Along a road littered with bodies, South Sudan marched north in mid-April to capture a Sudanese oil field that both countries claim.
By the time South Sudan withdrew from Heglig 10 days later, it had damaged more than just the looted oil installations; also badly frayed was the country’s claim to the moral high ground in its decades-long conflict with Sudan, a war that’s long been portrayed in terms of Sudanese atrocities and war crimes.
The first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence from Sudan is fast approaching, but the hoped-for peace that was the promise of South Sudan’s creation last July 9 hasn’t materialized. Instead, war seems closer than at any other time since the 2005 peace agreement that U.S. diplomats brokered, and South Sudan’s reputation is in tatters. Many who’d long championed South Sudan are shaking their heads in dismay.
South Sudan’s military aggression against Sudan was just the most glaring sign that the nation-building project that’s taking place in central Africa isn’t going as planned. In recent months, South Sudan’s government has been accused of deep corruption and its military has been accused of widespread abuses against its own people.
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One need look no further than the U.S. government’s own reckoning to see how South Sudan’s image is eroding: The State Department’s human rights report for last year documents vote-rigging by South Sudan’s ruling party, pervasive official corruption, a state-led crackdown on liberties and widespread abuses of civilians by security forces.
Still, the Obama administration, many of whose members and high-profile supporters are considered South Sudan “hawks,” has taken few steps to pressure South Sudan to reform – perhaps no surprise, given the role that influential insiders have had in promoting South Sudan.
That group includes John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official who regularly testifies on Capitol Hill; Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations; and actor George Clooney, who visits South Sudan with Prendergast, meets with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and lobbies President Barack Obama personally when he returns. Clooney held a fundraiser for Obama’s re-election campaign last month at his home in California, raising $15 million for the president’s re-election, the largest single-event haul in U.S. history.
In an email, Prendergast defended the administration’s approach, which he called “evenhanded.”
“The sizable aid package goes primarily to addressing the massive challenges faced by the population of a newly independent country emerging from decades of war,” he said. “If the U.S. was backing South Sudan in the conflict (with Sudan), Washington would be providing a much different kind of aid package to Juba. I think the premise that Washington is excessively pro-South is incorrect.”
Last month, cash-starved South Sudan admitted that government officials have stolen $4 billion – roughly twice the government’s annual budget up to last year – since the peace deal established the regional administration in 2005.
"We fought for freedom, justice and equality. Many of our friends died to achieve these objectives. Yet, once we got to power, we forgot what we fought for and began to enrich ourselves at the expense of our people," President Kiir wrote in a letter to more than 75 current and former South Sudanese officials. The letter asked them to return stolen money to a Kenyan bank account in exchange for amnesty.
The South Sudanese government made public a copy of the letter, dated May 3, earlier this month.
Aid workers say the South Sudanese military often behaves more as predator than protector. Its 200,000-strong force does nothing to stop tribal militias from razing villages and slaughtering civilians; but when it tries to disarm those militias, mayhem follows.
In a confidential letter sent to Western embassies in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, in the first week of May and obtained by McClatchy, an international aid organization accused the army of "severe and systematic" rights abuses in its campaign to disarm an ethnic minority, the Murle. The abuses included killings and widespread torture, beatings, rape and looting, the letter said. The agency, contacted by McClatchy, asked that its name not be divulged, saying it feared for the safety of its staff in the area.
South Sudanese forces in late April torched two Murle villages that constituted hundreds of homes, according to aid organizations that operate in the area, forcing hundreds of villagers to flee. Officials there confirm the general outlines of the reports.
"I don’t know why they started to shoot the people," said Joshua Konyi, the county commissioner of Pibor, where the violence took place. "They’d already collected the guns.”
Such abuses are all the more awkward because the outside world is largely responsible for keeping South Sudan running.
Western donors have paid to staff the South Sudanese government with consultants from major international firms, including employees of KPMG, Deloitte, PKF and Crown Agents, who supplement government departments that often are staffed with former rebel fighters sitting at computer-less desks. In Juba, the foreign consultants are snidely referred to as "baby sitters" and they often have strict instructions not to interact with journalists.
That’s in addition to a massive United Nations peacekeeping mission – mandated to support and mentor the government – that’s openly backed the government’s abuse-ridden disarmament campaign. The U.S. has given nearly $300 million to the South Sudanese military and it embeds advisers to try to keep the army functional.
For up-close observers, the warning signs were there well in advance, like the horn of a freight train barreling down icy rails.
