Friday, 18 May 2018

The Political Economy of the South Sudan Conflict

A section of rebels in South Sudan.
Image: Courtesy. 

It is close to five years since civil war began in South Sudan with negotiations failing to broker a peace deal between the warring groups. The unending conflict that started in December 2013 has resulted in destitution with thousands murdered and millions displaced.

The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that 50,000 South Sudanese have died since December 2013 when the war began. The Human Rights Watch approximates that 2 million South Sudanese have been internally displaced due to the conflict, while a further 2 million have sought for refuge in the neighboring countries.

Of the 2 million refugees beyond the borders of South Sudan, 1 million are in Uganda. Of the 2 million people that are internally displaced, 230,000 are camping at various United Nations’ bases across the country.

As war ravages Africa’s youngest state, the country’s economy has collapsed. As highlighted by the African Development Bank, the economic growth of the South Sudanese economy is on a freefall with the country’s real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracting. For instance, the country’s GDP shrank by 5.3% in 2015, contracted by 13.1% in 2016 and it is estimated to have declined by 6.1% in 2017.

Additionally, the country’s inflation rate reveals the ebbing of the economy’s fortunes with the latest figures indicating that the rate of inflation is 161%.

Following the economic hardship experienced in South Sudan, President Salva Kiir recently fired the Governor of the Central Bank and his deputy over the failure to deal with inflation. This was a symptomatic gesture bearing in mind that the country’s sinking economy is only reacting to the volatile political situation, and the sacking of the two officials is a scapegoat of the structural challenges that bedevil South Sudan.

Structurally, the primary reason why the conflict in South Sudan will not be ending anytime soon regards the distribution of wealth and the proceeds generated from the wealth. Internally and externally, conflicting interests among various groups have stalled the peace process and in any case, these groups continue to fuel the civil strife.

Internally, the desire to amass wealth is driving more entities into the war. Recently, Paul Malong, a former chief of staff of the army formed a rebel movement with the intention of fighting against the current administration which he considers to have failed in regards to restoring peace in the country.

Each of the existing militia groups seeks to impose some form of territorial control over the regions which are considered to be highly endowed with natural resources. The corrupt nature of the Salva Kiir led administration prompted the onset of the crisis with his family members and cronies looting the country’s national wealth at the expense of the ordinary South Sudanese citizens.

Transparency International ranks South Sudan at position 179 out of 180 countries as per the 2017 Corruption Perception Index report. This implies that South Sudan is an excessively corrupt state.

The question of who controls what in view of the natural resources is fundamental in understanding the genesis and nature of the conflict. From the exploration of oil, to gold mining activities as well as poaching and trafficking of wildlife, few individuals have strategically positioned themselves to benefit from the country’s natural resources.

With the economy grounded, oil exploration activities seem to be on a lull. But illicit trading of fuel is vibrant in the country an act that occasioned President Salva Kiir to issue a stern warning to the illegal fuel traders in July 2017.

However, the warning by the incompetent president can be regarded as a sideshow if the information documented in the Sentry Report is factual. The Sentry Report, titled “Fueling Atrocities: Oil and War in South Sudan”, outlines how funds from the oil exploration activities are used to fund militia groups and in due course aggravate the conflict.

According to the report, several militia groups exist among the Dinka community (Salva Kiir’s ethnic group) and they are tasked with protecting the oil reserves, an act that has led them to be widely known as the “Oil Protection Force.” The report further highlights on how the government finances the activities of the militia groups allied to the government.

Externally, geopolitical and geoeconomic factors continue to exacerbate the conflict in South Sudan. Both regional and foreign states have a hand in the unending crisis. The scramble for the natural resources in South Sudan and the benefits derived from the war occasion a number of states to hatch strategies intended to prolong the war.

In as much as the USA is vocal in pushing for the South Sudanese president to restore peace mainly through the use of sanctions and other threats, it cannot be denied that the American government is also responsible for the chaos.

With hindsight, the USA government played a primary role in the creation of the South Sudanese state. In fact, as highlighted by the Foreign Policy magazine, George W. Bush prioritized the creation of South Sudan in his foreign policy agenda.

