How Obama is losing South Sudan

BY: Frank R. Wolf, Published: January 10, The Washington Post: Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) is one of the leading congressional experts on Sudan and has traveled to the region six times since 1989.

JAN/12/2014, SSN;

Will America help save a nation it helped birth? Or will it be said that a nation was born and perished on President Obama’s watch?

With South Sudan racked by violence that has displaced thousands and prompted rumors of mass graves, many people who have spent years working on this issue, myself included, are grieved at the prospect of a country at the brink of catastrophic war — not simply because of the human suffering it represents but because of the unfulfilled promise that is South Sudan.

I first visited Sudan in 1989, years before Darfur became a household word, and I have prayed for the day when the people of that long-suffering land would enjoy peace and representative government.

While I did not support Obama’s candidacy, I was heartened by his rhetoric on Sudan during the 2008 campaign. I took further encouragement from some of the individuals who joined his foreign policy team — staffers with strong human rights credentials and a stated desire to see the United States lead the prevention of crimes against humanity and other atrocities.

I fear that trust was misplaced.

The post of special envoy to Sudan remained vacant for months during crucial periods, including the final days of the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the decades-long war between Sudan’s largely Arab, Muslim North and the mostly Christian, animist, African South. The post was empty again through most of 2013, even as the newly independent South Sudan was trying to find its footing. And when envoys have been appointed, they have had little to no entree to the White House or real influence within the State Department bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, the administration has promoted a confused and at times deeply flawed Sudan policy.

It has failed to isolate Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an internationally indicted war criminal desperate to maintain power, who has met widespread protests with brutal crackdowns on civil society, arrests, detention and torture. Because of Bashir, the genocide in Darfur still simmers, and violence and starvation in the Nuba Mountains are daily realities.

The Obama administration has done little to support South Sudanese President Salva Kiir as Bashir’s assault on the Nuba people has resulted in an exodus of refugees into South Sudan. The humanitarian catastrophe is overwhelming by any measure but especially for a fledgling nation.

Last February I traveled to the Yida refugee camp and heard stories of indiscriminate bombing campaigns against civilian populations — a Khartoum trademark. I learned of murder, rape, starvation and pillaging. I spoke with people targeted for atrocities because of the color of their skin. Upon my return I issued a lengthy report with a series of policy recommendations — all of which I shared with senior administration officials; none of which were adopted.

Further, Kiir cannot count on the United States to be a reliable partner in pressing Khartoum to negotiate outstanding and deeply divisive issues in the peace agreement, including border delineation. Washington has repeatedly pushed the South to compromise with Khartoum, even in the face of persistent intransigence, violence and disregard for previous agreements from Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party.

Is Kiir South Sudan’s George Washington — a military man turned statesman? No. His tenure has been marred by a government that is rife with corruption and has little room for dissent. It was never going to be easy for decades-long rebel leaders to take on the mantle of governance.

Kiir’s rival and former vice president, Riek Machar, is a man with unbridled ambition dating back to the war between the North and the South, when as a rebel commander he was among those who mounted an unsuccessful coup against the much-venerated John Garang — considered the father of South Sudan — and later joined in an unholy alliance with Khartoum.

And underlying the internal politics are deep ethnic tensions that for years have been stoked by Khartoum in an effort to divide and rule.

It’s hard to venture a guess about how things might have turned out differently had Kiir and his government been able to focus on the immense domestic challenges, unburdened by threats from a hostile regime to the north.

But little is gained by rehashing past policy shortcomings, unless it is to learn lessons moving forward. And here I believe the lesson is that, as a guarantor of the peace deal between the North and the South, and having helped, in the words of John Kerry, “midwife the birth of this new nation,” the United States was and remains uniquely positioned to secure the success and flourishing of South Sudan. Will we embrace this responsibility before it’s too late?

I recently urged the Obama administration to recognize the wisdom of inviting former president George W. Bush and key members of his team, including former Sudan special envoy John Danforth, to engage in high-level diplomacy with the various actors involved. Unconventional? Perhaps. But it could be the key to saving South Sudan.

The Bush administration made Sudan a top foreign policy priority, and Danforth forged lasting relationships with Sudanese leaders as he helped negotiate the 2005 peace accord between the North and the South. They are well positioned to make the types of requests best made by friends.

