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A Recurrent Nightmare in South Sudan

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Nation building and peacemaking in sub-Saharan Africa

Jacob Atem is a young boy in the southern reaches of Sudan. While his mother and sisters prepare meals and gather water, Jacob tends to a herd of cattle in nearby fields. Later, Jacob will describe his settled, nomadic existence by the River Nile as “beautiful”. It will not last. In the distance he hears his life change, in a series of loud pops and screams. Jacob turns to see his village alight.

Jacob’s cousin pulls him to the neighboring woods to hide. Days later, having found a small cohort of other, child, survivors, Jacob begins to walk. His journey will see him chased by the militia forces that destroyed his home, attacked by wild animals, and literally starved blind. Eventually- forced to flee from an Ethiopian refugee camp and return to danger in Sudan - Jacob learns that his parents were slaughtered, and his sisters enslaved. Once again, he begins to walk.

The story of Jacob Atem’s childhood takes place in the early 90s. It is tragic in that it is not unique; so torn by conflict is South Sudan that a similar tale could be chosen from any decade since Sudanese independence in 1956.

Freed from British-Egyptian rule, Sudan lasted six years without a civil war. Long governed by its colonial masters as two separate regions - the predominantly Arabic north and multiethnic south - the British consolidated them in 1946, and this carried over post-rule. The southern separatists Anya-Nya (“snake venom” in Madi) were the first to demand autonomy from the north. In 1972 the government conceded to a degree, signing an armistice in Addis Ababa.

The peace could not endure. After oil was discovered in the south, President Jaafar Nimeriri abolished the Addis Ababa accord. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement took the lead in the nation’s second fracture in as many decades. It was this fracture which stole Jacob Atem’s family from him.

Sudan’s second civil war lasted 22 years, one of the longest recorded anywhere in the world. Its legacy was one of death and misery - more than two million perished, and four million were displaced. Respite came close in the late 80s, but the violence-averse President al-Mahdi (having himself deposed Nimeiri) had his tenure end in a coup. The new regime, supported by Islamic fundamentalists, banned political parties and trade unions.

The conflict continued to worsen throughout the 1990s. al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania turned the eyes of America to African rebellions, leading to missile attacks near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. In 2001 - days before the atrocities in New York - President Bush appointed a Special Envoy for Peace in Sudan.

Years of careful negotiation saw one of Bush’s greatest foreign policy achievements - the end of war in Sudan. The south was granted a 6-year period of autonomy, at the end of which they would have the option to secede, in return for an immediate ceasefire. The new arrangement faced an enormous test months later, as the new Vice President John Garang - leader of the SPLM - died in a helicopter crash.

The infant Southern Sudanese institutions held firm, despite the loss one of their chief peacemakers. In 2010, in the first Sudanese elections in 20 years, Salva Kiir was elected as President of the Government of Southern Sudan. In 2011, after a landslide referendum, South Sudan became the world’s newest country. After almost 50 years of war, famine, and destruction, South Sudan hoped for robust amity.

The immediate threat to that amity was ethnic conflict. Merely one month after achievement of independence, the UN said that at least 600 had died in ethnic violence in Jonglei state. South Sudan is home to over 60 ethnic groups, notably the Dinka and Nuer. Kiir, a Dinka, briefly seemed intent on preventing racial tension from submerging the new republic, and appointed Nuer Riek Machar as his vice president.

The significance of this cannot be understated. Machar admitted to leading the massacre of 2000 Dinka civilians in Bor. His presence at the height of South Sudanese legislature was symbolic of a healing, unity government. In a display of disunity, in 2013, Machar announced his intention to challenge for presidency in the 2015 elections. Kiir responded by firing Machar - and the rest of his own cabinet.

Months later, Machar-loyal and Kiir-loyal forces fired on one another, amidst still-disputed circumstances. South Sudan’s great optimistic peace had lasted a little over 2 years.

Fledgling nations in Africa, especially those whose borders were created by European powers in the late 19th century, face great challenges in rooting strong states. Their obstacles are many - a lack of persistent national identity, the struggle to expand capacity, and the extractive systems instituted by imperial overlords.

In Europe, national identity developed through centuries of combat. Crucially, this came from external wars - cultural unity was bred through a narrative of the Self and the Other. An opponent makes it much easier to establish a singular, unified protagonist. In post-colonial Africa, this process has never occurred - national identity was imposed through borders drawn in ivory towers.

In fact, this process will likely never occur in Africa. Warfare in early formers is one thing, but in late formers it is another matter entirely. European nations emerged from small, culturally homogeneous groups battling, expanding, and integrating in the face of further threats. This created “common-interest states”, with broad political distribution.

African nations are often culturally heterogeneous from the beginning, with no greater uniting identity. War there tends to lead to dominant classes capturing the executive. These “special-interest states” are doomed to weak institutional strength, even when fiscal capacity is high.

