South Sudan: The Need for a New U.S. Strategy

South Sudan: The Need for a New U.S. Strategy

by Steven C. Roach and Derrick K. Hudson

On April 11, rebel forces reentered Juba, marking the return of opposition leader Riek Machar and a new phase in South Sudan’s fragile peace process. The United States, however, has remained on the sidelines of the peace process, which began when President Salva Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement in August 2015. Ever since Kiir falsely denied a 2011 United States intelligence report evidencing his support of South Sudanese rebels inside Sudan, Washington’s relationship with Kiir has remained strained. At the moment, the U.S. has threatened to impose economic and travel sanctions, should the two sides fail to implement the peace agreement. Its hope is that the threat of punishment will get the leaders to take the peace process more seriously.

Unfortunately, this policy of carrying a long stick with no carrot has done little to advance the tenuous peace process in South Sudan. In fact, it may be hurting the peace talks by failing to offer any structured, economic incentives for implementing the peace agreement and by alienating the political leaders, who are the principal negotiators of the peace agreement. Perhaps more importantly, it may be limiting the U.S.’s ability to shape policy and promote stability in the region after years of conflict.

The civil war in South Sudan, which began in December 2013 after President Kiir – suspecting that Machar had organized acoup d’etat – launched a preemptive attack on Machar and his backers in Juba. The war has left some 50,000 civilians dead and displaced nearly 2 million people. Both the United Nations Human Rights Council and African Union Commission of Inquiry have released reports documenting atrocities committed by both sides, including rape and even forced cannibalism.

At the same time, Kiir and Machar continue to drag their feet in implementing the national unity government. One of the sticking points has been Kiir’s redistricting plan, which increased the number of provincial states from ten to 28. Machar argues Kiir’s law violates the peace agreement’s aim of crafting a federal government based on ten states.

For many, these disagreements are part of a larger game of one-upmanship. And in an effort to put an end to it, Washington policymakers and even many human rights activists have focused on punishing the political leaders. For instance, John Prendergast, the founder of the Enough Project, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that South Sudan was a “hijacked state,” calling on U.S. leaders to cut off the leaders financially. Thus far, U.S. leaders have not heeded these calls. Instead, they have elected to work through the UN, which remains at a stalemate because of Russia’s firm opposition to any UN Security Council resolution that would impose trade sanctions on South Sudan.

In all, the U.S. has done little to get past its frustrations with the leaders or try to ease the volatile tensions that currently exist inside South Sudan. The U.S. continues to ignore recent signs that the two political leaders may finally be finding common ground. Kiir, for instance, recently appointed Machar to the vice presidency on February 12. And Machar has since returned from his exile in Ethiopia to assume the post of vice presidency.

But if the U.S. is to make a difference in the country, it will need to become more involved in the peace process. It can do this by adopting a proactive, strategic approach that involves face-to-face talks and diplomatic meetings between U.S. leaders and officials of the warring sides, and that links economic and social foreign investment in infrastructure with meeting targets and deadlines of the peace agreement.

Critics will argue that proposals like this will only play into the hands of Kiir and Machar, appeasing leaders who, they believe, seem uncommitted to the peace process itself. But simply punishing the leaders amounts to a threat that will only make the situation more unstable, and the leaders more reactive or resistant to foreign interventions.

One of the key priorities of a proactive strategy, then, is to learn from the past. Here, the U.S. needs to re-examine the mistakes it made at the negotiations leading up to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the second civil war in Sudan in 2005. In particular, the U.S. must reassess its decision to sideline discussion of human rights and democracy as well as its failure to make the CPA negotiating process more inclusive. (The U.S. allowed only John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and Ali Osman Taha, the vice president of Sudan, to serve as representatives of the warring sides.) Both mistakes ended up alienating civil society organizations and other leading SPLA officials at the negotiating table.

In addition, the U.S. never insisted on the need for legal mechanisms to determine the moral culpability of the warring parties for atrocities committed during the second civil war in Sudan. Implementing such mechanisms would have helped facilitate the transition from war to peace and heal past wounds or political grievances. The U.S., then, can ill afford to continue ignoring the ongoing cycle of violence in South Sudan. This time, it needs to support the current peace agreement’s provisions for both a truth commission and war crimes court to deal with this accountability issue.

Another priority for the U.S. is to counter China’s growing influence in South Sudan. The people we interviewed in South Sudan expressed the increasing, albeit somewhat reluctant support for China’s presence and economic stake in the country’s oil production. In 2012, for instance, China invested nearly $8 billion in South Sudan’s infrastructure. And in December 2014, it deployed 700 troops to serve in the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), a move perceived by many as an attempt to shore up security of its economic investments.

The U.S., meanwhile, has virtually no presence in South Sudan’s oil sectors. Moreover, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has invested little in South Sudan’s agricultural sector compared to China. But the U.S. can seize on this trend by increasing its funding to the agricultural sector and reestablishing its funding for state mechanisms in South Sudan, such as the National Constitutional Review Commission (charged with drafting and raising citizen awareness of a permanent constitution).

In short, a decisive U.S. policy will require Washington’s renewed commitment to the peace talks. Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. special envoy to South Sudan, recently stated, “We are, finally invested in this process. Walking back would be morally wrong.” His plea should remind us that a decisive position is ultimately about helping the people of South Sudan and promoting regional security.

Image "Flag of South Sudan" CourtesyEuropean External Action Service / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

About the Author

Steven C. Roach is Associate Professor of International Relations in the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida. He has published numerous books and articles on politics and international relations. Find him on Twitter @sroach82. Derrick K. Hudson is Teaching Associate Professor at the Colorado School of Mines and Director of the Master of International Political Economy of Resources (MIPER).

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