Sudan: Reflections on Crisis

Sudan: Reflections on Crisis

Negotiations and fighting are both continuing this week in the conflict in South Sudan which erupted into open violence on December 15, 2013

Editor’s Note
Negotiations and fighting are both continuing this week in the
conflict in South Sudan which erupted into open violence on
December 15. It may be that coordinated international pressure will
soon bring about a ceasefire. But both Sudanese and foreign sources
stress that any long-term solution must deal not only with the
political competition between President Salva Kiir and his former
deputy Riek Machar, who was dismissed at Vice President along with
others in the Cabinet last July, but also with fundamental issues
of the Sudanese state.
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Strikingly, many news reports as well as virtually all political
analysts agree that the root of the current conflict is not
“tribalism” or ethnic rivalry as such but rather internal political
conflict in which political leaders have sparked an escalation of
violence playing out along ethnic lines.
[Any attempt to generalize about what “the media” say is inevitably
subjective. But it is interesting to note that a Google news search
for “South Sudan” and “political” turns up far more hits than
“South Sudan” and “tribal.” And, in recent coverage of both South
Sudan and the Central African Republic, many news articles
specifically caution against the common tendency to regard such
conflicts as based on “age-old rivalries,” noting previous peaceful
relationships across ethnic or religious dividing lines.]
It is less often noted, however, that portraying the conflict as
one between the two top leaders ignores the fact that those
dismissed by President Kiir in July, and the political prisoners
now held in Juba, include many who support neither Kiir nor Machar,
and come from Dinka, Nuer and other ethnic backgrounds. The release
of these political prisoners, and their involvement in future
dialogue on the future of Sudan, has been one of the key elements
in negotiations to date, and is essential to any long-term
So too, stress many analysts, is involvement in the dialogue of not
only diverse political voices but also of civil society, which has
been bypassed both in previous peace negotiations and in the post-
independence Sudanese state.
One of the most prominent Sudanese voices pressing for a more
inclusive dialogue is Jok Madut Jok, of the Sudd Institute, and a
former deputy Minister of Culture. This AfricaFocus Buletin
contains excerpts from his analysis from last week, the full
version of which is available on the Sudd Institute website
Additional analytical articles particularly worth reading include
the following:
“Breakdown in South Sudan: What Went Wrong — and How to Fix It,”
By Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed, Foreign Affairs, January 1,
2014 / Direct URL:
“The way forward for South Sudan,” by Mahmood Mamdani, Al Jazeera,
6 Jan 2014 – Direct URL:
“An integrated response to justice and reconciliation in South
Sudan,” by David Deng and Elizabeth Deng, African Arguments,
January 8, 2014 / Direct URL:
Several additional articles of interest appear in the latest issue
of Pambazuka News
U.S. Senate Hearings on South Sudan, January 9, 2014
       The statement by former U.S. envoy Princeton Lyman has a
       particularly clear statement of the background (see
For ongoing news coverage and commentary, see particularly and
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor’s note+++++++++++++++++
South Sudan and the prospects for peace amidst violent political
Jok Madut Jok
Sudd Institute Policy Brief, January 4, 2014
[Excerpts only: full text available at and at]
[The Sudd Institute is an independent research organization that
conducts and facilitates policy relevant research and training to
inform public policy and practice, to create opportunities for
discussion and debate, and to improve analytical capacity in South
Sudan. Jok Madut Jok is a cofounder of the Sudd Institute.]
The unfolding unrest in South Sudan, beginning with the events of
December 15, 2013 in Juba when fighting broke out within the
presidential guard and spread to Greater Upper Nile within two
days, may not have been exactly predictable, but it was not
entirely surprising. Surely, the abrupt nature of it, the scale of
violence within a single military unit, the rapid spread to other
branches of the armed forces in other states, the speed at which it
begun to take on ethnic overtones and the death toll of over 1,000
people, many of them civilians, has shocked the population. How
South Sudan seemed to have gone from one day of confidence that it
would weather the political disagreements within the Sudan People’s
Liberation Movement (SPLM), the country’s ruling party, to the next
day of near total unraveling was definitely terrifying for Juba
residents. It has also caught the international community within
the country – represented by the United Nations, European Union,
African Union and various diplomatic missions – totally off guard.
Most alarmed by these developments were neighboring countries in
East Africa and the Horn. Uganda scrambled to intervene and the
Prime Minister of Ethiopia Haile Mariam Deslaigne and the Kenyan
President Uhuru Kenyatta descended on Juba on December 26 to
explore any possibilities of mediating a dialogue between President
Salva Kiir Mayardit and his wayward Vice President, Riek Machar
Teny, who is now heading what is increasingly referred to as a
rebellion, which the government says followed a failed coup
attempt. The Inter-Governmental Agency on Development (IGAD), a
regional grouping that has been central to peace negotiations of
Sudanese conflicts before South Sudan’s Independence and
understands the complexities of the conflicts more than few other
bodies do, convened a summit in Nairobi on December 27, 2013 in
order to explore how to end the mayhem that has already caused huge
casualties in revenge attacks by the Nuer on the Dinka in Unity,
Jonglei and Upper Nile states for the attacks against the Nuer that
were orchestrated in Juba by government soldiers.
[Talks are now ongoing in Addis Ababa] … Whether or not this
situation was triggered by a failed coup attempt is now a mood
point. The priority now is how to get the country out of this mess
and back onto its path to stability and development. Peaceful
dialogue is the only viable approach, but what is to be discussed
at such talks, what could possibly end the violence immediately and
