Norway’s Role in South Sudan’s Independence

In an interview, 21 November with the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, Øystein. H. Rolandsen at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) explains why it is a misunderstanding to hold Norway and other Western countries accountable for South Sudan’s secession.

The Norwegian government and civil society organisations have for decades been extensively engaged in efforts to bring peace and stability to what is now the “two Sudans”. Even before the South Sudanese celebrated their independence from South Sudan on 9 July 2011, foreign observers were referring to the world’s newest country as a “pre-failed state”. Since December 2013 South Sudan has been embroiled in civil war. The war has been extremely brutal and devastating with widespread killings, kidnappings, child soldiers, destroyed and deserted villages, forcing over a million people to flee their homes. The economy is in tatters and the international goodwill the South Sudanese leaders enjoyed has evaporated. Now Norwegian media asks if the new state formation is a failure and whether it was a mistake for Norway to be involved in the peace process. 

Could Norway have hindered South Sudan’s secession?

It was the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 by the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which opened up the possibility of South Sudan’s secession. The Troika, consisting of Norway, the UK and the US, had a crucial role in the process leading up to the peace compromise.

Rolandsen explains: “To understand how South Sudan’s secession came about we have to go back to the early 2000s when peace negations started in earnest. It was not an option for SPLM to engage in serious negotiations without their demand for a referendum being met. In reality this left the Troika, Norway included, with two poor options. The Troika could support the negotiations while accepting that secession was a possible outcome, or disengage and let the war continue.”

One unforeseeable event made the efforts to keep Sudan united even harder than expected. The same year the peace agreement was finalized in 2005 John Garang, the undisputed leader of the SPLM, was killed in a helicopter crash. Garang had consistently claimed that his first choice was for South Sudan to be part of a democratic and secular Sudan, and that secession was only a last resort. But many within his movement did not share this vision, including his second-in-command, Salva Kiir.

– John Garang was a strong leader and did not want share power. He had not groomed anyone to replace him. By default, he was therefore succeeded by Salva Kiir, who had remained loyal but lacked Garang’s leadership skills, says Rolandsen.

As president of the regional government of Southern Sudan in the period from 2005-2011 Salva Kiir could hardly be bothered to hide his disdain for the idea of a united Sudan. Neither did the northern Sudanese leaders in Khartoum contribute to make “unity attractive” and power sharing at national level became a joke. They also sabotaged the implementation of other aspects of the peace accord, most importantly the agreed solution to the conflict in contested area of Abyei.

The international community were also committed to make unity attractive by providing assistance to both the north and the south. However, this aid proved ineffective as it was pooled in a large Multi Donor Trust Fund. This was managed by the World Bank, which had little experience from Sudan. In consequence it took years for the fund to become operational. The peacekeeping mission also proved to be largely ineffectual.

The agreement stipulated that the referendum over South Sudan’s independence should take place after six years. In 2010 some suggested that the referendum should be delayed arguing that South Sudan lacked the necessary foundation to be govern as an independent state. But the SPLM leaders made it clear that any delays would lead to them unilateral declaring South Sudan independent. In January 2011the South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly in favour of succession.

In December 2013, a new civil war broke out in South Sudan, following allegations of a coup attempt against Salva Kiir by former Vice President, Riek Machar. Over the past two years, the war has raged on between government forces and Riek Machar’s faction, the SPLM (in Opposition). In the Aftenposten article Hilde Frafjord Johnson, the former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in South Sudan, emphasise that the current civil war is not a result of South Sudan’s independence, but a leadership struggle within the SPLM, which could have been avoided.

– Rolandsen adds, the underlying structural causes of the war is that South Sudan is a militarised society which is attempted governed by an extremely weak state apparatus. Violence is the default reaction to any challenge and the government has little capacity to hinder escalation of conflicts.

A comprehensive peace agreement signed by warring parties in August has given new hope and is still holding. But – even if the agreement last – the question remains if the necessary trust between parties to the conflict can be re-established and if the economic foundation for a functioning state can emerge out of the ruins of war.

Øystein H. Rolandsen’s PRIO home page lists a number of publications where these points are elaborated further. 

One Comment

Lokuowe Gordon

Sound analysis to the actual situation in South Sudan. The question that remains is, can the Troika group use their military might to bring about peace or the un foreseeable subsequent casualties deter them from doing so?

Another aspect that should be taken into consideration is whether South Sudanese lives are truly worthy of such interventions without loosing face with the local constituencies.



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