senior figures in his administration, the founding of the nation was bolstered in the United States by Christian evangelicals, including then-Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican, as well as by the Congressional Black Caucus, including the late Rep. Donald Payne, a Democrat. There was also a group of young liberal supporters in former President Bill Clinton’s administration, including Rice and John Prendergast, a staffer on the National Security Council who went on to co-found the anti-genocide Enough Project. All drew inspiration from the south’s struggle against a brutal Islamist regime and lobbied Washington policymakers for years on behalf of Juba, which is still the world’s newest capital city.

Susan Rice—who helped champion South Sudan’s cause—described Kiir in her memoir as “South Sudan’s hard-drinking, do-nothing, demi-dictator president” and Machar as “his vicious, self-aggrandizing vice president.”

In recent years, most of these early champions have distanced themselves from Kiir, and U.S. policymakers have moved on to other pressing international crises. In June 2013, after Kiir unleashed a violent campaign against ethnic Nuer, a group of advocates and foreign-policy wonks—Prendergast; Ted Dagne, a former Africa expert with the Congressional Research Service who remains close to Kiir and continues to defend him; Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College who wrote long blog posts detailing Sudanese government atrocities; and Roger Winter, a former head of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and expert on Sudan for USAID and the State Department—wrote an open letter to Kiir, urging him to change course. The letter, which never directly accused Kiir of atrocities, decried impunity for government officials who engage in political repression, murder, and corruption. “[N]o one has been held accountable,” they wrote.

Rice—who helped champion South Sudan’s cause and shielded South Sudan from U.N. sanctions from her posts at the U.N., where she served as the top U.S. ambassador, and then at the White House—would go on to describe Kiir in her memoir Tough Love as “South Sudan’s hard-drinking, do-nothing, demi-dictator president” and Machar as “his vicious, self-aggrandizing vice president.”

In an interview, Prendergast said that Kiir shoulders responsibility for presiding over a kleptocracy that uses extreme violence to maintain its control over state resources. But he added that he and other advocates for South Sudan, as well as the United States and other international donors, also bear a share of responsibility. They refrained from publicly criticizing the government for its abuses, Prendergast said, and failed to insist that the government resolve its internal political conflicts and account for the massive amounts of money that flowed into them from foreign capitals. “We didn’t hit them hard enough, publicly,” he said.

Prendergast said that South Sudan’s problems run deeper than the shortcomings of its two leaders. “The operating system of government was, and is, mass corruption,” he said in a telephone interview. “The objectives of the institutions established in South Sudan was, and still is, personal enrichment.”

In many ways, Prendergast said, South Sudan has followed the model of other revolutionary movements in Africa. “The first generation of leadership takes everything. They don’t build institutions,” he said. “They gave everything to the struggle and they feel like, ‘Now we kind of deserve this.’” Prendergast said that greed is not the only driving force behind the effort to steal state resources, noting that South Sudan’s leaders “all have massive political and security patronage networks they need to feed. You have to have your own personal army to get a seat at the table.”

“There were high expectations from people outside of South Sudan, because we were seen as oppressed and now we have independence,” South Sudan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Deng Dau Deng Malek said in a telephone interview. “We didn’t meet the expectation.”


III. Partners in Peace

Salva Kiir was never meant to lead South Sudan.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which spearheaded the armed struggle for independence from Khartoum, was founded in 1983 by John Garang, a southern revolutionary, who preached the importance of uniting Sudan’s ethnic groups. The conflict—which resulted in the deaths of more than 2 million people between 1983 and 2005—pitted the Islamist government in Khartoum against a Christian and animist minority in the south.

Sudan’s civil war dates back to the mid-1950s, when southern insurgents took up arms against the Sudanese government, seeking greater autonomy from Khartoum. A peace agreement ended the First Sudanese Civil War in 1972, but it left many of the underlying disputes unresolved.

In 1983, the Sudanese government triggered the opening of the Second Sudanese Civil War by seeking to establish sharia across the country. Garang, then an officer in the Sudanese army, led a mutiny against the capital and established the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

Educated in Iowa, where he received his Ph.D. in agricultural economics at Iowa State University in 1981, Garang led the resistance against the Sudanese government for more than 20 years in what has come to be known as Africa’s longest-running civil war.

Many in the United States, in particular, felt adversarial toward the Islamist government in Khartoum, which harbored Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s. Franklin Graham, the American evangelical leader who served as president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, which has poured tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance into Sudan since the early 1990s and built hundreds of Christian churches, described the government of Sudan’s then-president Omar al-Bashir as a “wicked and murderous regime.”

