Obama Tries To Return South Sudan Into Khartoum’s Fold

By Joe Odaby

Juba – August 5, 2013 … In late-July 2013, the Obama Administration intensified its blatant intervention in the domestic political affairs of the Republic of South Sudan – a country considered a close friend of the United States. Washington intervened in an effort to sway the resolution of the government and political crises in Juba in favor of candidates and policies the Obama White House favor and against the democratically elected and widely supported President Kiir and his government.

In the process, the Obama Administration made demands of Juba, but offered no advice let alone assistance in resolving the country’s objective problems – themselves aggravated by US intentional, yet misguided, policies.

On July 27, US Secretary of State John Kerry called President Kiir, articulated US policy and threatened Juba. The State Department issued a “Readout of Call with South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit” that provides Kerry’s record of the call. The primary reason of the call was “to reiterate the United States’ concerns about the political situation in Juba,” as well as express concern about the escalating violence in Jonglei. Kerry described the message he delivered to President Kiir in terms of a tacit warning. “The world is watching to see if South Sudan pursues the path of peace and prosperity, or the tragic path of violence and conflict that has characterized much of its past. The United States will remain a steady partner to those who aspire to stand on the side of democracy, justice, respect for human rights, and who work for the brighter future the South Sudanese people deserve,” Kerry told President Kiir.

Kerry’s call was the beginning of a high-profile focus on, and harsh criticism of, the government of South Sudan in official Washington and the US media elite. The usually compliant New York Times wondered on July 29 about the reasons behind the sudden preoccupation of the highest echelons of the Obama Administration with South Sudan. “It’s also worth asking, why single out this crisis?” the paper’s Mark Landler asked. He suggested that the Obama Administration was putting more public emphasis on the possible displacement of 100,000 civilians in Jonglei than the death of 100,000 civilians in the Syrian fratricidal carnage.

The New York Times explained the quandary of the Obama White House. “The administration has strongly supported the South Sudan government, which is led by Salva Kiir, a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. But now President Kiir is himself a problem: last week, he dismissed his vice president, who had threatened to challenge him for his party’s leadership before elections in 2015, and his entire cabinet.” Landler noted that Kerry’s call “amounted to a rap on the knuckles. [Kerry] warned the president to form a new government quickly, stop the ethnic clashes in Jonglei and crack down on soldiers in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army who are found guilty of human rights abuses.”

According to Landler, the focus on South Sudan reached the point that “[t]he National Security Council has held deputy-level meetings almost daily to determine how the United States should respond, both to the escalating violence in Jonglei and the governance problems. President Obama, they said, has been briefed about the crisis.”

Although the Obama Administration, and Secretary Kerry in person, pride themselves publicly on having supported the independence of South Sudan – this is only partially true. Internally, the US strongly opposed the breakup of Sudan and preferred autonomy for then Southern Sudan. However, it was the pressure from domestic political groups the Obama presidential campaign of 2008 could not ignore – particularly the Hollywood fund-raising dominated by George Clooney who is personally committed to South Sudan – that influenced Obama’s policy. Subsequently, pressure by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who insisted on the affirmation of President Bill Clinton’s Kosovo policy that led to unilateral secession and declaration of independence by the US supporting and endorsing yet another secession and independence, determined Obama’s reluctant support for the independence of South Sudan.

However, a major element of Obama’s own global policy is the empowerment of, and support for, Islamist regimes throughout the Arab World. Obama asserted this policy in his June 2009 speech in Cairo and hasn’t wavered despite the ensuing chaos and violence throughout the Arab World. The July 2011 secession and independence of South Sudan because of genocidal repression by the Islamist rulers of Khartoum stood in stark contradiction to Obama’s overall world view.

Hence, in the aftermath of South Sudan’s independence, the Obama Administration did not give up on the ultimate return of South Sudan into the Sudanese fold.

Toward this end, the US sought to stifle South Sudan by publicly tolerating, and even tacitly encouraging via Arab states, the Sudanese unilateral and unwarranted cutting of South Sudan’s oil exports – the new country’s primary source of vitally needed revenues. As well, Obama’s Washington led the West’s campaign demanding that Juba implements a host of domestic, political and economic reforms that would have been destabilizing and self-destructive given the country’s disorganized system of governance and enduring fratricidal violence (much of it sponsored by Sudan). The pressure manifested itself in limiting foreign aid – desperately needed to compensate for the absence of oil revenues (that were cut with the US consent).

Nevertheless, the Obama Administration did not pressure Juba all the way during 2011 and 2012 because the Obama reelection campaign desperately needed ever larger infusion of funds and public endorsement from Hollywood and thus couldn’t afford to alienate the stalwart Clooney. Obama was waiting for his second term. On March 25, 2012, Obama was caught on open mike explaining this point to then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Obama pleaded with Putin and Medvedev “to give me space” until after the November 2012 elections because “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

Thus, starting early 2013, Obama no longer needs his political supporters in Hollywood and elsewhere – and the difference in both domestic and foreign policies has been stark on numerous issues, not just the South Sudan policy.