Among the first messages Bush could take to Kiir is the need for him to release all political detainees. Such a move by Kiir would be viewed as a conciliatory gesture and the mark of a man willing to govern, even if it means making politically difficult decisions.

There also is a need to secure an immediate cease-fire, lest the world’s newest nation be thrust headlong into civil war, thereby joining the notorious ranks of failed states — and morphing in a matter of weeks from an American foreign policy triumph to an epic missed opportunity.

Clearly, there is a vital role for the international community in the days to come. But there is also a unique and exceptional role for principled American leadership.

Obama must meet this crisis with the urgency, the ingenuity and the moral clarity it demands.


  1. okuc says:

    Sir, I could not agree more with you that Obama administration should nominate the former USA president Bush junior and also John Danforth as mediators to peace negotiation between two warring parties the Kirr’s regime and Mchar’ rebels.
    IGAD mediators are bias because Uganda’s Musuvieni is already involved in war on the side of Kirr and therefore they have compromised their position. Second, the war is not between Dinka and Nuer as being portrayed by the media though it have been turned into ethnic war by Kirr’ militia disguised as republican guards when innocent Nuers were killed in cold blood on 15 Dec 2013.
    What happened is state terror against its opponents but also against silent majority people of South Sudan who have been living under Kirr’ terror since he assumed the power in 2011. The only solution to current crisis is dissolution of Kirr,s government and formation of interim or care taker with the participation of all political forces, civil society if there any, religious leaders from all denominations and all groups who have stake in South Sudan.
    Reconciliation between two groups who are fighting will not solve the root causes of conflict which are inherent in all structures of regime. Without wider participation from the rest of other ethnic in particular in the army, police and security apparatus which are dominated by one ethnic South Sudan will remain as failed state.

  2. Esp says:

    Oh God, here come the Americans again. Every intervention they’ve staged in the last 10 years has led to chaos and death for the civilian population. I have a suggestion. Why don’t the negotiators put Salva and Riek and the diehards on both sides in a small room together, without press and without giving them any money or deals or attention and then lock the door for a month. In the meantime, an interim government is appointed. This article has the slick air of US AFRICOM which is a master at war through the guise of humanitarianism.

    • oyhath says:

