South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and then-US VPJoe Biden in Nairobi, Kenya June 9, 2010
Following decades of US soft power aid interventions to exploit South Sudan’s energy reserves and counter China’s influence, the republic is trapped in humanitarian crisis.
Like most countries, the Republic of South Sudan is a complex nation of shifting alliances and external influences.
Recently, President Salva Kiir, who sports a Stetson hat gifted him by George W. Bush, signed a peace agreement with old enemies, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition. Around the same time, the so-called Embassy Troika consisting of the US, Britain, and Norway facilitated International Monetary Fund (IMF) programs for South Sudan.
When China proposes investment schemes, US politicians call it “debt-trap diplomacy.” As has been seen in South Sudan, whenWestern corporations seek to plunder poor, resource-rich nations, they call it “development.”
The West’s interest in South Sudan is oil. Invoking the colonial-era “white man’s burden” of 19th century imperialists, the US government-backed Voice of America recently justified foreign interference in South Sudan by pointing out that the country’s 3.5 billion proven barrels of crude cannot be easily exported due to the lack of pipeline infrastructure and financial mismanagement. The Embassy Troika and its IMF programs insist “that fiscal data – including on oil and non-oil revenues – should be published … regularly and without delay.”
Today, the US has lost control of the proxy it created and South Sudan is descending into a humanitarian crisis. Alan Boswell, a South Sudan specialist at the International Crisis Group, has acknowledged, “US efforts in South Sudan seemed like a final spasm of naive American nation-building, which has all collapsed in epic fashion.”
So what role did the US play in splitting Sudan and driving the country’s south into crisis?
“Tell them Muslims are responsible”
In 1899, Britain created the Condominium of Anglo-Egyptian of Sudan. The “Egyptian” eponym was a misnomer because Britain also ruled Egypt as a so-called “veiled protectorate,” so Sudan and its capital Khartoum were basically placed under British control until independence in 1956.
According to a CIA Intelligence Assessment, a “profitable slave trade was developed by European traders and their Arab cohorts in Khartoum … [T]he violence and cruelty that it fostered have not been forgotten in the South.”
Britain adopted its typical divide and rule strategy. “Christian missionaries kept the slavery issue alive by telling southerners that northern Muslims were responsible.” After independence, the southern region was “barely integrated” with the north.
In 1955, secessionist southern rebels, the Anya-Nya (“snake venom”), initiated the decades-long civil war. The CIA’s Current Intelligence Country Handbook noted that religion was not the only — or even main — point of division. The majority of southerners were black and the ruling officials in the north were overwhelmingly Arab. Resource concentration was a major problem. Heavily dependent on revenue from cotton, Khartoum absorbed Sudan’s wealth to the detriment of the rest of the nation.
CIA analysts were hopeful that the first post-independence dictator, Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Abboud, would follow a pro-Washington course. An Intelligence Bulletin states: “The regime has accepted the American aid program … [and] has moved to curb pro-Communist …. publications.” Gains made by communist politicians a decade later were crushed after the elected government banned left-wing parties and disenfranchised southerners.
As the north’s war against southern secession continued, a reported one million people had died by 1970 and hundreds of thousands had fled to neighboring countries. The US tolerated Soviet arms to Khartoum as it effectively let the USSR fight a proxy war against the south. Israel poured weapons into the south, reportedly to worsen the war in the hope of diverting the attention of the northern government from the Arab-Israeli conflicts.
The South: “exploitable amounts of crude oil”
Between 1971 and ‘72, Ethiopia brokered a short-lived peace between Sudanese ruler, Maj. Gen. Gaafar Nimeiri, and the Anya-Nya’s political wing, the South(ern) Sudan Liberation Movement. The agreement later led to Anya-Nya rebel leader, Lt. Joseph Lagu, heading the High Executive Council of the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region; a political arrangement that lasted until its abolition by President Nimeiri in 1983. By this time, Chevron had spent millions of dollars in a fruitless effort to modernize the south so that it could efficiently extract oil.
US policy shifted to quiet support for the southern secessionists. With Sudan’s oil located mainly in the south, US analysts reckoned that Nimeiri’s regime, which they described as “moderate” and “pro-Western,” had continued de-developing the south. At the time, Washington’s adversary, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, had long been in power next door in Libya. The pro-Soviet Mengistu was ruling Ethiopia on the southeast border. The CIA feared that Sudan’s “severely underdeveloped” south would again rebel, weaken Nimeiri, and leave Khartoum open to Soviet influence.
The 1980s saw the emergence of American “soft power” in Sudan: the use of “aid” and investment to create a viable, independent southern regime.
A history of the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) operations in fertile Sudan noted in the early-‘80s that, “[b]efore Sudan becomes the ‘breadbasket’ of the Middle East and other parts of the world, … it will need a great deal of investment directed towards development projects.” Of greater interest to Washington was petroleum: “The Sudanese government is reasonably confident that commercially exploitable amounts of crude oil have been discovered in southern Sudan.”
In 1983, the Sudanese Armed Forces mutinied. Commander John Garang, who had been trained by the US at Fort Benning, Georgia, led the creation of the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army. A CIA research paper describes Garang as a “socialist.” Other papers note his being backed by Ethiopia and Libya. Their backing wasn’t to last in the face of US “aid” programs.
