High Stakes for Survival of South Sudan’s Unity Government

Published on 6th October 2020

February 22nd, 2020 marked the formation of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (RTGoNU) in South Sudan. RTGoNU, among other functions, is primarily mandated to implement the Revitalised Agreement. 
Consequently, Riek Machar, James Wani Igga, Taban Deng Gai, Rebecca Nyandeng Garang and Hussein Abdelbagi were appointed as the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Vice Presidents respectively. 

Establishment of RTGoNU is a necessary step towards restoring dignity and nationhood of the South Sudanese people. However, it is insufficient to guarantee long-term stability of Africa’s newest state. An interplay of factors could jeopardize hopes and wishes of the South Sudanese people for a peaceful, stable and prosperous country.

Global Powers

Interests by global powers such as the United States of America (USA), China and Russia among others will determine the success or failure of the RTGoNU. USA’s influence in the larger Sudan can be traced to the period after independence in 1956 when the Muslim-dominated Khartoum government purposed to ‘Arabicise’ and ‘Islamicise’ the southern region. This prompted a quick-fire reaction from Christian evangelicals, mostly from America, to pitch camp in southern Sudan and spread Christianity as a counter-measure.

The end of the Cold War occasioned an evolution of USA’s foreign policy from one centred on countering the Soviet Union’s global influence to one heavily focused on the vague and never successful “War on Terror.” 

“War on Terror” activities in Africa arguably began in the larger Sudan in 1990s where Osama bin Laden had settled after the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-1989), in which he’d organized training of Mujahedeen fighters in the decade-long proxy war pitting Western powers against the Soviets. The Mujahedeen fighters were trained and financed by American, British and Pakistani governments. 

Bin Laden was a marked man and deemed by the West as a mastermind of Al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities and was occasionally hosted by the then president of Sudan, Omar el-Bashir. Accordingly, Sudan was perceived as a state sponsor of terrorism and economic sanctions were imposed against her by USA. 

Bill Clinton’s presidency materially supported the southern Sudanese rebels through provision of military assistance and food aid. Clinton’s policy intended to isolate the north (Khartoum) by imposing economic sanctions and waging proxy wars. 

George W. Bush’s administration, fundamentally propped by evangelical activists, considered creation of the South Sudanese state as one of its top foreign policy priorities. Obama’s policy towards peace and stability in South Sudan is regarded as a failure on the account of providing military aid to the government and not calling out recruitment of child soldiers. 

Trump’s administration has from time to time imposed sanctions on some South Sudanese government officials in a bid to enhance stability. In April 2019, the government of South Sudan paid Gainful Solutions, a lobbying firm associated with former US Ambassador Michael Ranneberger, $3.7 million to improve its relations with USA.

Specifically, the firm was to help delay and block creation of a hybrid court meant to try perpetrators of the civil war. In exchange, the firm promised to champion America’s private sector investment in natural resources and facilitate a military relationship between Washington and Juba. 

Chinese-Sudanese relations can be traced to 1959 when the larger Sudan became the first sub-Saharan country to recognize sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China. 

At the height of the Cold War in 1976, China funded construction of the People’s Friendship Cooperation Hall located near the confluence of the Blue Nile and White Nile.

China’s involvement in Sudan’s petroleum industry dates back to 1995 during the Second Sudanese Civil War. China capitalized on Sudan’s economic desperation and political isolation and embarked on development of the latter’s oil sector. In March 1997, an agreement was signed between Chinese and Sudanese agencies to develop oil fields in southern Sudan, specifically at Heglig, Unity and Kaikang. 

Currently, China is the leading consumer of South Sudanese oil and in April 2019, governments of the two countries signed a deal that elementally promotes development of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The deal between the two states is anchored on the policy of oil for development with South Sudan expected to deposit 30,000 drums of crude oil to an account in China meant for infrastructural development particularly roads. China is now considered by South Sudan as the most suitable ally to help her shore up oil production to over 200,000 barrels per day. 

Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in Africa has resulted in the Kremlin making forays into South Sudan. In January 2020, Foreign Ministers of the two countries, Awut Deng and Sergei Lavrov, met as a follow up to the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit. The Ministerial meeting identified oil, gas and infrastructure as top priority areas of cooperation. 

Power play by Americans, Chinese and Russians and intense competition for natural resources will influence the destiny of the unity government. That being so, the following scenarios are expected.

•    A deeply divided elite class and citizens with the reality or perception of foreigners largely benefiting from natural than the South Sudanese people. This will threaten stability of RTGoNU signaling a possible flare up of violence.
•    An increase in military spending by the South Sudanese government which could cripple spending on other crucial sectors such as education, health and physical infrastructure.
•    Establishment of foreign military bases in South Sudan. 
•    State capture of the South Sudanese state by foreign entities leading to untenable corruption, divide-and-rule antics by financing militant groups and interference in national elections. 

Regional Interests

Regional interests will influence the unity government and thereby long-term stability. A stable and more sensible Sudan implies that positive spill-over effects will enhance stability of the unity government in the South. 

Establishment of RTGoNU is instrumental in cementing the status of South Sudan as a member of the East African Community (EAC). Juba was admitted as a member of EAC in April 2016 but was earmarked for suspension in October 2019 following her failure to pay over $27 million owed to the regional body. The South Sudanese government paid $3 million towards the end of October 2019 thereby lowering the possibility of being suspended. 

However, as of June 2020 South Sudan’s outstanding obligations to the EAC amounted to $27.8 million. This could compromise her membership in the regional body critical in the state-building process. 

Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya will largely influence the fate of RTGoNU and thereby prospects of growth and development of South Sudan. The three countries host the largest number of South Sudanese refugees and would certainly want to see a peaceful South Sudan in order to avoid undesirable neighbourhood effects. An effective unity government and peaceful South Sudan will create numerous trade opportunities for firms and individuals from neighbouring countries. 

But neighbouring states could also engineer instability by financing militias and supporting different political factions in the unity government with a view of economically benefiting, though clandestinely, from South Sudan’s natural resources. 

Impatient Private Capital

Private capital has been a major cause of violence in South Sudan and is still an existential threat to the stability and success of the unity government. “The Taking of South Sudan” report published in September 2019 offers insight into the network of private capital that has fanned violence and furthered economic ruin in Africa’s youngest state. 

There are high possibilities of private capital threatening stability of RTGoNU by exploiting tribal fault lines and endless suspicion that characterize the now united political factions. These factions are definitely eyeing lucrative government contracts as well as harbour the desire to loot public resources. Certainly, these are high risk factors that will dent fortunes of the unity government and thereby fuel instability in South Sudan. 

Way Forward

Firstly, global powers ought to constructively engage with the RTGoNU. Their actions need to be monitored by the United Nations’ (UN) and the African Union (AU). Unfortunately, these two institutions are not independent enough to ward off foreign interests in South Sudan.

Secondly, principals in the unity government should be intentional in establishing functional political and economic institutions to resuscitate the country’s destitute economy by eradicating corruption, enacting laws to bar government officials from doing business with government and ensuring high levels of transparency and accountability. 

Thirdly, the EAC and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) should ensure that maintenance of peace and stability is a necessary and sufficient condition for South Sudan to retain her membership in the aforementioned regional blocs. Regional isolation is a burden too heavy to bear by South Sudan. 

Fourthly, the elite class in South Sudan must be disciplined enough and champion for peace and stability. This will create numerous opportunities for them to run business enterprises and attract more investments, internally and externally. 

Lastly, economic sanctions should be imposed on local and foreign entities that finance militia groups to destabilize South Sudan. With formation of the RTGoNU it is possible to track private capital but this depends on the goodwill of the principals and efficacy of legislative and judicial institutions. 

By Sitati Wasilwa 
The author is a political economist. Twitter: @SitatiWasilwa LinkedIn: Sitati Wasilwa Facebook: Sitati Wasilwa Podcast: Sitati Wasilwa


This article has been read 1,638 times