5 August 2018

Africa: South Sudan Agreement - Lack of Active American Involvement

Photo: @KagutaMuseveni/Twitter
Talks between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, hosted by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (file photo).

The signing ceremony between Southern Sudanese warring factions scheduled for today carries with it a significant feature: lack of an active American involvement. Actually Washington went step further to express its "skepticism" about the unfolding peace deal, predicting that, "in fact, such agreement may sow the seeds of another cycle of conflict." To make its point clearly strong the statement was issued by the White House. It went step further to criticize the decision to extend the term in office for President Salva Kiir and warned that it is not going to fund such a deal unless it becomes more inclusive by adding civil society organizations, women, and churches etc to the elites.

However, this retreat should be looked at within its proper context. And that context is a general retreat from Africa within a review of the US defense strategy that concentrates on facing up to threats posed by states like Russia, China or North Korea more than fighting terrorist organizations like ISIS or Boko Haram. Accordingly hundreds of troops operating in Africa will be reassigned and Special Forces missions in the continent would be wound up. Of 7, 300 special forces around the world, there are 1,200 of these forces operating in Africa.

The new trend was confirmed by Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of United States Africa Command, who told the New York Times earlier this month that the plan is streamlining US ability to meet threats, but not retreat from Africa. That plan also calls for more training efforts for local armies to hand over to them the responsibility of combating terrorism. Washington refers to its efforts in Cameroon as the most successful, where some 300 helped in the training exercises.

This retreat is part of an over review taking place in Washington under the Trump administration, which is emphasizing the militaristic approach at the expense of diplomacy. For instance, the 2019 proposed budget gives a clear message. While its international development program was slashed by 29 percent, it boosted its defense spending by 13 percent. Yet more significant is the continuous weakening of the diplomatic corps. There are currently 41 US embassies that lack leadership. Of those there are eleven missions in Africa. In addition, still the position of assistant secretary for African affairs continue to be vacant. The only signal that the Trump administration has some interest in Africa was quickly blown up when former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid a visit to Africa, but he has cut it short by one day as Tillerson found himself fighting an unsuccessful battle for his own survival.

However, this retreat could be a good development. On one hand it reduces at least one superpower meddling into the continent's affairs, but on the other hand that may provide an easy sail for the growing Chinese influence in Africa. It was no coincidence that China inaugurated its first overseas military base in Djibouti last year and Africa constitutes an integral part of President Xi Jinping's 2013 vision of the Silk Road that is spanning half of the globe and through use of diplomacy, economic strategy, China is positioning itself at the center of a potentially new world order.

Moreover, the declining US interest could provide a more important window to the local and regional powers to play a role in putting their house in order. The recent rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea is having a positive impact not only in the two countries, but as stabilizing factor throughout the region, which used to have the highest ratio of violence, peace keepers and the like. It was this strong feeling of taking issues into their own hands that led the IGAD leaders to dismiss Washington calls to impose sanctions on South Sudan war lords and work instead for yet another peace deal.

This new peace agreement will be put to test to see whether the regional support Khartoum efforts received will continue or some spoilers will find a way to rock the boat. More important is whether those in South Sudan who harbor some reservations like the former detainees about the deal will join whole heartedly or those reservations will be blown into full anti activity to abrogate and put it to rest with previous short-lived agreements that only added to the misery and frustrations of the people of South Sudan.

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