The U.S. ushered the nascent country into independence; now, we’re struggling with diplomacy. What happened?
By Teresa Welsh
South Sudan, the world’s newest country, was created in 2011 with the hope that it would become a prosperous, self-governing nation able to successfully harness its resources after years of conflict.
Unfortunately, that dream has not been realized. In July of last year, President Salva Kiir dismissed his vice president, Riek Machar, and the rest of his cabinet. Violence broke out on Dec. 15, 2013, in what Kiir said was an attempted coup by Machar. Since then, factions supporting the two men have fought for control of the country. The exact figure of people killed is unknown, but is expected to number in the thousands. An estimated 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes, and humanitarian organizations fear the country may experience a famine next year.
U. S. diplomatic efforts, meanwhile, have been hampered by both President George W. Bush’s gleaming legacy in Africa and criticism of President Barack Obama’s apparent ambivalence toward the region. While Bush’s personal relationship with Kiir eased South Sudan’s birth, Obama’s lack of one has made it difficult for the U.S. to lead the country back to peace – both within itself and with neighboring Sudan.
Sudan spent decades embroiled in civil wars before a vote for South Sudanese independence in January 2011. The first conflict lasted from 1955 until 1972, and the second from 1983 until 2005, ending with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the official government of Sudan, which set the stage for the referendum on independence.
Bush was elected while the second Sudanese civil war was underway. He made Africa a priority for his administration, instituting the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and malaria initiatives, both of which had an enormously positive impact on the continent. But he had a particular interest in the cause of the people in southern Sudan, a largely Christian population being persecuted by the mostly Muslim northern government in the capital of Khartoum during the Second Sudanese Civil War.
While it’s too simplistic to say Sudan was torn apart over religion, the American evangelical community actively lobbied against the atrocities being committed against the Christians in southern Sudan, as did the Congressional Black Caucus, and the administration took notice.
U.S. officials did not advocate for South Sudanese independence as a way to end the war there, concerned that it would encourage other regions on the continent to aim for independence as well. Instead, the U.S. had a “personal investment” in the U.S.-educated leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, John Garang, says Cameron Hudson, former chief of staff to Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, who served as the U.S. special envoy to Sudan from 2009 to 2011. Garang had a vision of a united Sudan despite disagreements with the government in Khartoum.
“I think there was reluctance to support [an independent South Sudan] in the State Department, but they eventually did,” says Andrew Natsios, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan in 2006 and 2007. “Particularly President Bush took the view that the southerners had to make their own decision. Given that 4 million people died, you could make the argument that the marriage is not working. It was the worst civil war in African history.”
Garang was killed in a helicopter crash shortly after the peace agreement was signed (though it was deemed an accident, some still say it was an assassination). Kiir, who preferred the idea of fighting for independence rather than negotiating with Khartoum, took his place, a move that led U.S. officials to worry that the newborn peace agreement would collapse.
Bush invested much diplomatic capital with the South Sudanese leaders, meeting numerous times with Kiir in person as well as speaking with him on the phone. A personal bond grew as well; it’s rumored that Kiir’s trademark black cowboy hat was a gift from Bush.
“George Bush also had a personal connection with Salva Kiir because George Bush is an avowed Christian, as is Salva Kiir,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy Africa program director at the nonprofit International Crisis Group. “They saw themselves as a bit of kindred spirits.”
This relationship helped the U.S. wield influence over southern Sudanese leaders during negotiations with Khartoum on parts of the peace agreement yet to be settled, like borders and access to oil.
“One thing that Bush did do is he kept up the personal diplomacy. He would make a lot of phone calls,” says Hudson, who also served as director for African affairs on the staff of the National Security Council from 2005 to 2009 and worked on implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Kiir “would always get a meeting with Bush. He probably had four Oval Office meetings with the president in the second term, which is a hell of a lot. It’s a hell of a lot for any leader, let alone the leader of not even a country.”
The peace agreement included a six-year timetable to hold a referendum on independence, and Obama entered office while that clock was still ticking. When 98.83 percent of voters opted to create South Sudan, it seemed like a long-standing peace would finally be achieved. But when the U.S. offered advice about managing U.S.-South Sudanese relations, representatives of the newly formed country acted like they didn’t “have to take orders from anybody,” says Princeton Lyman, the special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from 2011 to 2013.
Obama and Kiir also seemed to lack the bond that the South Sudanese leader had with Bush. Some speculate about whether Obama, who was already facing a backlash about his African heritage from some conservative groups in the U.S., could have fostered a personal relationship with the leader of an African country without drawing questions about favoritism.
Regardless, the distance was evident when Obama met with Kiir on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September 2011 to talk about issues dealing with the months-old country, including intelligence suggesting the South Sudanese were actively supporting rebel groups across the border in Sudan. The meeting did not go well.
“President Kiir did something we begged him not to do but he did anyway, which is to straight-faced lie to the president,” Lyman says, noting that “everybody knew” South Sudan was backing the rebels. “What does President Kiir say? ‘Well, Mr. President, maybe you ought to look at the fine-tuning of your satellites if that’s the information you’re getting, because it’s just not true.’
“Boldfaced lie. And President Obama just ended the meeting. He said, ‘Thank you, that’s the end of that.’”
It was a stark contrast to the seemingly cooperative attitude Kiir had with Bush. Making matters more complicated: While Bush was able to work with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who controls what remains of the original Sudan, Obama cannot because Bashir has since been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, meaning neither the U.S. nor the Europeans can work with him directly to solve conflicts that continue in the Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile areas of Sudan. This also ties the West’s hands on mediating portions of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement yet to be implemented by Sudan and South Sudan.
