I’m really into the “can’t write anymore” portion of our August vacation, but I wanted to highlight a piece I posted at LobeLog this morning from former US Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen, on South Sudan. Usually when we cover South Sudan around here, I try to stick to telling you what’s happening because, like Uzbekistan, this is a place I’m still learning about. But the thing that has stuck out to me lately is the degree to which the turmoil in South Sudan revolves around its now-former First VP, Riek Machar (at least according to John Kerry, who says the decision to replace him with Taban Deng Gai was legal under the terms of a 2015 peace deal that ended South Sudan’s civil war).
During the 1983-2005 Sudanese Civil War, Machar led a group that broke off from the main Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which was led by John Garang with current South Sudanese President Salva Kiir as his deputy. Machar was allegedly concerned about the SPLA’s domination by ethnic Dinka (Garang and Kiir are–or were, in Garang’s case–Dinka) at the expense of South Sudan’s other ethnicities, and also by Garang’s decision to closely ally the movement with the government of Ethiopia. However, there is also evidence that Machar was enticed to break with the SPLA by the government of Sudan, though Machar and the people around him have always denied this as far as I can tell. Whatever his reasons, fighting between the two factions produced at least one horrific war crime, when Machar’s mostly Nuer forces massacred thousands of Dinka in Bor in 1991.
(There is an underlying or overlying ethnic component to South Sudan’s civil strife involving the rivalry between the Dinka and the Nuer, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, but as with the whole “Sunni-Shiʿa” narrative in the Middle East I think it’s best not to get carried away with that angle. Westerners are often too quick to chalk up foreign conflicts to “ancient tribal hostility,” and that’s almost always far too simplistic. In this case, Machar and Kiir have plenty of reason to hate each other’s guts based on fairly recent events.)
Cohen’s piece argues that Machar has, in fact, always been a cat’s paw for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir–during the war Bashir used him to weaken the SPLA, and since South Sudan became independent Bashir has been using him to keep South Sudan unstable. But Khartoum has apparently welcomed Machar’s replacement even as it took Machar in (he’s getting medical treatment for something in a Khartoum hospital), which suggests that Bashir is no longer that interested in keeping South Sudan in chaos–and that suggests that South Sudan might finally have a chance to stabilize itself and establish some governing institutions:
To many observers’ surprise, Khartoum welcomed Taban’s appointment, and actually began to cooperate with him to normalize relations in a constructive way. The first action was an agreement by Khartoum, at Taban’s request, to reopen the pipelines from South Sudan’s oil fields so that a revenue stream could be recaptured by both sides.
It is clear, with Machar totally out of the picture, and with Taban as a non-threatening South Sudanese vice president, that Khartoum has finally accepted the independence of South Sudan as a reality that they must live with.
On the other hand, 14 prominent Nuer chiefs issued a statement a few days ago rejecting Taban Deng Gai’s appointment and insisting that Machar be reinstated as First VP. So I don’t think this conflict is anywhere near over.