South Sudan: An Elite Pact’s Baptism of Blood

If you look past the enormous human tragedy involved – which is by no means easy, nor necessarily ethical – South Sudan is an amazing case study in state formation.

Political theorists normally have to look at fragmentary records from long ago to try to figure out how states were born. Like astronomers looking at flickers of light from unfathomably long ago, they rely on scraps of data to put together a picture of how states form.

It’s the latent threat to return to arms that earns you a place at the top table in the first place.

But in South Sudan that’s all happening right now, in the Twitter age, like a Supernova going off just near by…and nearly as violent.

Guys like Mushtaq Khan and North, Wallis and Weingast have a little model about this that I find pretty persuasive. Their view is that in very poor countries, states usually end up being formed by coalitions of their most dangerous and most violent people. Each player would prefer to take over the whole area for himself – and sometimes that’s possible. But in many cases, it’s not possible, and the “violence specialists” fight one another to exhaustion.

Eventually, though, a moment comes when they’re all fought out and they’ve given up the dream of killing all their most dangerous opponents. Only then can the process of elite-bargaining that gives rise to a political settlement arise.

Even then, the “violence specialists” who end up in coalition will not give up the threat of returning to arms if they feel the settlement they’d bargained for is not being upheld. In fact, it’s the latent threat to return to arms that earns them a place at the top table in the first place. And sometimes settlements do unravel. In fragile states, they can unravel exceptionally fast.

South Sudan follows this pattern to a T. The country has been formally independent from the North only since 2011, but de facto it’s run its own affairs since 2005.

The 1983-2005 war was an unimaginably brutal affair. Usually glossed as a North-South, Arab-vs-Nilotic fight, it was actually a good bit more complex than that: really a series of nested civil wars, with a baffling array of inter-communal conflicts between different tribes and leaders in the South getting sometimes subsumed by, sometimes papered over by the broader North-South conflict.

The scale of kleptocracy that South Sudan fell into even before it was technically an independent country amazed observers.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement worked on two levels: by both getting the North to withdraw its remaining forces from the South and, at the same time, by setting up power-sharing mechanisms that would keep various warlords in the South from turning immediately on one another.

The centerpiece of this powersharing settlement was an agreement to split power between the two biggest tribes in the Nile floodplain: the Dinka and the Nuer, who had a long, troubled history between them.

In effect, the biggest, baddest Dinka warlord, Salva Kiir, was made President while the biggest, baddest Nuer warlord, Riek Machar (pictured above) was made Vice-President. Both would have access to spoils, both would get great big gobs of petromoney to fund their patronage networks, and both would, it was hoped, limit themselves to plunder rather than taking an interest in trying to eliminate the other.

Was the CPA a success? In a way it was. In a place with really no tradition of independent government, the CPA kept the most dangerous people in the country behaving relatively civilly to one another. Instead of fighting, they devoted themselves to the relatively benign pursuit of stealing everything that wasn’t bolted down to the coffers of the state.

The scale of kleptocracy that South Sudan fell into even before it was technically an independent country amazed observers. Outsiders were shocked to realize the plan wasn’t to steal some of the oil money, or even most of the oil money: it was to steal all of the oil money.

Even Kiir seemed taken aback by the scale of it: in 2012, he was reducing to writing an inexpressably sad, badly misjudged letter basically begging his cronies to give back some of the loot.

The Juba this political class “leads” is so screwed up most of the top power players aren’t actually willing to live there: they keep their wives in very nice McMansions in gated complexes in Nairobi and fly in and out of Juba to go to parliament or to their ministry as needed.

That’s not entirely surprising: if you had an 7- or 8-figure dollar bank account worth of loot squirreled away in Dubai or the Cayman Islands, would you want to live in a city with no water mains, no sewers, almost no paved roads, almost no electricity, sporadic gasoline, no proper schools, no proper hospitals and no proper police? Let’s be serious now…

Outside the predatory elite, the country has shockingly little to show for the billions that poured into SPLM since 2005. What very little “governing” – in the sense a first world person would understand it – that gets done gets done by donors, with donor money and donor staff. It’s NGOistan out there. The prevalence of International Cooperation has led to this weird warping of incentives where the local elite doesn’t see “service delivery” as “governing” at all. (And why would they? There are always foreigners around to do that stuff…for free!)

From a state-formation point of view, the wild corruption spree was a feature of the 2005 agreements, not a bug. The political logic at play was clear: it was either that or this. What we’ve had since December. Loot, or carnage. Take your pick.

Some Western observers once speculated that Machar my retaliate by challenging Kiir for SPLM’s presidential nomination. Fat chance.

And, indeed, the political crisis that led up to the current fighting fits the state-formation realists’ mold to a T. Basically, what we have is a fragile Limited Access Order whose political settlement fell apart, and is having to be reached again through a baptism of blood.