Historically, the USA has greatly been involved in countries that are rich in oil and South Sudan is not an exception. The USA has a penchant of creating chaos and instability in order to profit economically from natural resources in states perceived as fragile. With Chinese presence in South Sudan being visible, USA may be using the chaos as a counter-strategy of China’s commercial interests in the country.

It is on record that the USA government declared President Salva Kiir as “an unfit partner.” Later on speaking before the United Nations Security Council, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley warned that “words are no longer sufficient” in regards to the ongoing civil war. Such sentiments are an indication of a gloomy situation perhaps involving the violent removal of Salva Kiir from power.

But the forceful removal of Salva Kiir as president will be recipe for more chaos and the state building process will be even harder than it is at the moment. History shows that USA’s violent interventions result in the formation of puppet governments working for the interest of USA rather than for the collective interest of the citizens.

Though China has actively intervened in the conflict contrary to the fundamental ideals of its hands-off foreign policy, it cannot be ruled out that Beijing supports the Kiir administration with weapons to fight the various rebel groups.

Furthermore, Ukraine was accused in May last year for supplying arms to the South Sudanese government. It cannot be ruled out at the moment that such a similar activity is going on.

Regionally, various states are responsible for the civil strife in South Sudan. For instance, Sudan has a hand in the chaos rocking the world’s youngest state. Before gaining independence, the south battled with the north for a record 22 years between 1983 and 2005 in what has come to be referred to as the Second Sudan Civil War.

Origin of the Second Sudan Civil War can be traced to the attempt by former Sudanese president, Gaafar Mohamed el-Nimeiri to create an Islamic state, a move which forced the southerners under the leadership of John Garang de Mabior to put up an armed struggle.

With the independence of the southerners, however, Khartoum’s nosiness in the affairs of Juba is a fundamental factor that has prolonged the conflict. This follows the disagreement between the north and the south over the oil-rich region of Abyei.

Abyei belongs to South Sudan but since it is endowed with a lot of oil, the north keeps preying on the oil with total disregard of the Abyei Protocol which required that the region holds a referendum to decide whether it belongs to the south or the north.

Currently, Khartoum continues to run the affairs of Abyei with President Omar al-Bashir declaring in February last year that the region was part of the north and ordered the residents to apply for identification documents as per the laws of Sudan.

Khartoum offers support, financially and militarily, to some of the rebel groups in South Sudan in order to prolong the conflict and in due course profit from the oil in Abyei.

Uganda’s interests in South Sudan play a major role in the conflict. Uganda is South Sudan’s largest trading partner with various Ugandan entities engaged in the trading of oil, agricultural produce like maize among other commodities. As reported in February last year, Uganda was set to import gold from South Sudan.

Military interventions of the Ugandan army serve to protect the interests of Kampala in South Sudan. Additionally, driven by the paranoia of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), President Yoweri Museveni finds a justification to stir the waters in South Sudan. The Ugandan government collectively supports the South Sudanese government and various militias so that Uganda can continue profiteering from the civil strife. Uganda is home to 1 million South Sudanese refugees and this means money from the West to the government and its cronies.

In January 2018, Adama Dieng, the U. N secretary general’s special adviser for the prevention of genocide, accused Kenya and Uganda of fueling the conflict by allowing weapons and ammunitions destined for South Sudan to pass through their territories.

The corrupt nature of the Kenyan and Ugandan governments is a precipitating factor for the shipment and transportation of large quantities of weapons and ammunitions to South Sudan.

Kenya and Uganda host a large number of South Sudanese nationals. Majority of the South Sudanese government officials and their families lead opulent lifestyles in Nairobi and Kampala. The rich government officials and their cronies as well as the wealthy individuals financing the militias profit from the civil war as the average and poor South Sudanese languish in destitution.

Resolving the conflict calls for setting up mechanisms to look into the distribution of the natural resources and/or wealth in the country. Until the question of “who profits from the natural resources” is effectively answered, chaos will continue rocking South Sudan.

This post was first published on The Africa Vigil

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