South Sudan’s Civil War: Violence, Insurgency and Failed Peacemaking

This scholarly contribution by John Young offers an insightful critique and evaluation of liberal peacemaking and internationalism that has shaped post-cold war approaches to Africa. Examining South Sudan’s peacemaking process, the book refutes modernist and liberal peace epistemologies that deficiency in governance, underdevelopment, and failed peace are caused by internal factors. The main argument is that failed peacemaking in South Sudan, and previously in Sudan, has been induced by external forces.

Organised into eight chapters, South Sudan’s Civil War: Violence, Insurgency and Failed Peacemaking outlines missed opportunities to resolving the Sudan conflict. The author takes the Turco-Egyptian empire that exposed South Sudan to a global economy of slavery as the starting point. The British who came to the Sudan to avenge the death of Gordon Pasha established an administration of ‘benign neglect’ that ended in the integration of South Sudan into an asymmetrical economy and polity. After two civil wars, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) enabled the birth of an independent South Sudan, with the Agreement providing a trade-off between self-determination and democratic transformation (p. 10). The ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), manufactured shallow political unity to promote the referendum for independence. All promises for an elaborate transformative agenda and successful post-independence transitional period were abandoned and neglected. The book criticises the liberation movement (SPLM) and the United States (US) administration for causing conflict. The central thesis of the book considers the independence of South Sudan as the root cause of conflict by endorsing the SPLM’s tyranny (p. 65). 

South Sudan’s independence would not have been possible without unfettered US support. US officials often proclaim that the creation of an independent South Sudan was a major foreign policy success. The book emphasises the ‘midwifery role’ of US policies in the Sudan and South Sudan, highlighting the role of an independent lobby group, calling itself the ‘council’, who worked towards the realisation of an independent South Sudan. The council influenced policies on the Sudan across three administrations (Clinton, Bush and Obama). The SPLM was equated with the US founding fathers. This is based on President Reagan’s precedent in defining the “Afghan mujahedeen as equivalent to the founding fathers” (p. 189-190). 

Another pull factor is the US post-Cold War interest in Africa, which strove to integrate African states that were perceived as victims of the Cold War. The Global War on Terror informed US policy on poor, fragile and conflict-affected states in Africa. Underdevelopment, fragility and conflict in Africa are perceived as sources of threats to US security. Peace processes were therefore instrumentalised to prevent fragile states from offering a harbour for terrorist groups. 

These approaches, however, are ideologically framed within liberal peace models and liberal internationalism, which prioritise liberal democratic transition and power-sharing as the best means to stem violence. The book critiques this approach, arguing that there is no justification for how power-sharing stems violence (p. 115). It concludes that it is an “illusion… to construct a liberal democratic state on the harsh ground of South Sudan” (p. 187).

Moving to questions of African agency in peace processes, the book problematises such agency. Slogans such as “African Solutions to African Problems” are now instruments serving Western interests in weak states. Regional involvement undermines sovereignty through peace processes and by creating new dependencies to “ensure that other potential powers do not assume a leading position” (p. 37). The Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) that mediated the CPA and the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) are examples of how these new regional and sub-regional roles operate within liberal internationalism. The ARCSS offered opportunities to IGAD states to serve their foreign policy interests more than solving South Sudan’s problems. The Agreement offered a platform for the systematic pursuit of foreign interests without the risk of conflict between member states (p. 213).

 Young outlines a number of reasons for failed peacemaking. First, the rush by the IGAD member states to start mediation led to a failure in understanding the root causes of conflict and a failure to identify the main actors effectively. A proposed session to identify the root causes was cancelled. The narrative in circulation depicted the conflict as a Dinka-Nuer/Riek Machar-Salva Kiir feud – an ideal elitist conflict resolvable by power-sharing and individual sanctions. This has prevented an understanding of the root causes of the conflict from being taken into account in the peace agenda. 