Let’s just review how we got here again:

Early last year, the senior member of the ruling coalition thought he could elbow out the junion member. First, President Kiir unilaterally withdrew a long set of powers that he had delegated onto the vice-president. Then he fired him outright, and appointed a loyalist.

Some Western observers once speculated that Machar would retaliate by challenging Kiir for SPLM’s presidential nomination. Fat chance. Machar didn’t make it to #2 for his ability to win votes. His core skill is equipping, organizing and leading armed rebellions. He’s been doing that his entire adult life. He still had the contacts with the mid and low- level military commanders, especially among the Nuer. He knows the operational side of reblling like you know your commute. There are no mysteries about why Machar ended up back in the bush.

What’s sobering about the South Sudanese civil war is the way Kiir and Machar, along with their military commanders, conduct themselves with total – and I mean total – disregard to the opinion climate, both domestic and international.

As best as I can tell, there is exactly no one not under arms who actively favors one side over the other. There’s a sort of powerless unanimity to unarmed opinion: these guys are both toxic, South Sudan doesn’t have any kind of future as long as either of them are in the picture.

But that doesn’t matter to them. Not even a little bit.

The conflict has seen the rudimentary proto-structures of the South Sudanese state wither on the vine. The SPLA, insofar as it was ever anything other than a set of cobbled-together ethnic militias (which isn’t very far) has reverted all the way back to straight-out war-lordism, with command based entirely on the chieftancy of charismatic ethnic militia bosses repurposed as “generals” in battle fatigues.

The sides’ willingness to fight might be undiminished, but their ability to fight is looking threadbare.

In recent weeks, what was left of the SPLA’s administrative infrastructure seemed to collapse, with the army failing to make payroll payments, leading to mass desertions of what remained of its professional soldiery. (So, you know, normal stuff.)

Meanwhile, the shambolic regionally-mediated peace-process in Addis Ababa seems to have fallen apart altogether, as leaders who’ve killed thousands and displaced millions take deep offence at being called “stupid”. Thankfully, this hasn’t led to the resumption of mass violence (yet) mostly because the rebels appear to be out of ammo, and out of re-supply options.

And that, right there, points to the one path out of conflict: both sides’ willingness to fight might be undiminished, but their ability to fight is looking threadbare. Perhaps the only bright spot in this whole desolate scenario is that Machar seems not to have the kind of powerful foreign backers able to supply the kind of materiel that could make his rebellion permanent.

Which is why the noises coming out of the rebel camp in recent weeks have been all about “federalism”. (That whirring buzz you hear is the sound of James Madison turning in his grave at high RPM.)

In this context, a call from Machar for “federalism” means something like “OK, ok, we both know I don’t have the strength to take over the central government, but we both also know you don’t have the strength to flush me out of Jonglei and Upper Nile. So let’s split the difference: you get to keep looting Juba, but only if you give me this bit of turf in the North and East to plunder without interference.”

It’s the David Yau Yau Solution, only on a much bigger scale.

And so we circle back around to North, Wallis and Weingast, to Khan, and the rest of the development realists. The looming settlement-born-of-exhaustion is precisely what theory predicts. At some point, having exhausted any fantasy of annihilating their foes on the field of battle so they can have a free run at the nation’s resources, the most dangerous people in the country have started to inch wearily towards cutting a deal with each another.

It’ll take more time and more heartache, but they’ll circle around eventually. They won’t do it out of public spiritedness or some sort of Rousseauian reverence for the General Will. They’ll do it out of sheer, battle-scarred impotence.

And that’s how states are born.

3 thoughts on “South Sudan: An Elite Pact’s Baptism of Blood”

  1. Two points.
    1. When the elephants fight it is the grass that gets hurt.
    2. Nuer and Dinka are the largest of the tribes but still together very much a minority. But how did their leaders get to the top. Ask the UN. No doubt they had something to do with it. They then end up defending people in camps from the very ones they helped get to power. UN is an organisation that seems to let bad leaders get to the top. Then they close their eyes to their own responsibility.
    3. Why are there no SWAT teams hunting down these two leaders and their associates to airlift them out of SS. Reason: they now, unbelievably have credibility. Though, killers and plunderers to a man and woman, they are legit. In reality though they are just Kony with credibility.
    Sorry that is three points.
    Good post but forget the exhaustion. Temporary lull only; perhaps; but the DRC forever is an apt description of SS.

  2. Excellent post; very interesting to the inexpert such as myself. I wonder, though if the presence of oil in Sudan limits the general applicability of this theory of state formation? There is no need to levy taxes if oil can fund everything; similarly, one reason to support policies leading to economic development is to create a tax base which permits theft. Oil makes this less important because the leaders can already steal to your heart’s content.

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