Remember South Sudan? Washington Would Prefer Not to as Taban Deng frustrates USA


Its freedom fighters have turned into brutal oppressors, and it is near to becoming another failed state, despondent U.S. supporters say.

A senior official from South Sudan traveled to Washington this week to solicit U.S. support—and money—for a fragile new peace deal aimed at ending the country’s five-year civil war. In the past, billions of U.S. dollars have flowed into the new nation, along with a great deal of tender American attention. But the mood in Washington is much different now.

This time, the Americans scoffed at and castigated the visitor, Taban Deng Gai, the first vice president of South Sudan, as he tried to assure them the new peace plan would stick.

Through its own abuses and corruption—and after just seven years of existence—South Sudan has gone from being a poor but hopeful nation to something close to a failed state led by a corrupt, oppressive military elite.

Deng met a group of nearly two dozen current and former U.S. officials at a closed-door event this week marked by tense exchanges. He was there to sell Washington on a peace plan signed last month to end the violence that has fractured the country since 2013, two years after it gained independence from Sudan.

It is the latest of more than a dozen cease-fires or peace plans in recent years, all of which have collapsed.

“We believe this peace is not perfect but of course it is better than [the] alternative, which is war,” Deng said to openly skeptical officials at the event hosted by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

Some of Deng’s assertions—that his country was developing rule of law, tackling corruption, and that it was civilians, not the military, carrying out brutal atrocities against the country’s population — were met with a mixture of gasps, muffled laughter, and eye rolls by those in attendance.

When Deng denied that his government security forces were carrying out these attacks and insisted instead it was civilians committing the atrocities, one participant in the event whispered under his breath, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development officials, as well as senior congressional staff and former senior officials, participated in the event—some of whom had devoted decades of their careers to work on South Sudan. Foreign Policy was also in attendance.

“There are people who have worked on South Sudan for decades,” said Joshua Meservey, an Africa expert at the Heritage Foundation. “They poured their professional lives into the Sudan and southern Sudan conflict, and South Sudanese independence was seen as this extraordinarily hopeful moment. For it to go so spectacularly wrong so quickly was a very disillusioning moment for these people.”

Cameron Hudson, a former National Security Council and State Department official who attended the event, told FP afterward that it was easy to feel the frustration in the room. “What you saw around that room was literally hundreds of years’ worth of American blood, sweat, and tears to support these people,” he said. “That’s why the sentiment and emotion … [were] so charged.”

Kate Almquist Knopf, the director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told Deng that the United States had spent $14 billion on South Sudan alone since 2005 to help shepherd its independence and address the burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

Deng’s response, blaming U.S. aid for stoking the conflict, drew audible gasps: “This $14 billion, if it was put into proper use, maybe South Sudan would not be in war today.” He then said he would be requesting more financial assistance from the U.S. government.

Another member of Deng’s delegation brushed off the dollar figure, saying the statistics were manipulated and biased.

“It’s somewhat insulting to all of us who have been working to support the people of South Sudan for so many years to say that those numbers are not reliable numbers,” retorted a visibly frustrated Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2013 to 2017. “Americans who have supported South Sudan, we deserve more, and I think the people of South Sudan deserve more.”

The sparring, fraught with emotion and frustration, underscored how far South Sudan has fallen in the eyes of many current and former U.S. policymakers who helped orchestrate the country’s independence from Sudan.

South Sudan is a rare test case of the United States midwifing a country into existence, trying to help create a new democracy from scratch. When the country first gained independence seven years ago, after five decades of a bloody guerrilla struggle with Sudan, it was received with a surge of optimism.

Perhaps nowhere outside of South Sudan was there as much optimism as in Washington, where U.S. officials across three presidential administrations had developed relationships with South Sudanese figures over the decades they fought for independence.

“Today is a reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible,” then-President Barack Obama said on July 9, 2011, the day South Sudan formally marked independence.

That optimism crumbled in 2013 after political clashes between President Salva Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar spilled into a violent rebellion. It followed two years of political strife, economic woes, and little if any progress on development despite billions of dollars in foreign aid, blunted in part by government corruption.

What separates South Sudan from other humanitarian crises, Hudson said, is that U.S. officials for decades have cultivated close ties with South Sudanese rebels-turned-freedom fighters-turned-government officials, adding an emotional investment from the U.S. side that other conflicts may lack.

Kiir, the president, still wears a trademark cowboy hat after one was given to him by President George W. Bush in 2006 — one small symbol of the South Sudanese leadership’s long attachment to the United States.

New estimates have put the death toll in South Sudan at more than 380,000—proportionally a higher death toll than the conflict in Syria based on the two countries’ populations. Currently, there are some 2.5 million South Sudanese refugees who have fled the conflict to six neighboring countries, including Sudan, the country that South Sudanese sparred with for decades to gain independence.

According to Peter Pham, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, nearly 63 percent of the country’s population faces food insecurity in conditions that brush close to famine.