what the role of the international community beyond east Africa
should be are some of the questions that remain unclear at this
What caused this crisis?
Many former politicians turned analysts and critics in Juba were
quick to deny that this was a coup attempt. [But the story seems
more complex than that.]
It is perhaps important to explore the above-mentioned squabbles
within the ruling party as part of the genesis of the current
crisis, especially the reaction of Kiir’s government to the calls
for reforms that were made by the party leaders he had fired from
both the party leadership and the SPLM-led government. These party
officials, many of whom had been members of the party’s highest
organ, the Political Bureau, and had been demanding that President
Kiir, himself the chairman of the party, convenes a meeting of the
Political Bureau to sort out the differences between the chairman
and over two-thirds of its members. These leaders held a press
conference on December 6th, 2013 in which they accused the
president of running the party in ways that violated the party
constitution. The press conference called for convening the
Political Bureau in order to organize the agenda for the meeting of
the National Liberation Council, the party’s legislature. But
instead of responding to what seems like a legitimate
constitutional right of the people who held the press conference,
the president instructed his deputy, Vice President James Wani
Igga, to issue a very crude response in which he dismissed outright
their claims and accused them of being “disgruntled” for their loss
of power. When the current crisis began, the president did not help
the situation and the image of his government when he appeared in
military fatigue to deliver his statement in the wake of the
revolt, signaling his readiness for a military confrontation. So it
is fair to say that the demand for reforms within the party and the
president’s frustration of these demands was a clear factor in this
But did these political differences have to turn violent?
Our investigation shows that there were two streams of thinking in
this quickly forming opposition body, with multiple aspiring
leaders. The first stream is the one involving Rebecca Nyandeng de
Mabior (the widow of the SPLA/M former leader, the late John Garang
de Mabior), Pagan Amum Okiech, the sacked Secretary General of the
SPLM, Deng Alor Kuol, the former Minister of Cabinet Affairs and
few others, all of whom seem to be committed to a civil political
battle to replace the president, whether through some sort of a
deal within the party or through the 2015 general elections. The
second stream involves the former Vice President Riek Machar Teny,
Taban Deng Gai, the former elected governor of Unity State, who was
fired by the president in May 2013 and who is extremely angry for
the unconstitutional presidential decree that removed him, and a
number of senior military officers commanding divisions in Bor,
Bentiu, and Malakal. While Taban Deng Gai, an ardent loyalist to
President Kiir then, was a recent recruit to this group, Riek had
been planning to depose the president by force for quite some time,
and was ready to take action if his political alliances with the
other group did not bear fruit. Each of the two groups participated
in the alliance without revealing what each had in mind, as they
were both joined together by a common goal, the removal of
President Kiir, but with varying approaches. They were bound to
fail given multiple competing leadership aspirations, however.
In the hours leading up to the night of the revolt, these
personalities were all still together, deciding to boycott the last
day of proceedings of the NLC, with the political action to depose
the president looking rather unlikely. So Riek Machar made his move
without telling the others, as he was unsure all along if the rest
would support him to become the head of the pack. One of the
officers who was in on the uprising within Tiger Battalion lined up
a number of his immediate officers and executed them by himself and
the fighting broke out inside the main military command center,
known to locals as al-Qayada, located to the southwest of Juba
town. By 11 PM, hell broke loose and Juba residents could not hear
anything else but gun and artillery sound for the rest of the
night, all day and all night Monday and all the way until about
3:30 pm on Tuesday when the government forces finally neutralized
the revolting forces. Meanwhile Riek Machar had slipped out of the
town on Monday morning around 4 AM … On Tuesday Riek Machar went
from denying knowledge or any involvement in any coup to being the
leader of the rebellion, almost overnight, which would have been
quite an about-face if he had indeed been truthful about being
unaware of a coup plan.
Many local analysts and people in the media have been reflecting on
these events and have been able to tease out some of the signs that
the intense competition for political power within the ruling SPLM
was bound to spark violence, as it was likely to touch the wounds
of the last three decades of liberation wars during which South
Sudanese had turned guns against one another over leadership of the
movement. Those moments of violence during the liberation period,
though often extremely destructive, particularly to ethnic
relations, were often patched up or swept under the rug in the
interest of keeping the eyes on the common goal, but they were
never sufficiently resolved and far too many communities were left
wanting for justice. One of such moments was the 1991 split in the
SPLA, in which Riek Machar and Lam Akol Ajawin, then senior
deputies to John Garang, attempted to depose the latter and sparked
massacres in Jonglei state. This revolt happened in the midst of
war against the government in Khartoum, and led to a prolonged and
destructive conflict. It saw Machar ordering massacres against the
Dinka of Jonglei state, which gave rise to a protracted Dinka-Nuer
conflict for the subsequent seven years. In the end and despite the
reunification of the SPLA, no one was held accountable to this
incident, and many others similar to it, and there was no
recompense to the affected citizens. This set the precedent for the
kind of politics whereby the political ambition of the individual
or small groups of individuals translates into efforts to gain
power by force. It is this history that has the whole country
standing on edge, as the risks of a repeat of 1991 are written all
over the current row and are all too scary to fathom.