Relations between Sudan and the United States improved after 9/11, when Khartoum—fearing possible retaliation in response to al Qaeda’s attack against the United States—began cooperating with American intelligence agencies as part of the West’s counterterrorism campaigns.

In 2005, Garang signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Sudanese government, preparing the groundwork for independence. But then, weeks after being appointed vice president of Sudan’s transitional government, he was killed in a helicopter accident. He was replaced by his deputy, Kiir, a battlefield commander with little schooling and less charisma.

U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Kiir, then Sudan's first vice, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Jan. 5, 2009.

U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Kiir, then Sudan’s first vice president, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Jan. 5, 2009. Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

Kiir, who was shortly after installed as president of Southern Sudan, struggled to develop a rapport with Bush, who had described Garang as a “partner in peace.” Bush offered Kiir a wide-brimmed cowboy hat as a gift during one of a series of White House meetings at which Kiir spoke little. Hudson, who attended each of the leaders’ meetings, recalled that Kiir preferred to leave his ministers to make the case for South Sudan.

Kiir’s relationship with Obama was worse. It reportedly nosedived during their first meeting, when the South Sudanese leader contradicted U.S. intelligence and denied that he was arming Sudanese rebels fighting against Khartoum. The relationship never recovered.

Still, Kiir benefited from the extensive network Garang had established in the United States. But the international euphoria that attended the country’s independence masked troubling tribal and ethnic fissures within South Sudan.

In 2013, Kiir fired Machar, who had been his vice president since the beginning of the country, accusing him of attempting a coup. The move triggered a battle between the ethnic Dinka and Nuer in the presidential guard. In Juba, armed Dinka groups began hunting down ethnic Nuer. Fighting swiftly spread throughout the country, with civilians being targeted on the basis of their ethnic identity, launching a civil war that ultimately resulted in the death of nearly 400,000 people and the displacement of more than 2 million.

Facing international pressure, the two leaders struck power-sharing agreements in 2015 and 2018, when they signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, which led to Machar’s reinstatement and set the stage for elections in late 2022. The peace deal has resulted in a reduction in violence, and Kiir and Machar formed a unity government in February 2020.

But like previous pacts, the current peace deal remains fragile, amid concerns about the prospect of elections reigniting tensions that fueled the 2013 war and ongoing insurgency by armed groups, including Thomas Cirillo, the leader of the rebel National Salvation Front (NSF). And now, alongside uncertainty over who might take over when Kiir finally leaves, there are also concerns about whether that leader will ascend through elections, or via the use of force.


IV. State of Phobia

Kiir, whose health has been the subject of rumors denied by government officials, is facing mounting pressure to step aside.

In December 2016, Kiir launched a national dialogue with an aim of ending violent ethnic conflicts, reconstituting political consensus, and averting disintegration and foreign intervention.

The dialogue, which involved the participation of 20,000 South Sudanese from across the country, concluded that Kiir and Machar were incapable of providing the nation with the vision needed to establish an effective state, and it urged them both to step down.

“No transition or arrangement in which President Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar take part together will succeed,” according to the conclusions of the co-chairs of the national dialogue. “We believe that the most patriotic thing for them to do, is to prepare for their exit from politics with the honor, dignity and legacy of having been the founding fathers of the independent nation of South Sudan.”

“South Sudan must have a fresh start,” they added.

Peter Biar Ajak, a former World Bank economist who served as an advisor in the South Sudanese national security office, had been preaching a similar message for years.

In 2016, Ajak established the South Sudan Young Leaders Forum and began advocating for a generational transfer of power from the old guard to a younger cohort of leaders. The effort landed him in jail.

“My main argument was this: This older generation of politics divides us,” Ajak said. “Let us oppose the war. Instead of being used as a tool of violence, why not come together and find a solution to the war?”

Ajak, who was studying for a Ph.D. at Cambridge University, was arrested at the airport in Juba in July 2018. He was subsequently detained at the Blue House, the headquarters of the National Security Service, and charged with multiple crimes, including treason and terrorism.

While in custody, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for criticizing Kiir in an interview with Voice of America. Ajak was pardoned by Kiir in January 2020, following appeals from U.S. lawmakers, and he later left for Nairobi. Later that year, Ajak says, he received a warning that Kiir’s security forces sent a death squad to Nairobi to kill him. (The State Department issued Ajak and his family visas to travel to the United States, where they arrived in July 2020.)

A billboard featuring portraits Kiir and the opposition leader Riek Machar is displayed in Juba, South Sudan, on April 14, 2016.

