When asked by the New York Time how he imagines the current crisis in South Sudan to end Jok Madut Jok, one of the country’s leading intellectuals, answered with obvious resignation referring to President Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar: “The two men will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for.” Jok might well be right, the question is rather when, or at the price of how many lives? Indeed, the South Sudanese negotiators from the two sides started talks about talks in the Ethiopian capital with keen hugs. The dead, alas, cannot share in the tokens of good will on display in Addis Ababa’s Sheraton.
As things stand, two interlocking factors are likely to determine the timing of the awaited respite: the balance of military power on the battlefields between the two men and the nature and extent of regional involvement in the South Sudanese theatre of war, with the second factor probably overdetermining the first. In the record of old Sudan’s wars, of which the current conflict in independent South Sudan constitutes a continuity, as much as a break, there are no victors, only the dead, and the negotiators and their ‘peace’ agreements, and of course books, some good ones with ignored lessons, and many that lay or rather renew the ideological ground for new wars.
Under the category ideology one should also consider media coverage of events in South Sudan. Ominously, mainstream Sudanese press and Western media, apart from some sane exceptions, shared the same outlook, namely the notion of atavistic drives devouring a country constituted of tribal hordes not peoples. Reports of the insurgency in southern Sudan always ended with the line that the war was between a Muslim Arab north and a Christian and animist African south. This time around, the standard wisdom was confrontation between the Dinka and the Nuer, or a variant thereof, usually the more qualified reminder that President Kiir is a Dinka and Riek Machar a Nuer, with the note that the Dinka constitute South Sudan’s largest ethnic group. ‘Quick descent’ from a power struggle between President Kiir and his former deputy to a civil war pitting the Dinka against the Nuer is then declared but left to the trusting consumer to fathom. Assuming the above reasoning to hold, the mystery is rather how is it at all possible that the Nuer and the Dinka are not at each other’s throats all the time, battle-keen as they are supposed to be.
If the on-going insurgency in Sudan’s South Kordofan and the Blue Nile is a tangential off-shoot of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the Sudan government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), unsettled business as it were, so is the current crisis in South Sudan. Liberal peace-making efforts at the time consciously divorced between the necessity of ending the war and the condition of restructuring state power to secure peace, termed rather euphemistically ‘democratic transformation’. The outcome was reproduction of the National Congress Party (NCP) autocracy in Khartoum and the implantation of its precarious double in Juba under banners of the SPLA/M turned into a ruling party, argument being that only those with the capacity to wage war deserved to dictate the terms of peace, and so they did. The contradiction, so dear to the ‘experts’, between the Arab Muslim north and the African Christian animist south was resolved by an international border of terribly poor resolution. The contradictions that sustained the war however, primary among them the capture of the state by “bourgeoisified bureaucratic elites” to use John Garang’s eerie terminology, adding the adjective militarised in the case of South Sudan to account for the legacy of the liberation struggle, as opposed to the rural mass of the population, were accepted as destiny if not actively encouraged to facilitate ‘peace’. Consider in that regard how the 2010 elections, the landmark event of ‘democratic transformation’ under the 2005 CPA, were internationally delivered to the NCP in northern Sudan and the SPLM in southern Sudan without even the grace of acknowledging their farcical nature aloud. Yasir Arman’s aborted presidential candidacy on a SPLM ticket was the dramatic entertainment offered to the indulgent, a non-event to square the ‘bi-partisan’ deal. A long-time Garangist, Yasir is yet to come to terms with the secession of South Sudan, his politics remain a hangover from the days of the big man.
In northern Sudan, the 2010 elections proved the main catalyst for the renewed insurgency in South Kordofan, a count of votes, contested and corrupted, could on no account address a situation where a ‘national’ army was in a haste to do away with combatants still in command of an arsenal and territory. In southern Sudan, the now forgotten insurgency of George Athor who lost the bid for the gubernatorial post in Jonglei State when the SPLM endorsed the candidacy of Kuol Manyang Juuk was arguably a foretaste of how electoral politics operate when the ruling political party doubles as an army. Athor died in disputed circumstances in December 2011. Riek Machar, yesterday’s vice president and today’s rebel, claimed Athor was killed in a clash with a border patrol unit after crossing back into Equatoria following a trip to Rwanda. For enthusiasts of the Dinka-Nuer rivalry George Athor was a Padeng-Dinka. In terms of agreements, South Sudan had its own ‘protocols’ to add to the CPA, comparable to the rushed and ill-fated CPA protocols on the Three Areas, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Abyei, namely the 2006 Juba Declaration signed with the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF) led by the late Paulino Matieb. An umbrella of militia formations comparable in size to the SPLA itself, the SSDF trace their evolution back to the 1978 Anya Nya II of Upper Nile but were born out of the 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement signed with the South Sudan Independence Army/Movement (SSIA/M) of Riek Machar, the SPLA/M-United of Lam Akol, the Equatoria Defence Force (EDF), Kerubino Kawanyn Bol’s own SPLA/M and ‘other groups’.
The SSDF were arguably the SAF’s greatest asset in the war against the SPLA/M. Oil production in Western Upper Nile (aptly renamed Unity State) would not have been possible without Paulino Matieb’s soldiers, under subcontract of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) military intelligence. If South Kordofan and the Blue Nile were the SPLA/M’s south within the north the SSDF were the Khartoum government’s mobile north within the south. The CPA stipulated the dissolution of the SSDF, a prospect that John Garang probably considered in earnest but did not survive to test. Garang died in July 2005, and his successor Salva Kiir opted for absorption of the SSDF into the SPLA, a decision that found expression in the 8 January 2006 Juba Declaration. Accordingly, the ageing Matieb was appointed deputy commander of the SPLA, but “integration”, “unity” and “reconciliation”, the key words of the declaration, were ripped out of a military dictionary not a political one. Former SSDF commanders including Peter Gadet, Gordon Kong and others, kept the revolving doors of the SPLA busy in cycles of mutiny and pardon. In that regard, Riek Machar’s return to the “bush” as prince over old company spikes an established trend, so far as to plateau in Addis Ababa’s Sheraton.
It should come as no surprise then that President Kiir turned to his CPA partner President Bashir for counsel with the oil arteries of the twin regimes at stake. President Bashir landed in Juba on Monday accompanied by the chiefs of his military-security cabal to pronounce that no forces opposed to the Juba government will be allowed to operate out of Sudan, and Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ali Karti claimed that Juba had asked for talks on deployment of a joint force to guard South Sudan’s oil fields. Military intelligence in Khartoum obviously has more to offer to counterparts in Juba than Kampala ever can. The rebellion in South Sudan comes at a time when the SAF is engaged in its widest counter-insurgency campaign in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile since the resumption of war in 2011, and offers Khartoum the opportunity to seal the security pact it always wished for, sanction to operate behind the lines of the SPLA/M in North Sudan and its allies in the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). The pro-government press in Khartoum prepared public opinion for the shift from ‘friendly’ to ‘brotherly’ South Sudan with reports attributed to anonymous South Sudanese military experts that forces of the SRF were fighting alongside Riek Machar’s allies in Unity State. On a more composed note, officials maintained that Machar had recanted on his pledge not to disturb oil production. Ironically, it is Khartoum that is now invited to stabilise the SPLA/M regime in Juba, the Chinese to mediate between President Kiir and his former deputy, and Lam Akol who faces Machar’s delegates as Kiir’s negotiator. The Prendergastians must be aghast. In this world, say Omdurmani grandmothers, you might even get to witness your own mother’s bridal dance, if that’s any solace.