3 January 2014

South Sudan: Has South Sudan Passed the Tipping Point?

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A week ago I asked a question that has only gained in urgency: "Riek Machar: What is His End-Game?" (December 28, 2013). Even now it is not at all clear what he hopes to gain from further military activity--only that he intends to keep fighting, thus increasing violence throughout the country, with an intensifying ethnic character. But what does he want? Further military gains? Does he think that he can capture Juba? Achieve a political weakening of Salva Kiir's government, thereby improving his chances for political power in South Sudan? Or perhaps what he has in mind is a deal with Khartoum over the oil regions. Again, Riek expediently signed the 1997 "Khartoum Peace Agreement," which paved the way for ethnic clearances to provide security for oil companies operating in Western Upper Nile. Those clearances and killings (1997 - 2003) were primarily civilians of Riek's own Nuer ethnicity. Riek would later admit that the "agreement" with Khartoum was a bad idea, but by then the civilian clearances and destruction had largely been accomplished. Is Riek prepared to make another agreement with Khartoum if he is militarily squeezed by the SPLA?

He declares not, even as he suggests an arrangement for oil revenues that would require Khartoum's agreement and assistance. In an interview with Asharq Al-Aswat (London, 2 January 2014), Riek answered a question about revenues from Southern oil production:

We confirmed that oil production and export would continue and that we would pay Khartoum its dues according to the cooperation agreement between the two countries. We have also arranged for South Sudan's revenues to be deposited in a special account until the war ends. However, the Khartoum regime does not want to cooperate.

Khartoum "does not want to cooperate," Riek insists. But how can he know if he hasn't reached out to them with just such a proposal? And on what basis does he arrogate to himself the right to set up "a special account" for the oil revenues that belong to all the people of South Sudan. And the phrase "until the war ends" is terrifying in what it reveals. This is not the language of someone interested in a cease-fire to what might still, in some sense, be called a "military flare-up"; it is the language of someone who imagines protracted conflict, with an outcome presumably favorable to him. But what happens when the full effects of the loss of Unity State oil production, and thus revenues, sinks in for those in charge of managing Sudan's rapidly imploding economy? With a large budget gap, accelerating inflation already exceeding 50 percent, and a currency in free fall, the temptation to make a deal with Riek for Unity State revenues might seem irresistible. Or perhaps Khartoum's refusal to "cooperate" derives simply from an understanding that once Southerner is fighting Southerner, the regime is prevailing militarily at no cost. Perhaps a badly divided and weakened SPLA will no longer deter Khartoum from re-drawing the North/South border--a border that remains contested in a number of areas nine years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 9, 2005).

Guided by no evident principles or concern for the life of Sudanese civilians, why should we believe Riek incapable of making another "agreement" with Khartoum?

The political context--a South Sudanese view

I indicated at the conclusion of my December 28 analysis that I hoped to provide an assessment of the political circumstances that led to the current military situation. It is a task that must be deferred yet again, but a series of comments and commentaries by Jok Madut Jok, former Under-Secretary for Culture in the Government of South Sudan, represent the sentiments of the vast majority of Sudanese with whom I have communicated over the past several weeks. On December 3, 2014 the Sudd Institute that Jok co-founded began its weekly assessment with a stark assessment of the current state of politics in South Sudan:

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