In a surprise move, the Trump administration has slammed sanctions on two South Sudanese government officials, a former army chief and three companies linked to one of them.
This move is an indication that the Trump administration is prepared to break away from Barack Obama’s policy of tolerating the abuses of President Salva Kiir’s henchmen who have enjoyed total impunity since war broke out in the country in December 2013.
The charges are damning, and reveal considerable detail about the progress of this terrible war. In 2013, former defence chief Paul Malong Awan launched the war, now in its fifth year, by ordering his troops to attack Nuer soldiers, presumed to be loyal to then First Vice President Riek Machar, in the barracks in the capital Juba.
Kiir’s Presidential Guard then went on a killing spree against Nuer civilians. Militias linked to Machar soon began fighting back. A few months after a peace deal was signed in 2015, Malong, in an apparent attempt to undermine it, ordered an air assault on rebel positions in upper Nile and prevented humanitarian supplies from reaching tens of thousands of desperate civilians.
Background of sanctions
In July 2016, Malong ordered an attack on Machar’s residence and base in Juba, setting off the second and even more deadly phase of the war. He also planned a major attack on civilians in Wau, and was recently found with millions of dollars on his person taken from the SPLA treasury. In 2014, he procured billions of dollars in loans against South Sudan’s oil reserves, reportedly to purchase weapons.
The second target of the sanctions, Deputy Chief of Defence Forces and Inspector General of the SPLA, Malek Reuben Riak Rengu, has been instrumental in procuring weapons used in brutal counterinsurgency operations from foreign countries in deals that have involved kickbacks and other corrupt practices.
He is also said to have been involved in a brutal attack on civilians in Unity State, providing weapons to civilian gangs, and rejecting opportunities for peace. Finally, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Michael Makuei Lueth is accused of complicity in attacks on the UN Mission in South Sudan and obstructing UN peacekeeping activities.
These men are now blocked from entering the US, their US-based assets are now frozen and US persons are prohibited from doing business with them.
While the sanctions won’t fix the hopelessly complex conflict in South Sudan or prevent these individuals from turning to other countries to facilitate their malign activities, the sanctions do send a belated message of solidarity to the suffering people of South Sudan, that the US is aware of their plight.
The war started as a conflict between Kiir and Machar’s respective factions within the ruling South Sudan Liberation Movement, but it has now devolved into a highly complex series of sub-conflicts involving at least 40 armed groups.
Entire communities have been decimated simply for their ethnicity, leading the UN to issue a genocide alert. There is no accurate count of the number of civilians who have died in South Sudan’s civil war, but the number is probably in the hundreds of thousands.
More than two million refugees have fled the country and around 1.5 million people are internally displaced. About two thirds of those who remain in the country—or six million
people, are at risk of hunger and starvation.
With the passing of each day, the war and concomitant humanitarian catastrophe hit new lows. To stop the killing, address the unfolding humanitarian crisis and put South Sudan back on a track to peace, nation building, far more needs to be done than just sanctioning a few individuals.
Unfortunately, the world seems to have left the process of negotiating this conflict to the regional bloc, IGAD, comprising the Horn countries Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda.
But many IGAD member states have expressed partisan views or played partisan roles or demonstrated competing and conflicting interests in the war. Uganda has intervened militarily on behalf of Kiir’s government and has not hidden its support for him.
Kenya also assisted Kiir by summarily deporting James Gatdet Dak, the spokesman for Machar’s group, SPLM-IO, who had sought sanctuary in Nairobi. Sudan and Ethiopia, according to multiple reports, have been accused of arming various armed opposition groups in the country.
The warring factions are aware of the roles played by many IGAD members, and have questioned the body’s fairness and impartiality. Lack of confidence in IGAD’s peace-making efforts has pushed all parties further apart, making necessary concessions and compromise unlikely.
The divisions within IGAD have weakened international support for the peace-making process, impeded IGAD’s efforts to mobilise resources and external actors around a common position.
IGAD’s actions have also complicated and prolonged the war. For example, despite the collapse of the 2015 peace agreement and increasing complexity of the war since July 2016, IGAD continues to maintain that reviving the 2015 agreement, known as the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, or ARCISS, is the only viable path to peace in South Sudan.
It has now called for a High-Level Forum on the revitalisation of the now largely irrelevant ARCISS, but it is not clear who will participate and what criteria will be used to select the participants. The agenda for discussion is also as yet unknown.
The challenge with a High-Level Forum is that it is predicated on an agreement that was reached to address a different conflict than the one currently underway.
Unlike the December 2013-August 2015 war which was primarily within the SPLA/M, the war that broke out in July 2016 is a war by all against all. As we approach the end of 2017, it has engulfed the entire country, is far more intense and emotionally-charged, involves dozens of groups and involves methods of fighting the war that are far more brutal and cruel.
IGAD’s approach has also been mainly exclusionary. It has isolated Machar’s SPLA (IO) and arranged his virtual house-arrest in South Africa. This has only angered his supporters and escalated the war.
These concerns have led to demands for the AU and the UN to take over the mediation from IGAD. But critics of this proposal cite the principle of subsidiarity, according to which a sustainable peace is said to be most likely if resolution mechanisms are led by actors who are culturally, geopolitically and/or strategically close to the crisis in question.
Agency intervention. The first intervener should be a group like IGAD, but if this intervention fails, the next level, the AU, would take over. Should this also fail, the ultimate level, the UN, would be in charge of negotiations.
There are multiple challenges with this subsidiarity principle. First is the cost of failure – the wanton destruction of lives and properties and horrendous carnage of war that goes on while negotiations fail at one level after another.
Second, is it is not clear who determines or decides that a certain level has failed so that the next can take over? And third, there’s a contradiction between the primacy of the mandate of the AU in terms of peace and security and the principle of subsidiarity.
To talk of subsidiarity when crimes against humanity and war crimes are underway looks increasingly like ‘buck-passing’ on the part of the AU and the international community.
The Constitutive Act of the AU and the duty to protect civilians should trump subsidiarity and give the AU a direct mandate to intervene to end the atrocities in South Sudan and allow humanitarian access. Of course, IGAD and its members can’t be excluded from the peace process. After all, if it had a unified position on how to resolve the conflict, it could bring considerable pressure to bear on the protagonists and second, if IGAD members felt alienated from the process, they could play a very devastating role as spoilers.
But protection of civilians should not be held hostage to regional power plays and competition that has prolonged and worsened the conflict.
Overhaul. A new political process must start with an acknowledgment from the international community that ARCISS is dead and should be buried.
Even if it were alive, it would be unfit to address the current conflict in South Sudan. A new process should include frontline states, but be led and managed by the AU with the support of the UN. It might take lessons from ARCISS but certainly not be predicated on it.
It must focus instead on ending the new conflicts, reversing the humanitarian catastrophe, and building a just and sustainable peace through an all-inclusive political process and the drafting of a new agreement that will be supported and owned by all South Sudanese.
Such a new process must be backed by strong international pressure. Many of the belligerents in South Sudan are blood-thirsty, greed-based, power hungry and devoid of well articulated creed.
So, a combination of measures including arms embargo, expanded targeted sanctions, and deploying multilateral facilities to provide disincentives to countries in the region for continued support for the war. Unless this is done, there will indeed be no end in sight to the ragging conflict in South Sudan.