Africa Diary - A Second Chance for South Sudan


In a place that has seen so much violence and hate, South Sudanese still believe in second chances. Its people know the value and the power of dialogue and negotiated political settlements; it is how they gained independence in the first place, writes Akshaya Kumar

When I first travelled to what is now South Sudan, the world’s newest country was on the cusp of independence. Juba, a sleepy town on the White Nile was getting its first street lights installed. A contact working in the Ministry of Finance gave me fresh currency notes, part of the country’s first batch. Every single bill bore the country’s deceased revolutionary leader John Garang’s face. In a place where the social fabric was ruptured by years of bitter internecine civil war, Garang’s heroism was one of the few things about which everyone agreed. He was their Gandhi and Bhagat Singh rolled into one. 

As independence crept closer, the air buzzed with hope. US President Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ speech played on repeat on staticky radio waves. Children in starched white uniforms stumbled over the words as they practiced the country’s newly written national anthem. After three decades of brutal war, it seemed like an alternate future would be possible for South Sudan’s next generation.

Unfortunately, just three years into their dream of self-governance, things fell apart. As the country’s new civil war stretches into its ninth month, a famine is looming, over a million are displaced and businesses are growing wary of continuing to operate in the country. Nonetheless, the country’s leaders continue to pursue a dangerous game of brinksmanship.

Things Fall Apart

For years, relations between South Sudan’s ruling elites were strained. In the name of unity, President Salva Kiir, Garang’s handpicked deputy, accommodated scores of former political and military challengers and rivals. Chief among them was Riek Machar, who ascended to the position of vice-president after spending years leading armed attacks against Kiir’s faction. Although they were ostensibly leading the government together, for months the two leaders barely spoke. Then, in the spring of 2013, Kiir stripped Machar of almost all his vice-presidential powers. When I met with Machar on a muggy day in late May, it was clear that he was openly challenging Kiir’s position at the top of the ruling party. At the time, he insisted that his opposition to Kiir was purely political.

By summer, Kiir had grown wary of many of the existing political elites. Too many seemed willing to openly challenge his decisions. In July 2013, Kiir fired his entire cabinet with one fell swoop. Then, in December, political tensions within the ruling party mutated into violent clashes on the streets of the capital city. Hundreds of Nuer civilians were killed, in many cases because they bore the facial scarification characteristic of the Nuer community. Others died because they failed a language test. Soon, large swathes of the army defected. 

Within days, the young country’s former vice president was leading an open, armed insurrection against the sitting president. In just one month, over half a million people were driven from their homes by violent clashes between competing factions of the national army. By the end of summer 2014, that number swelled to 1.7 million. Grainy satellite images collected by George Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel Project show towns across the country reduced to rubble. Many have exchanged hands more than once.

In one disturbing incident, armed youths stormed a UN base in restive Jonglei state, killing an Indian peacekeeper in order to attack civilians sheltering within. Since then, other UN bases around the country have faced similar attacks. Across the country, unknown numbers have died in the fighting. Appalling reports of inter-communal violence persist. Over 100,000 people are sheltering inside UN peacekeeping bases, too scared and too scarred to go home. 

Overlooking the Roots of the Country’s Problems

The challenges facing South Sudan today have deep roots. Systematic neglect by first the British Empire and then the Sudanese government meant the new country was born with huge developmental challenges. These yawning developmental gaps have only expanded since independence. The young country’s national budget was subject to rampant corruption and graft, even at the highest levels. Billions and billions of dollars of oil money just disappeared. 

Decades of conflict have left weapons in the hands of far too many, but real power and influence is concentrated in the hands of a few. Attempts to disarm civilians have failed due to recurring inter-communal violence and a deep mistrust of state authority. Most of the citizens of the young nation have lived through more years of war than peace. Now, another generation is growing up as fighters rather than students. For most, a resort to violence has all the trappings of normalcy.

South Sudan’s first two-and-a-half years of independence were not easy. An oil standoff with the north strangled the young nation’s economy for months, a bungled disarmament campaign in Jonglei state spurred an armed rebellion, and an ill-fated battle with Sudan over Heglig diminished the new country’s political capital with its Western backers. Poverty and low education rates persist, notwithstanding billions of dollars of development assistance. Nevertheless, 64 percent of South Sudanese interviewed in a nationwide survey conducted in 2013 said that they thought their lives were either better or much better than they were before independence.

Post-Colonial Success Story Gone Awry

Despite their flaws, many allies were forgiving of the country’s young leadership. It seemed impossible not to feel a strong affinity for South Sudan. Everyone wanted them to be a post-colonial success story for the new millennium. However, as time dragged on, we grew concerned. Discussions around the party constitution had completely stalled and a much-postponed meeting of the party’s leadership organs was repeatedly deferred. These delays were especially worrying because the ruling party’s brand was still too big to fail. South Sudanese won their independence because of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Even though growing numbers worry about corruption, most can’t imagine voting for anyone with other affiliations.

In early July 2013, my organisation’s co-founder John Prendergast joined with three other long standing allies of South Sudan wrote to President Salva Kiir expressing concern over what they described as ‘increasingly perilous fate’ of the new state. After Kiir fired his entire cabinet and removed his vice-president at the end of July 2013, I responded to Kiir’s decision to fire his cabinet by warning that ‘if managed incorrectly, the dramatic removals could have potentially violent ramifications, especially since South Sudan is prone to ethicised mobilisations and the proliferation of aligned non-state armed groups.’

Is a Power Sharing Deal Enough?

The world is watching with deep concern as South Sudan’s two senior most leaders persist with their dangerous and violent game of ‘who will blink first’. The regional IGAD mediators have advanced a proposal outlining the contours of a political settlement grounded in the formation of a transitional government for national unity. Both sides have ostensibly agreed to a cessation of hostilities. But, for durable peace, a game of musical chairs in the country’s elite leadership will be insufficient.

While it might be the quickest path towards the appearance of stability, it would be a mistake to support a quick and dirty power sharing deal centred on trying to recapture the political landscape status quo ante. It would be equally dangerous to allow a deal that divides power along ethnic lines. Although ethnic identities have become ascendant recently in South Sudan, it does not need to be this way. In Identity and Violence, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen discusses how all of us carry multiple identities. Those hoping for peace in South Sudan must work to appeal to alternative groupings beyond ‘tribe’. This is far more important than getting just the two warring factions to sign another piece of paper.

Ideas for the Way Forward

Despite their differences, South Sudanese, who identify with dozens of different ethnic groups, came together around a single goal: independence. Even now, nine months into the country’s biggest crisis, that hopeful spirit remains. In particular, women, youth, civil society and the church have been actively promoting peace over divisive inter-tribal fighting. In a country aching for social cohesion, these efforts must be encouraged. It is not enough to applaud these voices for peace. Instead, these actors must be included in an open national dialogue process on the political future of the country.

The international community must use peace talks as a window of opportunity to demand that elites set up an inclusive national dialogue process around the country’s future. When paired with accountability efforts, reconciliation and security sector reform, these consultations will help expand the pool of stakeholders, defining the contours of the way forward.

It is clear that gross human rights abuses have been committed by all parties to the conflict. Nonetheless, in a place that has seen so much violence and hate, South Sudanese still believe in second chances. Its people know the value and the power of dialogue and negotiated political settlements; it is how they gained independence in the first place.

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Akshaya Kumar

Akshaya Kumar is a human rights advocate with a special interest in transitional justice and peace negotiations. She currently consults for the Enough Project, a non-profit based in Washington DC.

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