Violence in South Sudan illustrates the perils of state building

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paul-jackson165x212Paul Jackson is a political economist working predominantly on conflict and post-conflict reconstruction. Core areas of interest include decentralisation and governance, conflict analysis, and security sector reform.

The Christmas period in the newest nation in the world, South Sudan, has been a violent one. More than 1,000 people are believed to have died (BBC) with more than 120,000 forced to flee ethnic clashes (BBC) in one of the least developed countries in the world. The President of the UN Security Council, Gerard Arnaud, has warned that this could lead to a fully fledged ethnic war in the country and around 7,500 UN peacekeeping troops have deployed to the country. In a country that is awash with guns and with a long history of violence between ethnic groups, populist political rhetoric along ethnic lines is dangerous.

The situation remains confusing. President Kiir claims it was a coup attempt by former Vice-president Riek Machar. Meanwhile, the authorities arrested 10 other senior political figures and said they were searching for 5 more. Machar himself denies the coup claim and the situation is far more complex than the official version.

South Sudan overwhelmingly voted to break from Sudan in 2011 in the midst of great optimism for its economic future, partly driven by access to oil reserves. However, ongoing disputes, both internal and with Khartoum, delayed production until April 2013. At the same time, the country has been subject to significant international support aimed at creating a new and functioning set of state institutions within a democratic framework.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA/M), which currently holds power in Juba, led the fight against the North that culminated in independence, but it was not the only armed group involved. At the same time, it was also a divided movement with factionalism so deep that the war became as much a fight between southerners as with the north. Peace has been affected by continuing dissent from localised militias opposed to the SPLA.

The deepest divide was between the largest group, the Dinka and the second largest, the Nuer. The leader of the SPLA during the civil war was a Dinka, John Garang, and Machar was one of three Nuer SPLA commanders to break away from the SPLA and oppose the ‘dictatorial tendencies’ of Garang. Many Dinka have never forgiven Macher for this and only accepted his Vice-Presidency as a price for peace with the Nuer.

This places Kiir and Machar as political and ethnic rivals jostling for position before elections scheduled for 2015. In July Kiir fired his entire cabinet, including Machar, as a pre-emptive strike against political opponents. Since then Machar has been increasingly critical of the President. Machar himself remains deputy chairman of the SPLA and has based his criticism on a lack of reform by Kiir, claiming that Kiir was preventing the transformation of the SPLA from liberation movement in to a political party.

What is interesting is the wide ethnic and regional range of those arrested. Kiir may have arrested so many prominent and senior SPLA/M figures because there was a genuine threat to his leadership, in which case this is clearly not a democratic move within a political party. Alternatively it could signal that Kiir is cleaning out his rivals, taking advantage of the violence perpetrated by military hotheads. Either way, Kiir appears to have unleashed a series of political and violent forces that endanger the fragile democracy of South Sudan, and the personal rivalry of Machar and Kiir places South Sudan, and thousands of people living in appalling conditions, in considerable danger.

A major part of the problem is that this infighting within the SPLA/M is not new. A ferociously brave resistance movement, the SPLA was frequently let down by poor organisation and this has continued in to the peace. With around 55% of the South’s budget allocated to defence, and a lack of progress with professionalization, the SPLA remains a corrupt grouping of local ethnic groups tied together with cash payments rather than a professional army. A spark could ignite a more comprehensive civil war in the south.

What can the international community learn from this? The US and UK, amongst others, have played a significant part in ending the civil war in Sudan and setting the south on to a democratic path. However, calls for respect for human rights, democratic government and a wider role for civil society are consistently ignored. This might be surprising given the high level of international support for the country, but the SPLA/M appears to believe that the international partners will not abandon a country where they have invested so much time and money, which is starting to produce oil, and which is effectively a bulwark against the ‘rogue state’ of Sudan to the north.

A peace agreement that excluded several ‘other armed groups’, relying on the SPLA/M to incorporate them into the new state when it has been unable to integrate ethnic groups itself, has proved extremely problematic. The resulting moves towards democracy have been taken on very shaky political ground that has remained largely unexplored by the international community, which has built a state infrastructure by the book, but on foundations of sand.

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