A billboard featuring portraits of Kiir and the opposition leader Riek Machar is displayed in Juba, South Sudan, on April 14, 2016.ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP via Getty Images

There is no shortage of former revolutionary leaders, including Riek Machar, with the ambition to rule South Sudan. And the South Sudanese government continues to face challenges from several armed insurgents, including the South Sudan United Front/Army led by Paul Malong, a former leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and advisor to Kiir, and the South Sudan National Democratic Alliance, and alliance of four armed groups led by Thomas Cirillo, a former officer in the South Sudanese military.

But even inside Juba, there is mounting concern that South Sudan’s national security apparatus, which was established to protect Kiir’s interests and which operates outside the rule of law in South Sudan, according to the U.N. panel, may ultimately emerge as the ruling power. In 2018, both Kiir and Machar agreed to prepare the ground for national elections in 2022, but the schedule has already been bumped into 2023, and many observers suspect that elections won’t come to pass. Speculation has recently centered on South Sudan’s internal security chief, Lt. Gen. Akol Koor Kuc, and whether he may harbor ambitions to lead South Sudan.

In the years following independence, Kuc, the director-general of the Internal Security Bureau of the National Security Service, has emerged as perhaps the most powerful man in South Sudan after Kiir. In the past decade, Kuc has assembled a massive internal security apparatus with an annual operating budget of $100 million and tens of thousands of personnel, the vast majority of whom are ethnic Dinkas, according to Lt. Diing Deng Mou, a former member of the National Security Service. The National Security Service—which is the most disciplined security force in the country—is responsible for preventing threats to Kiir’s government, overseeing the detention of political prisoners, and providing security for foreign delegations, including the U.S. Embassy in Juba, the United Nations, and the country’s oil fields. A senior U.S. official declined to confirm the National Security Service’s role in securing the U.S. Embassy and said the United States employs some private contractors to help secure the embassy.

Deng Mou said he believes Kiir is laying the groundwork for Kuc to succeed him as president—a claim that has been vigorously denied by South Sudanese officials.

South Sudan’s National Security Service has been accused by the U.N. panel of routinely abducting, torturing, and killing perceived enemies of Kiir, including journalists and human rights activists.

The U.N. panel has also accused South Sudan’s security agencies, including the Internal Security Bureau, of having “gained control of public and natural resources to generate independent sources of revenue that have not contributed to the country’s budget,” and of having installed their own officials in the Bank of South Sudan and the Ministry of Finance and Planning.

The panel documented several cases of alleged targeting of political opposition figures and activists, including Aggrey Idri, a member of an opposition faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, and Dong Samuel Luak, a human rights lawyer who represented a political challenger to Kiir, Pagan Amum Okiech. The two were allegedly hunted down in exile by Kuc’s international security agents in Nairobi, abducted, and returned to a high-security facility in Luri, South Sudan, where they were likely executed.

“[I]t is highly probable that Aggrey Idri and Dong Samuel Luak were executed by Internal Security Bureau agents at the Luri facility on 30 January 2017, on orders from the commander of the National Security Service training and detention facilities in Luri, the Commander of the National Security Service Central Division and, ultimately, Lieutenant General Akol Koor Kuc,” the panel wrote in a 2019 report.

Ted Dagne, the former Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service who currently serves as a special advisor to Kiir, said that Kuc’s rivals in the government had spread false rumors that he was assembling a force to overthrow Kiir. Kuc, he said, approached Kiir and told him he would resign if the president believed the rumors. Kiir didn’t, Dagne said.

“[Kuc] is somebody who is a true professional, somebody who is not ambitious for power,” Dagne added. “He is somebody who has kept the country actually more secure than the army or the police.”

“None of it is true,” added Deng, South Sudan’s deputy foreign minister. “This is just people trying to create a wedge between the president and his most trusted person.” These rumors, he added, are “aimed at keeping us in a state of phobia.”

“I assume most senior South Sudanese leaders have political ambitions at this stage. I haven’t met one who wasn’t angling for higher office,” said a senior State Department official.

Dagne also countered allegations that Kiir is committed to remaining in power: “If you ask Salva what would you want to do, he would tell you he wants to go back to his village. He is not the type of person who is really obsessed with being in power or enriching himself. The bottom line is that his thinking is: ‘If there is peace, if the country is united and if I’m no longer needed. I’ll be happy to retire.’”

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States picks up on rumors of a coup “on an almost monthly basis, involving a wide range of reported actors on both sides of the political divide,” but advised caution on lending too much credence to them. “I assume most senior South Sudanese leaders have political ambitions at this stage. I haven’t met one who wasn’t angling for higher office.”

Ajak is convinced the best way to preserve stability, if not democracy, is if Kiir were prepared to put a succession plan in place, backed by the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

“That would create some stability. They have some degree of legitimacy,” he said. “All the talk we are hearing now is Kuc potentially making a coup d’état that may or may not have the blessing of the president. That will be a disaster.”

