South Sudan has been hijacked, looted and betrayed by irresponsible and venal leaders and must be placed under international management if the total collapse of the world’s newest nation is to be avoided, the US Congress has been told.
The call came as the UN and International Red Cross warned of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe caused by the country’s civil war, which enters its third year this week. Thousands of people have died in the fighting, 7 million are in need of food aid and 2 million have been displaced. A recent African Union report detailed appalling atrocities by both sides.
Princeton Lyman, a former US special envoy, told a Senate hearing that South Sudan was “one of the great tragedies of the world today [that] is also undermining the stability of one of the most sensitive regions in the world”. The country’s leaders had “betrayed their people and wasted the opportunity that independence [in 2011] provided” and could no longer be trusted, he said.
Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, accused President Salva Kiir, who leads the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) government in the capital Juba, and his chief political and military rival, former vice-president Riek Machar, of together creating an utter shambles. Both deserved to be jailed, Corker said.
Salva Kiir addresses South Sudan in September 2015 as both sides blamed each other for breaking a ceasefire. Photograph: Charles Atiki Lomodong/AFP/Getty Images
John Prendergast, director of the Enough Project lobby group, said South Sudan was not only a failed state but a hijacked one that had become a “violent kleptocracy”. He urged the Obama administration to impose financial and legal sanctions.
“This war has been hell for the people of South Sudan, but it has also been very lucrative for their leaders. War crimes pay has been the message … when there are no limits to the hijacking of state resources or consequences for the use of violence,” Prendergast said.
The criticism came as fears intensified that a peace deal, agreed under intense US and African Union diplomatic pressure in August, is unravelling. Repeated ceasefire violations have been reported, atrocities against civilians are continuing, and weapons still flow into the country despite efforts to impose an arms embargo.
Peter Bashir Gbandi, South Sudan’s deputy foreign affairs minister, rejected the criticism and insisted the peace process was on track. Yet nearly six months on, key provisions including the creation of a national unity government, improved security in Juba, and the introduction of a special “hybrid court” to investigate war crimes have not been implemented.
Kiir’s SPLM is reportedly riven by infighting – a leadership convention at the weekend was postponed indefinitely at the last minute. Divisions are also apparent among South Sudan’s neighbours, notably between Uganda, which backs Kiir, and President Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan, the SPLM’s old enemy.
Lyman, US envoy to to South Sudan and Sudan from 2011-2013 and a former ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, told the Senate the country had suffered systemic leadership and institutional failures since 2011 and now needed a strong external hand to take charge.
The ruling SPLM was politically weak and too much under the influence of military factions from its armed wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), Lyman said.
Residents displaced due to the fighting between government and rebel forces in the Upper Nile capital, Malakal, in South Sudan in May 2015. Photograph: Denis Dumo/Reuters
The AU’s recent report had shown that the SPLM, the legislature, the judiciary, the police, and civil society were “all inadequate to the challenge of keeping the rivalries among the leaders from spinning out of control … Without understanding the weaknesses of those institutions, the peace agreement will almost surely fail,” he said.
Meanwhile, the SPLA – “the guys with the guns” – was also deeply divided. After fighting erupted in Juba in December 2013, it fractured along ethnic lines, with Dinka units rallying to Kiir and the Nuer and Murle decamping to Machar.
“The point here is that the SPLA … cannot act as unifying institution.” And since neither Kiir nor Machar, with their continuing rivalry and ambitions, could be relied upon to act in South Sudan’s best interests, “that means that security for the peace process must come largely from outside”, Lyman said.
Lyman proposed that the AU, backed by the UN and the US, transform the joint monitoring and evaluation committee set up in August and chaired by the former Botswana president, Festus Mogae, into an internationally managed transitional authority.
“To be effective in this role, Mogae should be accorded by the AU the authority of a high commissioner, someone who can call the parties to order,” Lyman suggested. To all intents and purposes, Mogae would exercise the powers of a colonial era governor-general, including financial policy and budget control and the power to sanction erring parties and individuals. He would also assist the hybrid court in bringing war criminals to justice.
Under the proposal, he would be backed up by an expanded UN peacekeeping mission, and/or by an AU force, supported by the US and leading aid donors such as Britain.
It is a tall order. Turning South Sudan into what, in effect, would be an international protectorate would be controversial, and highly complex to implement. It would be an admission that the 2011 independence gamble failed and must be fundamentally reworked. But right now, the alternative – more political back-stabbing, more killings, more misery and widening instability – looks worse.