South Sudan

This week on February 14th, former SRSG and head of UN Missions in South-Sudan, Hilde Frafjord Johnson, was a guest of honor at a seminar hosted by CDRC and the Embassy. There were good discussions on the future of South-Sudan and how negotiations should proceed in order to attain peace. Below is the statement she made.

CDRC, 13 February 2017, Addis Ababa

“South Sudan: Past and present - and the prospects for peace”

Hilde F. Johnson, former SRSG UNMISS

On Independence Day, 9 July 2011, Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of South Sudan, said the following, and I quote:

[O]ur detractors have already written us off, even before the proclamation of our independence. They say we will slip in to civil war as soon as our flag is hoisted. They justify that by arguing that we are incapable of resolving our problems through dialogue. They charge that we are quick to revert to violence. They claim that our concept of democracy and freedom is faulty. It is incumbent upon us to prove them all wrong!

Two years later the detractors were proven right. Competition for political power had turned violent, and would eventually shake the foundations of the new country.

Before its third birthday, the dream of independence and freedom had turned into a nightmare. The liberators risked destroying the very country they had spent decades fighting for.

How could this happen?

In the book “South Sudan: The Untold Story – from Independence to Civil War”,  I am trying to answer this question.

As Minister of International Development for Norway, I was deeply involved in the negotiations that led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

After almost five decades Africa’s longest civil war had ended. The CPA did not grant the southerners independence, but self determination. The parties were giving unity a chance, over an interim period of six years, after which Southern Sudan would have the right to hold a referendum on its own future. If this guarantee was not provided, the war would have continued.

With the CPA Southern Sudan had to go through at least three transitions, each extremely demanding:

  • Transition from war to peace, for people who had known little but war, was a major shift.
  • Transition from liberation struggle to government was another.
  • Third was the complex transition to independence.

All three transitions were under way after South Sudan voted overwhelming for independence in January 2011 and later on Independence Day 2011, when I took the helm as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) and head of its mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

First, transition from war to peace:

South Sudan was separated from Sudan in 2011 before all the terms of the ‘divorce’ had been reached. Relations between the neighbours were expected to be difficult, but few foretold bombing raids hitting refugee camps, occupation of oil fields and a complete shutdown of oil production in South Sudan.

This, in turn, affected all efforts of state-building and peace-building.

At the same time, South Sudan had major internal security problems.

The country’s largest state, Jonglei, was mired in a cycle of communal violence in which thousands of civilians had been killed. Jonglei was a microcosm testing the country’s leadership and us in the UN. It was here we would face our greatest challenge prior to the December 2013-crisis and the civil war. But these problems were minor compared to later protection challenges.

Second, the transition from liberation struggle to government and was predictably difficult.

The country was awash with weapons, mostly in civilian hands. Lack of commitment prevented necessary reform. This implied turning the liberation movement into a political party and the liberation force into a national army. Both processes stalled.

The security sector was not reformed, and contained tens of thousands of former militia which were poorly integrated into the Army. Command and control was poor, corruption rampant, and inflation in rank a major problem. The SPLA had 700 generals.

Furthermore, the liberators failed to use the interim CPA period to strengthen the foundations on which the country could be built, through stronger institutions. They also ignored numerous warnings against corruption and mismanagement.

This ‘liberation curse’ took hold, where people felt entitled to power. It was their turn to eat. South Sudan was soon afflicted by the ‘oil curse’.

Oil revenue became an irresistible temptation for cadres who had spent most of their lives in the bush. Resources lubricated patronage networks, while significant amounts were simply syphoned to foreign bank accounts.

You will find a lot of detail on these corruption scandals, in the book. Instead of cleaning up, at the very least at independence, the liberators continued to eat and institutions remained weak.

The third transition, the complex transition to independence, was therefore marked by continuity and very limited change. The people, who expected to finally reap the fruits of peace and freedom, saw their hopes dashed.

They continued to wait for schools for their children, clinics for their sick and roads to get to the markets.

South Sudan ended up being, by far, the biggest spender of public funds in the region – per capita three times as much as Kenya and four times as much as Uganda.

However, South Sudan spent one fourth of their neighbours on education, one-fifth or sixth on health. Even now it is more likely that a teenage girl dies in child birth than that she will enter grade eight at school.

The money went elsewhere. It was rule by the elite for the elite.

Although attempts were made by the President to address the cancer of corruption in 2012, and we tried on our side to assist, they were not followed through. The liberation curse and the oil curse prevailed.

