U.S. Strikes South Sudan Leaders Where It Hurts Most

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The United States slapped sanctions on South Sudan first vice President Taban Deng Gai on Wednesday, heightening the diplomatic friction between Africa’s youngest nation and its top benefactor.

Washington has recently opined that it is targeting the South Sudan regime where it hurts most, in order to bend officials in the government of President Salva Kiir into a power sharing administration prescribed by the 2018 revitalized peace agreement.

The makeup of business at “J-One” (presidential palace in South Sudan)–a club of warlords whose positions are largely defined by their role in the Sudan civil war ( 1983 to 2005) or by concessions reached in the trading of loyalty with Kiir–has formed arguments that vested political interests from top officials, who are threatened by alterations in the status quo are impeding the implementation peace deal.

South Sudanese five-year civil war has tested Washington’s influence over a country it worked tirelessly to divorce from Khartoum in 2011. Since its secession South Sudan has largely depended on American support for its very survival. The U.S. has reportedly spent over $9.5 billion in South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan (SSHRP) since 2011, but has come under immense criticism for failing to salvage a crisis which one time put the young country on a brink of a genocide.

“The only way to ensure their (South Sudan leaders) willingness to moderate positions and behavior is to alter their cost-benefit calculations so that war begins to become costlier to them personally than peace,” John Prendergast a co-founder at The Sentry, a financial forensic investigative initiative called out in an article in the Daily Beast in April 2017.

-Time to act-

Washington issued a fierce statement in November that it was reviewing its diplomatic approach and would “reevaluate” its relationship with the nation’s government because it was “gravely disappointed” with the failure to form a unity government by a November 12.

“We will work bilaterally and with the international community to take action against all those impeding South Sudan’s peace process,” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said adding that the United States would also seek “to establish a new paradigm to achieve peace and a successful political transition in South Sudan” with others in the region. 

The sanctions against Gai though shocking, have come on a backdrop of travel restrictions imposed two South Sudanese cabinet ministers; Martin Elia Lomuro (Cabinet Affairs’ and Kuol Manyang Juuk (Defense and Veteran Affairs ) which followed an earlier ban on five lower level officials, which Washington says are responsible for the likely murder of the two human rights activists Kidnapped in Nairobi in 2017.

While the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accuses Gai of tearing the opposition apart–after he defected from Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in opposition (SPLM-IO)– and acting on behalf of President Salva Kiir to “divide and sow distrust, extend the conflict in South Sudan, and impede the reconciliation and peace process” with rebels, South Sudan says that argument is misplaced.

Presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny told Reuters Wednesday that Gai “is very helpful in the implementation of the peace and…he should be encouraged.” Of his alleged involvement in alleged killings of opposition politician Aggrey Idri Ezibon and human rights lawyer Dong Samuel Luak who were kidnapped in Nairobi, he said there was no evidence that any government officials were involved in the killings cited by Treasury.

-Appeal to reconsider-

Last month, South Sudan ambassador to the United States was quoted by The Washington Post beseeching the Trump Administration to review its latest approach on the country and consider removing the country’s top officials from the blacklist.

Ambassador Philip Jada said the defense minister who is under ax “is very crucial in the peace agreement” and “imposing sanctions at this time is not helpful in implementing the peace agreement”

“We have a very good engagement, and then they implement sanctions again, so we just start wondering why, if you’re in dialogue, do you continue to give punitive measures?” Jada said.

Kiir Summoned Jada back to Juba for consultations last Christmas, days after he met Washington man in Juba Thomas Hushek who had just return to the country.

Kiir and his rival Machar finally signed an agreement at the end of 2018 but have missed multiple deadlines to form a unity government, announcing in November that they need until mid-February.

Last week, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Nagy Tibor said they were “dismayed that with less than 50 days remaining, South Sudan’s leaders have failed to resolve the issues to form a national unity government” adding that it was time for the regional trade bloc IGAD to push a compromise on both parties through.

A club of South Sudan benefactors including USA, UK and Norway alias The Troika is pushing IGAD to ensure that parties use the remaining less than 50 days to deal.

“We commend the leadership of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in its continued efforts to mediate among the parties, and we commit to work with the region to ensure that the parties deliver,” the statement reads.

“With less than six weeks remaining to meet the extended deadline to form a Transitional Government of National Unity, South Sudan’s leaders have a clear duty to their citizens to deliver,” they added.

-Outstanding issues-

Belligerents are still stuck with resolving impending issues including the number of states and security arrangement ahead of the joint government.

On the number of states, contention centers around the fragmentation of the initial 10 states in to 32 as Kiir allegedly sought to strengthen his power grip during the civil war by creating dismal centers of power which he dished among his allies.

In December 2019, details emerged South Sudan Independent Boundaries Commission (a body advisory to IGAD, consisting of experts from the continent) expressed worry that there was great risk in dividing the number of states beyond 21. SSIBC advised IGAD that the country should go back to the initial ten before a thoroughly negotiated process initiated in case of any bid to divide the country.

On security arrangements, warring parties reported last week that they have started moving their forces have started moving their forces to training camps. Training priority they said was given to Very Important Persons (VIP) protection unit, which will guard unity government officials.

The process of gathering fighters into military camps with a view to forming an 83,000-strong unified army is a cornerstone of a September 2018 peace deal which has stalled over numerous setbacks.

-ENDS-