In early summer 2013, in preparations for a possible nomination of a new Sudan envoy, the Obama Administration launched a thorough high-level assessment of the situation in, and policies toward, Sudan and South Sudan. The study’s main conclusion is that South Sudan will not be able to sustain for a long time and will return to the Sudanese fold is now closer to realization than ever before. Khartoum is cognizant of this and might try to expedite the process by force – preferably exploiting an Egyptian-Ethiopian conflagration over the Nile Dam. A US envoy might smooth and ameliorate implementation of Khartoum’s policies. 

The reunification of Sudan is closer than ever before because South Sudan is collapsing as the aggregate impact of economic destitute (aggravated by the shutting of oil experts) fueling grassroots discontent and internal political dynamics where four major presidential candidates representing four major tribal groupings can be manipulated into tearing their own country apart. The study concludes that “the hard won Southern independence [is] at risk.” At the same time, however, if Juba gets its act together – Juba can reverse the entire regional dynamics in its favor. “If the Southern leadership can restore the unity of its ruling coalition, it can take advantage of the Northern weakness,” the study notes. “After all, a more stable South poses the greatest threat to Bashir and his party in Khartoum.” However, the Obama Administration doubts that Juba can turn things around and senior officials at the White House recommend that Washington must not risk its favorable standing with both Cairo and Khartoum by siding with or supporting Juba.

It is in this context that Riek Machar – an unscrupulous, power hungry South Sudanese politician – has become a major player in the American game. Machar is convinced that if he gives the US-led West what they want – they will empower him over South Sudan or a once-again autonomous Southern Sudan. Hence, since early spring 2013 Machar started exploiting his position as the Vice-President of South Sudan in order to increase tribal tensions, undermine the state from within government vis-a-vis foreign powers, most notably Sudan. Throughout, Machar interacted with Western governments, foreign media elites and leftist-liberal NGOs. He gained support and encouragement to continue his quest for personal power by subverting and undermining his own democratically elected president and government from within the presidency and nascent political establishment. By summer 2013, Machar was ready to sacrifice the national interest in key issues such as the oil and security negotiations with Sudan on the altar of his unbridled personal lust for power.

Throughout, the US and the West have encouraged Machar and given him the impression that he is their favorite South Sudanese politician. This encouragement and help took shape in many ways – from facilitating access to media elite in the West, to high profile events in Western embassies, to favorable reporting of Machar’s dealings in Khartoum and other capitals, to political support by Western NGOs and their local proteges. The favoritism of the US-led West was inescapable in the political and media dynamics on the eve of the second anniversary of South Sudan. Furthermore, the Western intervention and favoritism became blatant to the point that several other politicians and senior officials decided to cast their lot with the West’s chosen candidate at the expense of their official role and government duties.

This created intolerable situation in Juba where then-VP Machar and his camp were undermining the already daunting task of Pres. Kiir and the government. There ensued a discernable slow-down in the government’s ability to cope with crises and take the nation forward despite horrific circumstances. It was under these circumstances that Pres. Kiir decided on July 23 to fire his entire cabinet and quickly establish a new one that will be streamlined, professional, proficient and effective. Despite Western protestations about the drastic move, even Machar acknowledged that Pres. Kiir has the legal mandate to fire any official, or all officials, he no longer trust to serve in his government. On July 31, the composition of the new government was virtually completed.

Now a private citizen, Machar, like anybody else in South Sudan, has every right to criticize the president and the government, become very active in the opposition, and seek high office in the 2015 presidential elections. Machar is now working hard, as is his wont, to become the leader of the opposition and their primary candidate in challenging Kiir in 2015. A civilized campaign focusing on issues rather than personal attacks will only enrich South Sudan’s fledgling democracy.

In the meantime, however, the United States and the Western allies should recall that President Kiir was democratically elected president in April 2010 with 93% of the votes. He still commands favorable public trust as confirmed by the latest US-government sponsored polling of South Sudan (conducted between April 24 and May 22, 2013). The results show that among all South Sudanese – 42% consider President Kiir “very favorably”, 29% consider him “favorably”, 13% consider him “unfavorably”, and 13% consider him “very unfavorably”. In contrast, only 27% consider then-VP Machar “very favorably”, 33% consider him “favorably”, 20% consider him “unfavorably”, and 11% consider him “very unfavorably”. Simply put, 71% of South Sudanese have favorable opinion of President Kiir while only 60% have favorable opinion of Machar.

With a new government sworn in, and some revenues from a few weeks of oil exports becoming available, President Kiir’s Juba has unique opportunity to begin to turn things around. Rather than continue stifling South Sudan, the Obama Administration and its Western allies should provide comprehensive assistance, expertise and encouragement. Rather than increasing pressure and making unrealistic demands for reforms, the Obama Administration and its Western allies should encourage economic development and stabilization.

Unlike most countries in the developing world, South Sudan does not need hand-outs. In the immediate term, South Sudan desperately needs assistance in securing long-term oil exports in order to alleviate the economic decay. In the longer term, South Sudan requires economic investments in developing the countries national riches and huge potential, as well as assistance in breaking the Sudanese siege by developing alternate routes for exporting oil and other natural resources.

Until such time, the Republic of South Sudan – staunchly pro-Western, committed to Judeo-Christian values, and inherently democratic – will continue to be a state betrayed by the countries it considered soul-mates – namely, by the US-led West.