This also implied that state institutions, including the Army, were insufficiently developed to sustain the pressure of an escalating political crisis.

The build-up to the crisis started in the fall of 2012, and early attempts were made within the SPLM to engage with the two leaders, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar informally. Later, in early 2013, a committee was formed, chaired by Deng Alor, the current foreign minister, and including a few Political Bureau-members. Through a series of meetings they tried to resolve the leadership crisis. These efforts came to a dead end.

From July 2013 onwards, regional leaders flew in to help, the Ethiopian foreign minister, the Kenyans and former president Thabo Mbeki and the AUHIP. South Africa’s Cyril Ramophosa and the ANC came, as well. Also other friends of South Sudan engaged. We all did.

That violence could occur was clear to many of us. But high risk behaviour from a number of leaders made everything worse. This included three things:

-          the total exclusion of factions of the SPLM from the new Cabinet, followed by a political mobilization with public confrontation on both sides;

-          moves that could be interpreted as military preparation on both sides, including movement of additional security forces to the capital outside the SPLA’s normal structures;

-          and not least -  spinning of stories about arrests and disarmament in the last week before the National Liberation Council.

In the end Juba was like a powder keg. These series of actions contributed to what Barry Posen calls “The security dilemma”: Both sides took pre-emptive steps for their own protection, but ended up escalating the situation, and triggered by the acts of a few reckless individuals it spun out of control.

The South Sudanese leaders played with fire, and allowed a power struggle to put everything they had fought for at risk. They all ignored the warnings, both from my side and others that this would lead to ethnic violence.

The last trigger was Salva Kiir’s speech at the National Liberation Council. The speed, scale and gravity of the December 2013 violence shocked everyone, including the South Sudanese leaders themselves.

The massive killings and massacres of the nuer on ethnic grounds in Juba triggered a response in kind. A “shadowy group” of people on the government side – from the Dinka community of Bahr-el-Gahzal had conducted the military operations, systematically killing along ethnic lines.

The whole sale revenge came as a groundswell from below – making it possible for Riek Machar to mount sizable opposition forces in record time. With the SPLA splitting along ethnic lines, joined by the White Army, the opposition quickly reached numbers. These forces committed atrocities in equal measure.

In other words, this was not a long term plan. It was not a planned coup, and it was not a planned genocide. No one really planned a civil war, either. Someone still planned something, however. And those most involved were two people, Paul Malong Awan and Taban Deng Gai, respectively.

But the responsibility for the civil war, its escalation, and the current mess, rests with the two leaders, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. They had the opportunity to stop this senseless war a long time ago. They chose not to.

And then the obvious question: What about the UN? Could we have done more?

I am sure the international community, and I, could have done more. Still, as early as 18 months before the crisis, I tried to organize retreats within the leadership to address both critical reform issues and the tensions in the leadership. All five of the top leaders agreed four times to do this, last in February 2013, in the middle of the crisis. In the end, it was not done.

Through numerous discussions with the chairman of the SPLM committee I pushed to bring in regional leaders to help resolve the crisis, already from March 2013 onwards.  However, they wanted to resolve the crisis by themselves. When the regional leaders finally came in, it was probably too late.

Could the UN have done more to stop the killings and massacres in Juba? During the last week of December, we had 150 soldiers that were not protecting our facilities. Our infantry battalions were elsewhere, in Jonglei where civilians were seen to be most at risk and where we were expecting revenge attacks. Our capacity to protect in Juba was close to zero.  

In the morning hours on 16 December hundreds of civilians were gathering outside our gates, seeking protection from the violence, and then thousands. They had been running for their lives. At 7:30 AM I told our security to open the gates to our two bases in Juba to protect them. After this, thousands and thousands sought shelter with the UN-bases, at a scale never seen before in the UNs history.

Anyone fleeing the violence, whether nuer, dinka or foreigner all got refuge. The number reached over 140 000 during my time, and has since reached more than 200 000. It was an absolute last resort, and a decision frought with problems. People have suffered under very bad conditions. Yet, their lives were saved. Would I have done the same again knowing what we do know now?

Yes, I would. I would not have been able to face the mirror otherwise.

This increased tensions between the government and the UN significantly, leading to demonstrations and personal attacks.

But it was much worse for the people.

The outrageous atrocities committed on both sides in equal measure are an abomination. Mass killings on ethnic grounds. The systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Women and girls being gang-raped and burned alive in their dwellings. Horrific crimes committed against children, including abduction, recruitment, castration, rape and murder. Boys as young as 10 mutilated. Such acts of grave violence, seem to be motivated as a generational attack on another ethnic group. This has never happened in South Sudan before.