      I may agree with the writer of this thread for the Obama Administration to bring former President Bush and his advisers to help contain the current bloodshed in South Sudan – after all it was the pressure from the Bush Administration that actually forced Sudan and SPLA to negotiate and flesh out the peace agreement that ended over 20 years of war, paving the way for eventual Independence of South Sudan in 2011; but to blame the present situation in South Sudan on Bashir is absolutely misleading. The writer doesn’t gives us any basis for his claim or an assessment of Kiir;s leadership since taking over governance of South Sudan and just jumps over to tell us that Bashir is behind all this. Stop pretending to be an expert on South Sudan or Sudan for that matter. To give a few example of the blindness that has characterized Kirr’s leadership style, how about the 4 billion dollars reported missing, by admission of Kiir himself ( he issued a statement warning people he was suspecting from within his government to return the money they had stolen or else); and how about $4.5 billions loan that Kiir reportedly recently unveiled to have been obtained from some lender? According to Kiir’s opponents within his party, nobody knows who is the lender of this body and for which purpose was this loan spent! How can you build roads, hospitals, schools any project if you allow public money to be stolen??? What is nation-building and how can you build a nation if public monies are being stolen with impunity?. Are you suggesting that some how Bashir told Kiir to lead the South this way. Also, look at what Kiir did in the lead up to the current situation: he dissolved his party Politburo and National Liberation Council and was all over the airwaves poisoning the political climate with abusive language against opponents within his party and beyond by provoking the events of 1991 which John Garang himself had gotten over! Are saying that Bashir plotted all that because he is intent to seeing a weak south Sudan? I strongly believe that it’s in the interest of Bashir to see a stable South Sudan because that only ensures an uninterrupted flow of oil from South Sudan from whose revenues Sudan stands to benefit as per the agreement between the 2 countries. Remember that during the entire CPA-mandated transitional period from 2005 to 2011 Kiir completely failed to build any working relationship with Bashir by boycotting Khartoum and to choosing to live in Juba, literally abandoning his CPA-mandated first Vice presidential post in Khartoum. His predecessor, John Garang, with true to the spirit of the CPA, did live in Khartoum and I believe was able to build working relationship with Bashir, for good or for bad. Kiir also chose to harbor and support so called- SPLA Northern Sector fighters who launched attacks from South Sudan into Sudan, creating unnecessarily displacement and instability in South Sudan areas bordering Sudan at a time when South Sudanese needed a break from over 20 years of war and at a time when we in South Sudan needed better relationship with Sudan to facilitate the return to South Sudan of so many South Sudanese still in Sudan. Are you suggesting that Bashir encouraged Kirr to harbour SPLA-Northern sector fighters to attack Sudan from South Sudan? I think your analysis of the origins of the current situation in South Sudan is simply far from the reality. I agree that there was a time in the history of Southern Sudan when northern Sudanese political leaders deliberately plotted to create inter-community (or inter-tribal) frictions and conflicts in South Sudan, a policy of divide and rule they learned from the colonial times, but this is no excuse today for any visionary leader in south Sudan, and Kiir unfortunately fell into this old colonial tactic by preferentially employing a tribally driven agenda. Otherwise how do you explain the fact that Kiir created a militia from his own community to be his presidential guards when he is the Commander -in-Chief of the Army of South Sudan?? In the US, can you imagine a situation where a president sacks his vice President or a situation where a president removes governors of states? I believe that in a democracy state legislative assemblies or state parliaments are competent and well placed to deal with an wronging governors!. The list of issues that ultimately led to the current state of affairs is arguably long and it’s hard to blame everything on Bashir, Museveni or some other foreign hidden hand. I find it irritating when so-called experts on Sudan or Africa think they know things better than insiders? Stop misleading policies and confusing advice. Why don’t you try and be objective in your analysis and advice?

  3. Kenyi Alfred says:

    Kiir must boldly take a decision taken by Central African Republic President just Two days ago.


  4. MALITH ALIER says:

    What have the Americans done about North Korea, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen and many more?

    • Diktor Agarab says:

      America has contained those countries. Now they can bearly move. Wait till they turn their attention on Kiir when he is indicted by ICC.

  5. guek says:

    American Diplomats in Juba are partly responsible. Amb. Page encourages this war in hope of checking Dr. Riek popularity in her quest to identify potential alternative to Kiir who is written off by the US.

    They knew Dr. Riek will make the mistake of being driven by Nuer constituents because that is where he can easily demonstrate his popularity. So go the train for attracting Amb. Page.
    Remaining those jails in their own conference room in Dr. Cirino Heteng house..America is expecting A Mandela quality leader out of Salva Kiir prison, but they will get a Laurent Kabila type instead.

    America will have to make a choice between corruption and democracy. we wait to see the next move..

    • Diktor Agarab says:

      Guek, you Dinka clowns spout the same nonsense all the time. Dr. Riek Machar is certainly more credible and competent that your primitive president.

  6. Logic I says:

    You hit on the right note Mr. Frank R. Wolf, people of USA has special place in the heart of South Sudanese given role played by president Bush. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama policy on South Sudan is on track to destroy Bush legacy. While one can blame Dr. Riek for the mess, much blame go to Obama’s administration in person of Amb. Susan Page and UN in person of Madam Hilde Johnson( my respect to the people of Norway though) who encouraged Riek to use all means to confront Kiir Administration.
    USA – Republican in particular should open their eyes never to let Obama’s administration alienate your to be long time ally- South Sudan. If it is a question of democracy, then it is a process, it requires time and education. we are on track though not prefect- it will be refined with time. South Sudan is volatile and if America imposed its will, then think of Somalia, Pakistan and Afanganistan. We will not have peace and American will not be peaceful in South Sudan.
    If America is a God fearing nation as I know, a city upon the hill that guide other nations, it should put its interest after interest of South Sudanese.
    I agree with author that Bush Jr. and Danforth be dispatched to South Sudan, Kiir as know is a merciful leader and releasing the detainees for the sake of peace will not be impossible thing to do.

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