As the international community debates how much and how soon to pressure Ukraine to resume peace talks and consider concessions to end Russia’s full-scale assault, a different kind of conflict illustrates what happens when badly crafted peace deals actually extend – and even worsen – a war. Once hailed as the world’s newest nation, South Sudan has had a series of false starts in its peace process since civil war erupted in 2013, just two years after its independence. The standard tools for reconstructing a war-torn country — power-sharing deals and elections — have failed. A violent kleptocracy has captured the state and is bleeding the nation’s resources dry in every way imaginable, exacerbating conditions of extreme violence, repression, famine, and a lack of health care, education, and employment. In its mere 11 years of existence, South Sudan has now become the most corrupt country in the world.
Yet instead of focusing on the wellbeing of the South Sudanese people, the international community continues trying to broker deals among elites. Well-intended or not, this choice has paved a road to a living hell. South Sudan, which for years already has generated the largest refugee crisis in Africa, is on the verge of returning to full-scale civil war. War crimes are being committed in more and more places. Rape has become a routine weapon of war. Looting of humanitarian aid and attacks on aid workers are on the rise.
Clearly, the international community — led by the United States and its Troika partners Norway and the United Kingdom, with the backing of the European Union and other key supporters of South Sudan like Australia and Canada — needs a new approach.
The warring parties have signed one peace agreement after another since 2014, some internal to the fractured ruling party, and some brokered by regional bodies. The most recent and most ambitious deal was signed in 2018, but relatively few of its terms have been implemented. The relationship between President Salva Kiir and his longtime rival, Vice President Riek Machar, remains volatile and full of mutual suspicion.
Peace processes and elections have legitimized Juba’s feuding leaders and put them into positions where they could violently plunder the resources and assets of the country, further centralizing control of political and economic power. They steal the proceeds from the nation’s primary source of revenue, oil, along with everything else, while the international humanitarian system places huge Band-Aids over gaping human rights wounds by providing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in emergency aid while not addressing the underlying drivers of mass atrocities. But the strain on global food supplies and fuel deliveries due to Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine this year is causing that Band-Aid to weaken and will likely mean that many more South Sudanese will die this year of sickness and hunger.
These same leaders have gutted the basic levers of governance in the country. The only essential services provided are those delivered by international organizations and their South Sudanese non-governmental partners. No transparency exists in budgeting or contracting, so most of the resources are stolen. The army, police, and intelligence services offer no security – in fact, most often the opposite, as they are the primary perpetrators of abuses and corruption. Nonpartisan voices, local peacemakers, women and youth leaders, and local journalists are ruthlessly suppressed, and there is no semblance of an independent legislature or judiciary.
South Sudan is a classic failed state. But it is a deliberate failure – the state works fine for those in charge. The networks in power have hijacked the state and intentionally fomented conflict between ethnic groups to singularly profit themselves. And little that the international community has done in the past decade-plus has seemed to change that dynamic appreciably.
The most urgent objective now should be to dismantle the violent kleptocratic networks that have overtaken South Sudan. This is a prerequisite before any peace deal can reduce the violence, before any election can deliver genuine representation, and before any government can create a properly functioning state.
The United States should begin by leading a full-fledged blitz on the networks controlling the security services and the presidency. The office of the presidency sits atop this criminal state structure, and the leaders of the security services are the enforcers — hit men and bag men for the leaders. The United States and its allies should impose network-based sanctions on Kiir, his inner circle, and the leaders of the National Security Service and its Intelligence Directorate, as well as their businesses, commercial partners, and facilitators; that would go a long way toward dismantling the warped incentives that undermine peace agreements and ensure continued conflict. To ensure history is not repeated, opposition faction leaders such as Machar should also be sanctioned for their own human rights abuses and corruption.
The United States, United Kingdom, and European Union have imposed sanctions on South Sudanese individuals and entities. These include corruption-related Global Magnitsky sanctions levied by the U.S. government. The United Nations Security Council also has sanctioned a handful of South Sudanese senior officials and imposed an arms embargo.
But these sanctions designations are much too few and far between. To influence the calculations of the key kleptocrats, a much more ambitious and escalating financial pressure strategy needs to be deployed.
Remember one of the key lessons from the neighbor to the north, Sudan: the international community mistakenly relied on the Sudanese military to do the right thing after popular protests led to the 2019 overthrow of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir. The kleptocratic system Bashir had built was left largely untouched, and soon a new general was in charge. The international community applied little pressure, built no new leverage, and created no forms of accountability. Not surprisingly, the system quickly snapped back to an authoritarian kleptocracy. Why wouldn’t it? There were simply no consequences for hijacking the state.
In South Sudan, a complete onslaught on the opaque and illicit finances of its leaders is needed. Relying solely on yet another peace process and another election while leaving the underlying corruption untouched will only perpetuate South Sudan’s deadly history.