Still, Natsios thinks the administration should have acted more swiftly following the outbreak of violence in South Sudan last December. He also says the administration could have acted sooner to prevent the rift between Kiir and Machar.
“I think we could have headed off what happened by robust diplomacy with the president’s involvement, but it wouldn’t have been a week before the incident took place last year,” Natsios says. “It would have to have been in April or May.”
A senior administration official who has worked on Africa issues and spoke on condition of anonymity defended the Obama administration’s work on South Sudan, telling U.S. News the country has been a priority for the president from day one.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice has been particularly vocal on Sudan and South Sudan policy since before the countries split. But Lyman calls her “sympathetic” and “very, very close” with the leadership in South Sudan, and that stance might be complicating matters between the U.S. and Sudan.
“Susan has very strong views vis-à-vis Sudan, given the indictment of leaders for genocide and war crimes, and therefore she is very strong both on condemnation, sanctions and offering the minimum amount of incentives,” Lyman says. “And that makes it difficult for anybody trying to balance this with some clear road map and incentives for Sudan improving relations with the U.S.”
The senior administration official disputes the claim that Rice has cozied up to one side or the other in the South Sudanese conflict.
“Any statement or characterization of Ambassador Rice or of the U.S. government taking sides or exercising some sort of bias in trying to protect one side or the other is inaccurate,” the official says. “We’ve been incredibly tough on both in urging peace and urging the types of bold and real leadership that is going to be required to get past this conflict.”
The U.S.-Sudan issue is separate from the infighting between Kiir and Machar. It’s too simple to paint the latter problem as one of Dinka (Kiir’s tribe) versus Nuer (Machar’s tribe), just as it is too simplistic to describe the Sudanese conflict before independence as one of Muslims versus Christians. But while tribal and religious elements certainly have played into both conflicts, there are other issues: The north and south also warred over access to resources in southern Sudan like oil, minerals and fertile agricultural land, and Kiir and Machar are fighting for control of a young country.
Donald Booth, the current U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, says the U.S. has not taken a position on how Kiir and Machar should resolve the conflict.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the South Sudanese who are going to be their leaders and how they can achieve peace,” says Booth, who was appointed by Obama in 2013 after the post was vacant for nearly six months.
Booth returned from the region last week and says ongoing negotiations – held in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and mediated by East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development – center around the concept of Kiir remaining president of South Sudan and Machar being appointed prime minister. The parties were originally given two weeks to mull over that scenario, but the process has stretched into four.
The head of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan last week urged the parties to return to talks with “a heightened sense of responsibility and openness to compromise.”
“The patience of the international community with both parties is wearing thin,” said Ellen Margrethe Loj, head of the mission. “[L]eaders must inject a new sense of urgency into the peace process in order to reach a comprehensive peace agreement as soon as possible.”
Hogendoorn rejects the possibility that a transitional government could bring real peace to the country.
“What’s happening in Addis Ababa is essentially a discussion about what does a transitional government look like and what positions do the different actors hold,” Hogendoorn says. “That by itself is not enough for a durable peace process. What you need in addition to that is you need to have a frank and open discussion about reform of the [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement].”
Booth says his State Department office has a good relationship with those in the White House working on South Sudan, and the issue is receiving adequate attention from the administration. Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2009 until 2013, says Obama has been “engaged on key issues related to Africa.”
“I think that people who criticize him with respect to what he did or did not do on Africa are in effect making non-contextual criticism and forgetting about what he inherited as president during those first four years in office,” Carson says, referring to the financial crisis and the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those critics, including members of Congress, argue that Obama is not engaged enough on South Sudan in particular, and that his lack of attention has endangered the future of the newly formed country.
Retiring Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has traveled to the area and praised Bush’s efforts there, saying the ex-president’s “high-profile” appointment of former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., in 2001 as special envoy to Sudan sent a message to the world that he cared about the region.
“If you contrast that with this administration, I think they have done a horrible job,” Wolf says. “They have not appointed a special envoy of such credibility that if he or she were to speak, the world would listen.”
Wolf has advocated for the Obama administration to reach out to the George W. Bush Presidential Center and employ the former presidentand his staff on South Sudan diplomacy, because Bush continues to be popular in Africa.
“But for some reason the administration just didn’t want to do that,” Wolf says. He declined to go into detail regarding his conversations with the center. “And President Bush and the people around the Bush library did not want to look like they were criticizing the Obama administration or second-guessing them, which I think everyone has to respect.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also has pushed for more diplomacy, saying in a floor speech last week that the U.S. must “exert our diplomatic arsenal to bring an end to the fighting and restore that promise of the peaceful and hopeful future for South Sudan.”
The administration, however, says it’s important to support the African-led peace process because regional buy-in is key to the success of any peace agreement, as neighboring countries have a direct interest in a stable and prosperous South Sudan. Any action taken at the U.N. also requires support from other African nations.
“We’re working now, in support of [the Intergovernmental Authority on Development], talking about a sanctions resolution in the U.N. that would mirror what we have done bilaterally already,” Booth says, referring to U.S. sanctions implemented in April against South Sudanese individuals via executive order from Obama.
The senior administration official says “nothing has been definitively ruled in or ruled out” regarding possible U.N. action, including an arms embargo. Some have called for a halt to arms sales to stop the regional violence, but such measures can be difficult to enforce and don’t always have the impact desired.
Obama has acknowledged the anniversary of the recent conflict, issuing a statement last week calling for peace. And his less personal approach may be gaining support.
Carson says the U.S. ultimately is right not to take the lead and instead back African-led negotiation efforts.
“We don’t want to own the problems of Sudan and South Sudan because the moment we own them, we are responsible for their success or failure,” Carson says. “The moment we own it, we run the risk of alienating others in the region who have a stake in trying to solve them.”