The conflict is also marked by atrocities by both government security and opposition forces, including executions, torture, gang rape, and sexual slavery, according to the State Department’s 2017 human rights report on South Sudan and studies by international human rights groups.

Last month, Kiir, Machar — now the head of the leading rebel group—and other rival factions signed the latest attempt at a peace deal following the collapse of one in 2015. Deng, speaking in Washington, insisted that his country had learned the lessons of the last collapsed peace deal.

Under the terms of the new peace deal, South Sudan will have five vice presidents and expand its parliament to 550 to include members from all rival factions. Deng said the peace deal emphasizes inclusivity among all parties, something the last peace deal failed to consider. Critics say the plan will only reinforce tribalism and ethnic divides without addressing the root causes of the conflict.

“Don’t attack it. Don’t understand it with the frame of mind of a Westerner or an American frame of mind,” Deng said, defending the deal. “We are still a Bedouin society where accommodation also is important. Accommodation also brings peace.”

The U.S. government, in a joint statement with the United Kingdom and Norway issued last month, said it remains committed to peace in South Sudan but skeptical it will stick given continued violence and blocking of access to humanitarian aid. “[I]n order to be convinced of the parties’ commitment, we will need to see a significant change in their approach,” the governments said.

Deng’s assurances didn’t appear to placate anyone in the room, all of whom kept pressing him on questions of whether the country would release political prisoners, how it would handle bringing war criminals to justice if the peace held, and how it would tackle corruption and governance issues, as well as becoming increasingly unsatisfied and exasperated with Deng’s answers.

Transparency International, an organization that monitors corruption, ranked South Sudan 179th out of 180 countries in its corruption index. An investigation released in March by the Enough Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors South Sudan, concluded that South Sudanese government officials and elite had plundered the country’s oil wealth to bankroll militias that carried out atrocities against civilians.

“The reality of the regime is anyone in any position of authority is almost certainly going to be deeply, deeply corrupt,” said Meservey, the Heritage Foundation expert.

At the end of the event, after Deng wrapped up his remarks, the other participants got up and left, some sighing and shaking their heads, others brushing past the South Sudanese delegation without saying goodbye to a leader in a country they themselves helped found.

“That was just incredible,” said one participant in attendance who declined to speak on record. “I came to see if they’re taking this peace deal seriously, if they’re taking the U.S. seriously, and it’s clear they’re not. It’s so sad.”

“The audaciousness of this visit and his messages were pretty beyond the pale,” said Hudson, the former U.S. official. “This isn’t like Syria. It’s not like Yemen. We invested in this relationship over decades. And after making all of these deposits of political, social, and economic good will, this is what we’re left with: a failed state.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @RobbieGramer


  1. Tyson says:

    The American government should not give this club of criminals a single dollar.
    There is no peace but MOU between Kiir, Machar, Museveni and Bashir to loot South Sudan.

    Give them the following conditions:
    1. Relinquish power with immediate effect. A lean government of South Sudan technocrats to steer affairs of the country. This will include establishment of government frameworks, institutional structures, constitution, reform of the army, legal institutions to try all criminals who destroyed or continue to destroy this country, etc, etc.
    2. Return all the stolen money. These thieves have siphoned or continue to siphon billions of dollars. Without shame they go to beg additional money into their coffers.
    3. Those hiding outside South Sudan should be persecuted or handed over to ICC.
    4. All properties looted and hidden outside South Sudan should be confiscated, sold and money returned to the country.

    These are few actions to mention……..
    Shame to killers, thieves, rapists and criminals
    What you see in Juba is a tribal blood suckers club cum government

  2. Taban Alimasi says:

    These Western government themselves have question to answer, they are encouraging corruption, if that was correct USA government had given $14b to the government of South Sudan, what for the money was given and why the government was not made accountable, if they believe the money was corruptly used. We should not treat these Westerners as angles, these are the very people who want to ensure there’s no progress in developing nations and remain depending on their aids. It was clear there was corruption in South Sudan, before South Sudan’s independent and USA government was aware, but they did nothing continue to fuel the fire with more money until war broke out between the rival group. Even after that USA government was training South Sudan army to oppress any citizens opposing to their corrupt government. If you want to understand USA policy toward South Sudan, read the report prepared by Holocaust Museum, USA only supports policies that favours them or of their interest. Currently they are not directly involved in South Sudan peace, but using Uganda to represent their interest in South Sudan and the rest of east African countries.

    • Mor-Amook says:

      Taban, I agree to your analysis to some extent. The USA foreign policy is America interest first not democracy. Trump said,” America first” What does that mean? If you meet their interest or allow them to govern the country in your shadow, your country will not experience instability. And if not, the country will remain in problem. Whoever wants to get more information, please go to a bookshop, buy a book title: Confession of Economic Hit Men by John Perkins.

      Tyson: You really lack understanding of this world. You don’t follow news. Just few weeks ago, Mike Pompeo the State Secretary of the USA, Security Advisor and US representative to UN attacked ICC that it has no legalities to trial US citizens. Who are US citizens? Are they not human-beings like the rest? Was the court established to try non-important citizens around the world? Similarly, Israel has recently blocked ICC from investigating anything happening between Palestinians and Israelis since March this year.