Second, the failure of IGAD to understand the main actors involved led to the endorsement of Machar as the leader of the rebellion despite his “[taking] over a rebellion that was not his own” (p. 87). This posed serious challenges to the process, as the presumed leaders of the rebellion are at odds with their presumed constituencies. The chapter discussing the formation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition (SPLM-iO) argues that the rebel group is a loose coalition with incompatible interests. 

In terms of external factors that affected the  peacekeeping process, the US was was seen to be a  negative influence. The US used its influence over the mediators to push policies favourable to its interest in South Sudan, including halting a United Nations (UN) arms embargo on South Sudan. The US failed to condemn Uganda’s intervention on behalf of one party in the conflict. These and other reasons support a conclusion that the US policy towards South Sudan is arguably based on “give war a chance” by “giving [President] Salva a chance” (p. 166). 

The US influenced Machar’s exile, restricting his movements in the region and putting him under house arrest. Sudan was promised the lifting of sanctions, delistment from the State Sponsors of Terror List, and even a possible moratorium on an International Criminal Court indictment. Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir was asked to cooperate in a number of ways, including desisting from supplying arms to the SPLM-iO (pp. 173–174).

However, the reasons behind the collapse of South Sudan’s peacemaking are not entirely the responsibility of US policies. The provisions of the peace process were problematic for a number of reasons, and the process was not owned by the parties to the conflict. There were several breaches of the Agreement before its implementation, including but not limited to an increase in the number of states contravening what was agreed upon in the final Accord and questions over the cantonment and deployment of belligerent forces in close proximity to one another. President Kiir’s refusal to sign the Accord while Machar signed it to embarrass the government are indicators that the Accord is likely to fail (p. 134).

South Sudan’s Civil War: Violence, Insurgency and Failed Peacemaking ends with a discussion of the future prospects for peace, considering Sudan’s takeover of the mediation and national dialogue processes, and the largely “give war a chance” idea. These efforts remain futile, including prospects for either an African Union (AU) or UN trusteeship. Although these efforts are anchored on liberal peace tenets, a trusteeship under the UN would be more feasible, given its position on safeguarding African sovereignty. The AU is known for opposing Western-led state and nation-building processes.  

This book is an excellent contribution that evaluates post-Cold War and post-9/11 peacemaking processes in Africa. It questions the essence of emerging African agency, the inherent intricacies of this, and how African efforts interface with external interests on the continent. When framing such emerging African agency within Pax Africana, it only meets the nationality and jurisdiction criteria. Peace processes occur in Africa and appear to be led by Africans. However, the book attempts to gauge how much influence African mediators actually have on the process. It is unfortunate that despite a growing regional agency, they end up serving the vested interests of the region in question, as seen in the South Sudan peace process, or  a larger external interest. The author advocates for an endogenous approach to peace processes in South Sudan by providing locally generated solutions that emerge from society. However, this suggestion contradicts other prescriptions by the author, especially when he considers placing South Sudan under UN trusteeship. A UN trusteeship or any other form of trusteeship is at odds with African aspirations for sovereignty and territorial integrity.

One misplaced argument is the consideration of South Sudan’s independence as the root cause of the conflict (p. 65). Indeed, despite external forces pushing for an independent South Sudan, this statement undermines 50 years of South Sudanese struggle to realise independence through local agency. It is an irrefutable fact that the SPLM did not win the war in the same way as other movements in the region, such as the National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Uganda, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). Nevertheless, the demand for independence should not be linked to the SPLM. The demand for independence contradicts the SPLM manifesto, placing it at odds with its constituency. While the SPLM called for a united, democratic secular Sudan, the South Sudanese were demanding independence.

In conclusion, the book opens serious debate on how to safeguard an endogenous approach to peacemaking against external influences. It is highly useful for scholars and policy-makers grappling with questions of why peace fails.

Stephen Arrno is a PhD student in the Department of International Relations at the US International University-Africa in Kenya. 

Stephen Arrno
PhD student in the Department of International Relations at the US International University-Africa in Kenya