One of the striking features of the current Sudan-led, IGAD mediation effort to put South Sudan civil war to rest is the absence of an active US role. After all it was the United States, who was the midwife of South Sudan independence. For variety of reasons the civil war in South Sudan became a domestic political issue attracting various lobbies and activists from the evangelicals to the Black Caucus and human rights groups.
However, despite this strong relationship, Washington showed weakness and almost complete inability to influence the unfolding political crisis that quickly turned into a nasty civil war.
Last Thursday, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) hosted a seminar on: South Sudan: From Independence to Civil War, where experts were brainstorming on lessons learnt and what policy Washington should adopt in its future dealings with South Sudan.
Discussion was based mainly on a research paper authored by Jon Temin, who has been following the developments in Sudan and South Sudan for the past several years.
In his paper, Temin asked whether the civil war in South Sudan could have been prevented. In trying to answering that he pointed out that Washington has missed four periods where it could have influenced events. The first dates back to the summer of 2013 where signs were accelerating that something is going to happen, mainly the problems within the SPLM and may trigger violence because of fragmentation within the movement and the difficulty of managing succession. Temin observed that, "pre-emptive action was required to reverse the negative trends, but the United States was reluctant to directly and forcefully engage, and at that critical time, several key policy positions were unfilled."
The second period coincided with the outbreak of violence in late 2013 and early 2014, when the Ugandan People's Defence Force (UPDF) intervened with tacit US support on the assumption that such intervention has saved Juba and blocked potential greater violence, but that intervention emboldened President Salva Kiir and freed part of his troops to fight against opposition. In this particular area, Washington opted to keep silent without even criticizing the negative influence of some of regional players in the peace process.
Thirdly in the summer of 2014 Washington was considering seriously imposing arms embargo, but following internal debate, the administration opted not to go ahead with the idea despite the general support at the time. That move was interpreted by Juba government as a tacit support for its position. And by the time the United States changed its position, even the regional players were resisting such punitive measures.
Then came the final period when in 2016 the short-lived unity government collapsed and Washington opted to support replacing Riek Machar with Taban Deng, a move that effectively ended any effort to maintain a government of national unity and weakened the peace agreement, Temin observed.
In fact roots of these problems dates back to the CPA, where US was siding with the SPLM, which was occupying the high moral ground. Implementing CPA through to the end up to the separation was the main objective. But such objective helped in building a strong tradition of impunity within the SPLM.
The bottom line rests on the lack of a US policy towards South Sudan. And that is clear from the failure to address the legitimacy issue, where Salva Kiir was originally elected in 2010 to head the government in Juba within united Sudan, but was never elected to head the newly independent state. Moreover, Temin added that Washington needs to make a decision on its investment and to the extent it wants to "own" the problem of ending South Sudan's civil war. Indecision concerning the extent of US ownership and the degree of US influence compromised its efforts.
The situation is complicated more by the Trump administration, which is suffering a diplomatic brain drain and Africa is not high on its list anyway.
And that is where regional players including Sudan find a good opportunity to step in and broker a deal. In a way such a move makes a remarkable shift where indigenous players are becoming more active and taking the lead role that was used to be undertaken by international players. Yet the main issue still is whether the war lords in South Sudan have settled on forging ahead with peace out of genuine conviction or simply out of fatigue. More important is whether such a deal will have the much needed popular support to sustain.