Gerard Prunier, a French scholar on Africa, is a harsh critic of the Sudanese government in Khartoum and was a strategic adviser to the South Sudanese government in the run-up to the January 2011 referendum in which South Sudanese overwhelmingly supported independence.
But he resigned before independence, and he explained his reasons in a phone interview with McClatchy earlier this month.
"What they are going to do is going to be so bad that I don’t want to be guilty by association," he said. "The government in Juba is rotten to the core."
South Sudan denies that its incursion into Sudan in April was a long-planned military offensive. But diplomats and others report decisive evidence that the country regularly harbors, coordinates with and even fights side by side with rebel groups whose goal is toppling the Sudanese government.
In addition, South Sudan’s government released a new map in May that extended its claims to territory well north of its recognized border with Sudan. The map included areas that previously were considered undisputedly within Sudan.
U.S. officials in Juba, while acknowledging many of the government’s shortcomings, defend South Sudan. They point to its painful history of war and say it’s constantly being provoked by the Sudanese government, led by President Omar Bashir, himself wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes. They point out that Sudan backs dissident South Sudanese militias, has bombed South Sudanese territory, has invaded the disputed territory of Abyei and has blocked all trade with landlocked South Sudan.
"We knew the newest country in the world would face many challenges, given that South Sudan ranks at the bottom of almost all development indicators worldwide. But our commitment to help the South Sudanese people realize their aspirations remains strong," said Princeton Lyman, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, who’s based in Washington.
Former Bush administration officials also remain firmly in South Sudan’s corner. Two – Andrew Natsios, President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Sudan, and Jendayi Frazer, Bush’s assistant secretary of state for Africa – have called for the Obama administration to provide South Sudan with anti-aircraft weapons to ward off Sudanese warplanes. South Sudan has no air force.
Frazer and Natsios back that stance by arguing that Sudan, not South Sudan, was most to blame for the April fighting.
"They (Sudan) were using Heglig to attack border areas in the south. They were using it in their bombing campaigns. When you bomb another country, that’s an act of war," Natsios said.
However, mounting evidence that South Sudan’s foray into Sudan had been planned for weeks, if not months, is undermining that argument.
In a series of interviews over the last three months, diplomats and other knowledgeable officials have made clear that the South Sudanese carefully coordinated the capture of Heglig with members of the Sudanese rebel group Justice and Equality Movement, whose cause has long been the liberation of Sudan’s conflicted Darfur region.
Officials on the ground say that Justice and Equality Movement rebels began arriving en masse on the South Sudan side of the border near Heglig in February, basing themselves in the state capital of Bentiu, clearly under agreement with South Sudanese authorities.
During the fighting in April, Justice and Equality Movement forces manned checkpoints in South Sudan side by side with South Sudanese soldiers, and, once, when members of a rebel convoy forcibly stole two cameras from a photojournalist, the South Sudanese authorities were able to return the equipment by the next day.
South Sudan’s attack northward with the rebels "was definitely planned," said one Western security official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity since he wasn’t authorized to talk on the record.
“They are both the bad guys now," he said, referring to Sudan and South Sudan.
A senior African diplomat characterized the Heglig offensive as “part of the large, grandiose plan to bring the north down." He said South Sudanese officials "aren’t thinking as a nation-state, but as a liberation movement."
The diplomat, who agreed to be interviewed only on the condition that he not be identified because he didn’t want to damage his relationship with South Sudanese officials, said the plan began with South Sudan’s decision to shut down oil production in January rather than agree to an export deal that would heavily compensate Sudan. When the two nations split, South Sudan received most of the oil-producing areas, but it had to ship the oil through Sudan because South Sudan has no ports.
The diplomat said he suspected South Sudanese officials hoped that the cutoff of financial resources, coupled with the Heglig incursion, would be enough to spark a more generalized uprising in the north.
Izzat Kuku, a senior rebel commander in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, told McClatchy before the Heglig capture that the Justice and Equality Movement was preparing to move north through Heglig and link up with other rebels to march north. Other sources confirmed that plan. The Justice and Equality Movement rebels were in Heglig to begin that mission, they say, and meetings to plan an offensive among senior Nuba, Darfuri and South Sudanese military officials began in January.
Such cavalier behavior wouldn’t be new, according to Alex de Waal, a leading Sudan scholar and an adviser to the African Union mediation team. John Garang, the South Sudan rebel leader who signed the 2005 peace deal and died months later, was pursuing an uprising in Khartoum and an insurgency in Darfur even as he was negotiating the final peace deal with Bashir, de Waal said.
Garang’s followers "similarly keep several horses running at the same time, and their hope is that a configuration of events one day will allow them to gamble on winning the big prize," de Waal said.