      Our criminals should be tried by African established court. A hybrid court of African nature should be formed to try those who committed war crimes in South Sudan and anywhere in Africa.

  3. Deng Hanbol says:

    Some people specifically intellectuals from Dinka ethnic group tend to ‘beat about the bush’ when trying to avoid speaking about Dinka’s bad government. I think it would be reasonable for all of us to focus on South Sudan dilemma.
    The main question is, should the Dinka irresponsible president be removed by force?
    I believe using force to remove this illiterate president is the answer. The whole world is aware that Saliva Kiir is still in power because of M7 and Obama support.
    In fact, it was Obama who not only allowed president M7 to send troops to rescue Dinka government from eminently collapsing but also encouraged him to use internationally banned cluster bombs against Nuer white army.
    If there was no Obama and M7 military and political support, the whole country would to be under Dr. Riek Machar leadership in early 2014.

    President Saliva Kiir and JCE are actually able to commit genocide and oppression of Nuer/Naath people for they have been protected by the aforementioned leaders.

    All in all, I think the only way to save South Sudan from corrupt and tribal regime in Juba is to allow Dr. Machar’s creeping revolution, the SPLA-IO and NAS of Gen. Thomas Cirillo to use force to dislodge Salva Kiir from power.

    • info@southsudannation says:

      Deng Hanbol,
      Now, you have come 180 degrees to our well and ever exulted assertion…. that only force will butt out killer Kiir from J1 if this Machar had properly well planned all those disastrous and failed attempts that ended in greater loss of Nuer lives in vain.
      Seriously, in retrospect, the problem isn’t killer Kiir anymore. It’s now and has always been Machar’s very poor utilization and deployment of the zealous Nuer resources in all those previous attempted ‘coups’ to oust the jieng dictatorship from Juba.
      Machar is a disaster itself. You better start worrying seriously if and when Machar ever lands again in Juba!
      Will he really survive and dodge the already well prepared ‘plan’ of physical elimination/termination that killer Kiir and his prepared jieng assassins in collaboration with Museveni have laid out?
      Unfortunately, Machar has used up his ‘nine cat-lives,’ this time the jieng bullets won’t miss him in Juba.

  4. Mor-Amook says:

    Dear Deng Handbol,
    I really like you because you are typical Nuer from village. All what you know and believe is Nuer ethnic group nothing else. Another thing you know and believe and propagandize is Nuer strengths to defeat Jieng and take over power by force. I don’t know, if Riak had taken over power by force, was he going to govern Nuer alone or forcibly rule Jieng as well? Was he going to chase away millions of Jieng to neighboring countries or eliminate them all so that he could move across south Sudan freely? Please answer that.

    I thought you were Riak’s supporter! But now you are betraying Riak. You are exposing your hidden agenda. Riak has signed peace agreement and you are now saying that the only answer is to topple Kiir Administration by force. That means you (the rebels) have not abandon military solution. Please learn to talk like an intellectual not a typical Nuer of the white army.

    We have history of wars, for example, from 1991 to 2002 majority of forces left in the SPLA fighting jalaba and unspecified malitias were from Jieng. There were so many malitias against SPLA, but Nuer did not chase away entire Jieng to Uganda, Sudan, CAR..etc. Unfortunately, you were not in Southern Sudan by then. You were just hearing on media, that is why you still prefer war because you have never even heard sound of machine gun in your life leave alone action. Please stop mobilization for war, no body is interested. We tested wars for decades and centuries.

    I know you are warlord who was benefiting from war that is why you are so desperate advocating for war over peace. You tested war but you never win, now come in and try another card of politics, maybe Riak would get nation wide support. I want to assure you, with war you will never ever succeed. For your information, if Jieng opposes you, you will never be in power by force. However, the presidency post of South Sudan can be assumed by non-Jieng citizen peacefully, but not by force my Dear.

  5. Taban Alimasi says:

    Deng & Mor Amook,
    You the tribal men, you are disaster for South Sudan and it’s none Dinka and Nuer population. I wonder why you people are very selfish, please learn to become a nationalist cater for the need of the Whole country other than focusing on your individual tribes. Your people have caused enough chaos in South Sudan, please it’s time to rebuild what your people have destroyed. STOP language of war war.

  6. Hoiloom says:

    Deng Handbol, Editor,

    Machar is and has been the biggest obstacle to this arm struggle. A lot of people are frustrated with him, myself included. The man doesn’t want to fight a just war but hoping for a miracle somewhere to save the lives of our people. The irony is that he keeps surviving against all odds. He should quit IO leadership for time being to allow real soldiers to do their work in the field because the JCE led regime will never accept reforms.


  7. mading says:

    Deng Hanbol. Mounyjaang are not running South Sudan government, it is Kiir and those in the government including your tribesmen and women who are the problem. You talked about Jieng like that, because you may think country is run by tribes like your SPLM/SPLA IO it foot soldiers are 100% Nuer.

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