Also related to this confrontation is another aspect of the
liberation wars that brought the independence of South Sudan in
2011. This aspect concerns the failure of the post-war development
programs to meet the dividends that the citizens highly expected
going into independence. Poverty and dashed aspirations are linked
to this; and so are the security situation, isolation of various
communities from one another due to poor infrastructure, denying
them the opportunity to interact with one another at market places
or travel across ethnic lines with ease. Negative stereotypes that
various ethnic nationalities harbor about one another have also
created a barrier to social interaction, cross-ethnic marriages and
sharing of space. When small disagreements happen between
communities that are separated, these stereotypes become the only
references upon which to base their reactions.
It is evident that the Juba incident that eventually ushered in
what seems to be a Dinka-Nuer killing and counter-killing has
exposed the fragility of the new state that many had been pointing
out since long before independence. It has also shown serious
challenges regarding social cohesion and national unity across
ethnic lines, something the stability of the country cannot be
ensured without. It has shown fragility of the democratic
processes, the result of which is that when some politicians fail
to get a path to office, they still have the capacity to resort to
violence and attract their tribesmen to their side. This was
unsurprising due to the absorption of large militia forces from the
many rebellions in Greater Upper Nile into the SPLA, the liberation
army now turned national defense force.
… Striking peace deals with these militias was the only
immediately viable way forward. But on the other hand, inviting all
of them into the national army meant compromising on the endeavors
to professionalize the armed forces, as many members of these
militias were hardly ever disciplined enough to be part of a
professional national defense force. Instead, they simply saw the
army as the quickest way to salaried employment and joined even
without proper training as soldiers.
The result was that the army was made up of an amalgamation of
previously warring factions, with no institutional culture or
common ethos to which all soldiers subscribe. There was no coherent
or unified command hierarchy and no respect for a central command.
An additional side problem was that many young people who had not
even been part of the militias were able to join some of them right
on the eve of absorptions, taking advantage of the opportunity to
get themselves absorbed into the army without prior background in
military discipline.

These issues may not have caused the violence currently underway,
but they contributed to its escalation, and have not been given the
attention so many people had been calling for over the past two
years. The Sudd Institute has been ringing alarm bells since its
founding in 2012 about the poor management of the security
situation of the country, lack of reckoning with the history of
ethnic relations that had been wrecked by long liberation wars,
limited attention to the swelling ranks of unemployed youth and the
urban bias that had left the swath of rural populations unable to
share in peace dividends. …
Power politics or tribal wars?
The question that has recently bedeviled the media and various
analysts covering the tragically unfolding situation in South Sudan
is the question of whether or not this has anything to do with
ethnicity or tribal hatreds. My answer to this question is that,
while ethnic politics in South Sudan is complex and is undeniably
part of everyday sociopolitical life, there is no doubt that it has
sometimes been overplayed in analyzing the recent developments. But
the real question is not so much about ethnic identity fueling
violence but rather the mechanisms by which ethnic relations get
deployed in the contest between politicians that are vying for
control of the state and the services it provides. …
Historically, conflict within South Sudan has taken three forms:
the liberation wars in which the south fought the north in the old
Sudan; ethnic feuds over resources, especially among cattle herding
communities; and rivalries between political leaders. With the
independence of South Sudan in 2011, the liberation wars against
Khartoum are now over. Ethnic feuds, despite the occasional
stamping of politics with an ethnic hue, remain relatively easy to
reconcile in the context of traditional cultures, and are often
confined to the ethnic groups directly involved and rarely
affecting the rest of the country. The most devastating stream is
that of political wrangling among various leaders vying for power,
whether at the national or state level, as politicians sometimes
become desperate, unable or unwilling to make political gains by
focusing on ideas, and as a consequence reach for the ethnic card,
drawing their kin into conflict by explaining to them that it is
the survival of the whole group that is at stake. In this sense,
the last two trends, the ethnic composition of the country and the
political rivalries, are interlinked, and they are at the root of
what happened in Juba on December 15th.