Many African nations were predisposed to special-interest governance from birth. Colonial jurisdictional structures favoured a system of highly centralised and unaccountable political power. For imperial masters, this allowed for maximum extraction from subservient peoples. In a modern context, this fundamentally undermines the goals of institutional inclusivity: broad political distribution and high state capacity.

These powerful executives are hard to shift. Institutions are endogenous - those with de facto power in one period choose the institutional arrangement in the next. Without an incentive to change, exclusive institutional arrangements will not self-correct.

This problem, in fact, often limits the development of state capacity also. Without broad political distribution, building a stable fiscal base is near impossible. When people do not believe that their interests will ever be considered or represented, they have little interest in supporting state formation.

Thus, broad political distribution and expanded state capacity must come together. Without one, the other is impossible. Together, they can reinforce and strengthen each other. In Europe this happened gradually. In nations such as South Sudan, this has already failed.

The result is often civil war. Poor institutional arrangements mean that in the exit-voice-loyalty game, loyalty is low and voice near impossible. Exit becomes the only choice.

A vicious cycle ensues. Where external conflict is a transient scourge, civil conflict is a chronic disease, a self-sustaining curse. Civil strife destroys political institutions - eroding the legitimacy of the state, and forcing winners, losers, and victims to coexist. The nature of this destruction is hard to pin down - wars are inherently heterogeneous - but the empirical fact remains that one of the strongest predictors of civil war is past civil war.

Internal conflict is especially common in low-income environments. Low opportunity costs to joining local militia makes them more attractive options; experiments show that participation in organised violence is sensitive to small changes in economic opportunity. Of course, it is worth noting the massive economic cost of domestic wars - yet another mechanism by which they are self-supporting.

The final great risk factor for civil conflict is ethnic segregation. Although a localisation of ethnicity results in fewer race-based violent interactions on the individual level, it also reduces positive interethnic interactions. The result is the erosion of interethnic trust - leading to an increase in racial violence overall.

This brings us back to ethnically-diverse South Sudan. Although South Sudan was forged in the flames of an “external” conflict with the Arabic north, ethnic identity competes with national identity in the populace. In Libya, dual national-tribal identities coexist to strengthen the state. In South Sudan, ethnic identity is more geographically rigid, and less ideologically flexible than that of Libyan tribes. In the absence of their unifying external war, ethnic identities have superseded the national.

Almost every other risk factor of civil strife and weak institutions is present in South Sudan. The post-independence executive was too powerful and too poorly distributed. Tensions dictated that South Sudan establish a broad political coalition. Although nominal power was shared, de facto power resided firmly with President Kiir - demonstrated perfectly by the 2013 cabinet purge. This was special-interest state-building in all but name.

Furthermore, Southern Sudanese incomes have always been very low - due in part to a lack of industrialisation, but also the negative impact of the decades of preceding turmoil. One of the most robust findings of research into civil wars is that they occur most often in low income environments. The opportunity cost of violence is not just low for a young Sudanese man - it is virtually nil.

Is South Sudan doomed, then, to an eternal cycle of self-ruination? The most recent conflict reaches the heights of barbarous cruelty: children gang-raped by soldiers, the elderly burned alive, and reports of people forced at gunpoint to eat the charred flesh of the dead. Once one the world’s greatest achievements in negotiated peace, South Sudan now rests on a mass grave.

Yet on the 31st of October 2018, in Addis Ababa, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar signed a ceasefire. They agreed to share power in the same arrangement as they had before - Kiir as President, and Machar as his vice. Could this be the start of the path to sustained order?

Autonomous recovery is possible. When wars end either in decisive victory, with one group strong enough to hold control, or when all parties are so battle-weary that they are willing to accommodate each other, stability can be a lasting conclusion. Furthermore, war can generate new state capacity and infrastructure, aiding governance in peacetime.

However, early ceasefires can simply freeze existing, unstable power distributions. They provide only a brief remission, before recurrence once combatants have caught their breath. And when agreements restore an arrangement that violently fractured in the first place, optimism should come with extreme caution.

A future for South Sudan will not be derived from any of its existing institutional arrangements, and certainly not from those of the past. There are simply too many structural problems to overcome. Kiir and Machar - first as freedom fighters, then as leaders, and then again as warlords - have known only conflict. Peace for South Sudan surely does not rest in their hands.

Jacob Atem’s story did not end on the banks of the Pibor, expelled from Ethiopia. Jacob eventually found solace in a Kenyan refugee camp. Aged 15, he was flown to a foster family in Michigan, and in 2017 he received a PhD from the University of Florida. Now, Jacob has established the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organisation, a non-profit dedicated to healthcare and education in his homeland. One of his first missions: returning to Maar, the village he fled as a child, to build a health clinic.

Jacob’s organisation sums up its vision succinctly - “to bring health and hope to where it is lost”. The path to a stable, peaceful South Sudan will not come from those who have led it consistently to destruction. It will come from the ground – from those dedicated to cultural, systemic, and permanent change.

Sam Asher


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