The atrocities committed were beyond comprehension, the intransigence of the leaders appalling. It was as if people no longer mattered.

After 18 months of negotiations by IGAD, the South Sudanese leaders finally signed a peace agreement in August 2015, with Riek Machar returning only in April 2016 to establish the transitional government.

The narrative of my book ends as Riek Machar is about to return to Juba in April 2016. But it is still highly relevant also for current developments, covering the prospects for peace in South Sudan, pointing at the inherent risks. This is reflected in the chapter Waging Peace in South Sudan, covering the IGAD peace efforts, the role of neighbouring countries and the use of ethnicity and ethnic mobilization as a political tool.

Particularly interesting is the how the latter has led to the proliferation of states in South Sudan. When I was serving in South Sudan, the country had 10 states. In the peace negotiations Riek Machar proposed dividing South Sudan in 22 states, and was met with total rejection on the government side. Now, president Salva Kiir has, by decret established 32 states, in violation of the peace agreement. Whatever is being said, this is a way of generating more political power and fueling conflict, not promoting peace.

But the fundamental question we have all asked ourselves is this: Can the same characters that caused the crisis save South Sudan?                                              

We got a preliminary answer in July. South Sudan had just cancelled its independence celebrations. After only 10 weeks of joint government, in July 2016, fighting erupted in Juba, and hundreds, if not thousands were killed. Targeted killings took place again, and attacks on State House indicated attempts on more than Machar’s life.  Riek Machar fled the capital, pursued by government security forces. The hunt for him lasted for weeks on end.

South Sudan was once again plunged into the abyss. It was again in full-fledged conflict. The country was already imploding from within, the social fabric was tearing apart. Human suffering now reached unprecendented levels. Starvation and hunger, forced displacement and violence, with conflicts all over the country. Blocking humanitarian aid and protection forces. Rule by the gun, with predatory behavior against innocent civilians by almost all security forces. And the list is much longer. All of this committed by South Sudanese against South Sudanese.

More than half the population of South Sudan, 6 million – depending on how you count, are now in need of aid. 3,5 million have fled their homes. It is among the worst humanitarian crises in the world, and the worst refugee-crisis in Africa.

The betrayal – committed by the liberators against themselves and their people is unprecedented. I think the freedom fighters and martyrs would have turned in their graves.

In another ironic twist, Taban Deng Gai, from a faction of the opposition, was appointed First Vice President, and the fate of the peace agreement was in question. At the same time, the Security Council decided to send a Regional Protection Force of 4000 soldiers to the capital and called for the establishment of the Hybrid Court.

In August 2016, the peace efforts stalled. There was internal disagreement in the region and among international aactors on the way forward. The fate of Riek Machar and the issue of status quo ante was contested.

While both sides continued to arm themselves, generating military equipment, arsenals and ammunition, getting ready for the dry season and major military offensices, ethnic hate language increased and ethnically targeted killings reached new areas; - this time also against Dinka civilians on the road to Juba.

Stories of new plans of ethnic killings at scale surfaced, allegedly to be perpetrated by the same Dinka recruits, whose name was Dot Bany, “Rescue the president”, or Mathiang Anyor – who were behind the killings in Juba in December 2013. Adama Dieng, the UN Special Advisor for Prevention Against Genocide went to South Sudan and came out with strong warnings of the risk of genocide in the country.

While all this was going on, the international community was urging the Government of South Sudan and Salva Kiir to implement the peace agreement, ARCSS, and allowing the deployment of the Regional Protection Force, RPF.

But let us not fool ourselves. A peace agreement cannot be omplemented by one of the signatories. Without the other signatories as part of the transition government, there is no peace to implement, as also recent fighting in Upper Nile and the Equatorias shows. Taban Deng Gai does not represent the opposition forces as a signatory.

Similarly, deploying an RPF without a political solution, without a peace to protect, is also of very limited value – if any. Neither the RPF, nor sanctions or an arms embargo, however important in their own right, can bring peace to South Sudan. Again, let us not fool ourselves. Only a political process can, and that process must be inclusive, including all signatories to the peace agreement.

To avoid exactly that, President Salva Kiir in January launched a process of a National Dialogue. While the National Dialogue was generous in its invitation and its agenda and mandate, which must be acknowledged, - it had 3 fundamental flaws:

  • It frames the crisis in South Sudan as a communal and not a political one;
  • It excludes the voices of those who have been victimized by the violence and the mass atrocities;
  • It’s composition and structure is biased, as the President is the patron of the process – at least for now, and critical stakeholders are not in Juba and not included.