What is the solution to this crisis?
South Sudan is at a crossroads. Either the current efforts by
regional powers will persuade Riek Machar and the government of
South Sudan to immediately end military confrontations and start
dialogue on reaching a peace deal, or they will fail and a civil
war might ensue. President Kiir, trying to make good on his usual
pronouncements about commitment to peace and avoidance of a return
to war, has extended an olive branch to his former deputy. Riek
Machar, however, has made mere overtones to do likewise, but on
conditions that seem either unworkable or extremely difficult to
meet, like the possibility of the president stepping down, the
release of political detainees and a power-sharing arrangement.
Machar’s demands for power-sharing will surely put the government
in the same trap as the leaders of armed militias have been doing
over the years. To object to it on grounds that politicians should
not be rewarded with power after using violence risks pushing
Machar toward the civil war route. But to bribe him back with a
share in government risks encouraging the trend whereby failed
politicians have to revolt against the state, kill people, destroy
property, and then get rewarded with power and resources for their
deadly actions.
A politically mature and stable country may see Machar’s actions as
crimes punishable by law and pursue him in that regard, but South
Sudan is not such a country. The country is in seriously dire
straits, with its two biggest nationalities, the Nuer and the
Dinka, severely divided and at each other’s throats, its oil
production (the country’s primary source of revenue) currently
under threat, foreign reserves depleted, difficulty in honoring its
obligations to its citizens, and foreign lenders and the whole
economy likely to buckle at the knees, especially if the current
situation becomes a civil war. With all of that needing immediate
attention, if the country is to be viable, it might be the case
that the government will have to swallow its pride and negotiate a
deal that will indeed reward Riek Machar‘s unconstitutional and
deadly political actions. Any temptations that the current
government leaders might have to punish Mr. Machar could well be
the start of unraveling of the gains the country has made since
independence. South Sudan is thus held at ransom by an ambitious
politico-military personality. The country might have to pay that
ransom in order to save its own life.

We conclude with statements we have heard from various South
Sudanese in Juba about the way out of this mess. This situation has
also thrown up a lot of questions that we do not have answers for
and are presented here. The efforts being made by IGAD heads of
states should not just focus on resolving the immediate situation
at hand, as if it is a confrontation solely between Riek Machar and
Salva Kiir. Clearly the two warring parties and their leaders need
to reach a deal that would immediately stop the fighting and
contain the continued emotional ethnic retaliations. But when the
discussions move into processes of political settlement, the
mediators should look at both this fighting and the mediation
efforts as an opportunity to take a comprehensive look at all the
problems that made the current situation possible in the first
place. There is an opportunity here to include all the
stakeholders, especially all the political parties, in the spirit
of the 2010 all-party conference that was held in Juba to rally
everyone behind the independence referendum. …
What about all the people who did not have to die, but have died
because of the political ambitions of a few? Should this fact be
buried again in the expediency of reaching a deal, so that victim
communities are once again left without justice? What about the
ethnic relations that have been destroyed by these actions? Can the
country move past these consequences and build a nation where
ethnic affiliations can no longer be appropriated by power-seekers?
… Whatever solutions arrived at, they must include some form of
justice mechanism built into the final deal so as to ensure that
the victims of these atrocities are not just swept aside as
collateral damage as they were under the CPA. A peace deal that
only focuses on ending the conflict and without exploring complex
social, legal, governance, security and historical issues, simply
defers the resumption of conflict. This was the mistake that
previous agreements had made and it is what has directly led to the
crisis of today. Sweeping away the calls for justice for wartime
atrocities, as was the case with the CPA, is part of the reason
behind the current tragedy, and must not be repeated in the search
for a solution to it.
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