The other option, Ajak said, would be to rally the international community, the African Union, and the U.N. behind a plan to declare Kiir’s presidency illegitimate on the grounds that he has failed to organize elections in the decade since independence, and to establish a transitional government, headed by a prime minister, along the lines of Sudan, and backed by the international community but with a limited role for the military.

David Deng, a South Sudanese human rights advocate, said that the effort to identify future national leaders has been complicated by the fact that so many of the country’s independence leaders have been compromised by the movement’s failure to govern. “They are all familiar faces who have not performed well,” he said. “They are seen as complicit in everything that has happened so far.”

Despite South Sudan’s problems, the decision to break with the north remains popular.

“It is rare to find anyone who regrets independence, even people who have experienced terrible things. They see independence as something good for the country,” Deng added. “The little development South Sudan has seen is light years beyond what Khartoum and the British provided. People see independence as a step forward and I’m hopeful the situation can be salvaged.”


Southern Sudanese celebrate the coming independence referendum at a separation rally held at the John Garang mausoleum in Juba on Jan. 7, 2011.

Southern Sudanese celebrate the coming independence referendum at a separation rally held at the John Garang mausoleum in Juba on Jan. 7, 2011.Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

V. Out of Ideas

In Washington, there are a growing number of skeptics who believe that South Sudan has gone too far off the rails and that it is simply not capable of governing itself.

Kate Almquist Knopf, the director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, has argued for years that it is time to abandon the illusion that South Sudan’s current leaders are capable of leading a state and that there is a need for an international transitional administration, under the auspices of the U.N. and the African Union.

The latest ongoing peace process, she said, provides little hope of securing a political settlement capable of moving the country forward.

“We need a transition to something; this is not a transition to anything,” she said. “There is not a better leader waiting in the wings. And we don’t have the institutions of accountability with guardrails in place to allow the state to further develop and do what it should be doing.”

Knopf said the U.S. push to back South Sudan’s independence, while worthy, failed to devote sufficient attention to addressing the need for a political settlement among South Sudan’s competing ethnic groups. “The fact that we tried something and backed this formula for self-determination, I don’t think we were wrong,” she said. “We didn’t see it all the way through.”

Dagne dismissed the proposal for an international administration of South Sudan as “a terrible idea,” suggesting that it reflected a “neocolonialist mentality” that pervades some circles in Washington. He said that South Sudan’s critics in Washington are unwilling to acknowledge any of the government’s achievements, including the relative calm that descended on South Sudan in the wake of the 2018 peace agreement, and achievements in health and education.

Dagne dismissed the proposal for an international administration of South Sudan as “a terrible idea,” suggesting that it reflected a “neocolonialist mentality” that pervades some circles in Washington.

The current crisis comes at a time when U.S. policy is at a crossroads.

Almost six months into the Biden administration, there is no confirmed assistant secretary of state for Africa, and the top Africa post at USAID has yet to be filled. The U.S. envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, is scheduled to step down this summer, according to multiple diplomatic sources, raising questions about who will be setting U.S. policy on South Sudan.

Critics say there has been a shortage of fresh thinking on South Sudan since the late U.S. envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman proposed giving up on Kiir and placing South Sudan under an international protectorate, with control over the country’s oil wealth placed in the hands of international overseers.

“Diplomats are pretty open about expressing they are out of ideas on South Sudan,” Boswell, the International Crisis Group analyst, said. “You have an ongoing conversation in the U.S. government about whether it is OK to keep feeding the population indefinitely when the government siphons off some of that while eating the oil revenue. At what point is that unsustainable?”

The senior State Department official countered that the United States has been engaged in an active interagency process aimed at building on South Sudan’s peace process, prioritizing efforts to unify the warring forces into a single, national army, pressing to establish a commission to draft a new constitution, and laying the groundwork for elections.

The official said the United States has warned that additional funding was contingent on the government implementing financial reforms, and it continues to maintain a list of potential South Sudanese spoilers who may be subject to sanctions. But, the official said, “We work with the government we have and not the government we had.”

Boswell said many of South Sudan’s problems, principally the deeply rooted ethnic and political divisions were glossed over by an American political establishment that was driven as much by its antipathy toward Khartoum as its faith in the ability of South Sudan’s leaders to oversee a peaceful transition of power. During South Sudan’s independence day celebration in 2011, Boswell approached Colin Powell and asked if he worried South Sudan’s future might turn out to be a disaster. Powell, he recalled, ended the interview.

“He didn’t like the question,” Boswell said. “No one really wanted to address that kind of question.”

Update, July 8, 2021: This piece has been updated to clarify a quote.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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