As the process has yet to start (the government says March), there is still time to make the necessary changes in these areas. It should also be preceded by high level consultations which include all these critical stakeholders, among them the signatories to the peace agreement, ARCSS. The National Dialogue should be consultative in its conception and its implementation.

Again, let us not fool ourselves. A National Dialogue is not a national dialogue when it is partial, having excluded key players.

That is why I was really pleased to see the Joint Press Statement from the high level consultations of the AU, IGAD and the UN on 29 January. It is particularly important that President Salva Kiir signed up to this language, which says – and I quote:

“They further stated that there can only be a political solution to the conflict, within the framework of ARCSS”, and they “urged the parties to ensure inclusivity of the political process, both in the proposed National Dialogue and in the implementation of the ARCSS.”

This is excellent language.

While the parties have decided to not yet put their planned military offensives in motion, despite the increased violence of late, it appears there now is a window to act. It seems clear that the ball is in the AU’s court. African Union Special Envoy Alpha Konare has been given a lead role. He now needs a clear mandate and strong support both politically and resource-wise, so he can move forward with speed.

The responsibility for a peaceful solution falls, not only on him, but on all of us – and not least on the region. Neighbours are critical. They can be troublemakers or peacemakers. As I say in my book, those giving birth to the peace agreement, the ARCSS, cannot now walk away from South Sudan. What is needed now is not paralysis, but active engagement by the region in support of the AU-effort.

Because there is not much time:

  • The ethnic fragmentation of the country is already happening, with an implosion of all key institutions. Whether the resignation of Thomas Cirillo, one of the key military leaders I the SPLA will trigger further implosion is too early to tell.
  • The economic collapse is now reaching unprecedented levels, hitting also the elite of South Sudan;
  • The dry season is soon ending, and the military offensives are likely to be launched. This will happen by April/May. There are enough arms, and more is on the way – and machetes are being sharpened as we speak,

South Sudan urgently needs not only to be saved from fighting, it also needs to be saved from failing, and - from falling apart. This was my assessment when the book went to print in April 2016.

Now, it is even more urgent. The country is on a downward spiral. It is not long before developments in South Sudan will become irriversable. A rescue operation is urgently needed.

How? Certainly not by putting South Sudan under administration. That will never work. I know South Sudan.

The peace agreement is the only game in town. It now has to be rescued and revitalized. And revised. It must be used as a basis for change.  

Here, three things are critical:

  • This implies that all signatories of the peace agreement must be part of the solution. Excluding any of them will only make them into spoilers that will threaten the peace.
  • Certain elements of the peace agreement will have to be adjusted – both the security arrangements and power sharing arrangements would need to be changed, as the timelines and sequencing (with the ARCSS being too ambitious – it needs to be seen in the longer term).
  • A consultative process of all the political forces of South Sudan should be convened, paving the way for transition arrangements of some kind. Here there are a number of options. I believe a government or team dominated by technical and non-political capacity stands the best chance of succeeding, but it would have to be up to the parties to decide on this.

It is also only in support of such a rescue operation and a clear political strategy that the Regional Protection Force can yield results. As I say in the book, however; in the medium to long term, it is only the younger generation of South Sudanese leaders that can save South Sudan. They are ready, and they should be given the chance.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us in the Foreword of the book:

‘In the midst of all the darkness, believing in this change is our hope.’



Biography: Hilde F. Johnson served as Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) and Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (2011- 2014). From 2007-2011 she was Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, in charge of the organisation’s humanitarian operations and crisis response and prior to this Senior Advisor to the President of the African Development Bank on fragile states.. Hilde F. Johnson was Minister for International Development of Norway for almost seven years (during 1997-2005, and MP 1993-2001). During her ministerial tenure, she was a key player in brokering the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) for Sudan in 2005, an experience documented in the book “Waging Peace in Sudan” (Sussex Ac Press, 2011). Ms. Johnson has recently published the book “South Sudan: The Untold Story – from independence to civil war” (IB Tauris, 2016) and a Norwegian book on peace processes, “Den vanskelige freden, Når fred ender i ny krig” (Cappelen-Damm, 2016). During this time, she was a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI, 2014-2015). Hilde Frafjord Johnson is currently the Secretary General of the Norwegian Christian Democratic Party.