The Clinton years: “energy management” and soft power
Washington’s slow push for south Sudanese secession probably began in the 1980s, with so-called civil society projects designed to boost the rebel groups opposing the northern government. In 1987, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – the US government-sponsored regime change entity – began funding The Sudan Times, which “uses NED funds to purchase supplies essential to its continued publication.”
In the north, President Nimeiri was overthrown by General Rahman Swar, whose ephemeral reign saw him replaced by the elected President Ahmed al-Mirghani. At this point, the CIA’s record dries up, so it is unclear what relationship the US initially enjoyed with General Omar al-Bashir, who took over in a coup in 1989.
Martin Meredith’s history of Africa notes that from 1991, the ethnic Nuer commander, Riek Machar, was aided by al-Bashir to seize the oilfields by wresting control from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army, led by Garang, an ethnic Dinka. Evidence is scarce, but the Clinton administration (1993-2001) presumably saw southern political fractures as empowering their northern enemy, al-Bashir.
The USAID program, Sudan Transitional Rehabilitation, successfully negotiated a peace between Garang and Machar in 1999. The Agency notes that its grants included provision for “Energy management.” Northwest University’s William Reno seems to argue that the effect of USAID’s Operation Lifeline Sudan, which started the year in which al-Bashir came to power, ultimately legitimized the southern rebels. Claiming that they were spies, Al-Bashir’s men executed USAID staff in 1992, leading the Agency to halt its northern programs.
In 1993, Garang was openly courting the US State Department, though media showed little interest and the history is largely confined to specialist publications. At a meeting in Washington, Garang pressed the southern elites’ cause with Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and longtime CIA hand, Frank Wisner, and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, George Moose. Eventually, the meetings paid off.
USAID reports: “In 1998, at the urging of Congress, the White House changed policy to allow the United States to provide development assistance to opposition-held areas alongside humanitarian aid countrywide.”
In 1997, an Operation Lifeline Sudan report revealed the grassroots organizing in which USAID and partner NGOs were involved. So-called Capacity Building included working with “community leaders” from Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the political wing of the southern Army (SPLM/A). Training included land surveying and gender empowerment “at odds with cultural norms and values.” The cultural modernization project prepared south Sudan for future independence.
Proxy nations as “front line states”
Garang was a personal friend of Uganda’s pro-Western dictator, Yoweri Musevini, who provided arms to the SPLM/A. Human Rights Watch reported in 1998: “The U.S. is providing U.S. $20 million in surplus military equipment to Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda, for defensive purposes (referring to the government of Sudan’s purported support for rebel forces from each of those countries).” Likewise a Library of Congress report notes that, “[d]uring the mid-1990s, [Clinton] instituted a Front Line States policy of pressure against Khartoum with the assistance of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.”
The Clinton administration sanctioned Sudan, citing as an excuse the Bashir regime’s alleged links with “al-Qaeda” and the political National Islamic Front, which certain US politicians claimed was a terror group. In 1998, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) revealed: “Dr. John Garang, in his meeting with SFRC staff, insisted that all development assistance be targeted to areas under SPLA control, some of which have not been under [National Islamic Front] control for five or more years.”
So-called aid money continued to pour into the south in an effort to consolidate the rebels and build a sense of southern nationalism in the public psyche. In March 1999, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) President, Carl Gersham, said: “NED grantees continued to play prominent roles in the human rights and democracy struggles in Liberia and Sudan, where NED has mounted significant programs.”
In 2001, NED began funding the Center for Documentation and Advocacy (CDA), which “publishes and distributes the South Sudan Post throughout Sudan and abroad.” The CDA also received USAID grants. USAID notes that ceasefire in the Nuba Mountains was signed in January 2002 at the behest of the US and Switzerland, calming violence between al-Bashir’s forces and SPLM/Nuba people, who sit on enormous oil wealth. The July 2002 Machakos Protocol, according to USAID, “established the premise of ‘one country, two systems’.”
But “one country, two systems” would soon become two countries, two systems. By then, the George W. Bush administration’s (2001-09) attitude towards the north was a little more balanced. Secret “counterterrorism” operations saw quiet collaboration between al-Bashir and the Bush administration, even as the US continued to bolster al-Bashir’s southern enemies. Al-Bashir’s National Security Advisor, Salah Gosh, for instance, was a CIA collaborator who met with Secretary of State, Colin Powell. (Gosh later attempted a failed coup against al-Bashir.)
In 2002, US Ambassador John Danforth described the SPLM as “the chief antagonists in the Sudan conflict.” In December, USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives (OTI) sponsored the All-Nuba Conference, which “[brought] together representatives of civil society, the [government of Sudan], the SPLM, and others from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the future of the Nuba people.”
Peace agreements legitimized southern rebels
USAID’s OTI was described in 2004 as “supporting people-to-people peace processes in southern Sudan.” The program also sought to “increase the participation of southern Sudanese in their governance structures.” This would be achieved by establishing a so-called Independent Southern Sudan Media and the creation of legal aid units, women’s empowerment, and an Education Development Center to establish short-wave radio broadcasts in Dinka, English, Juba-Arabic, and Nuer.
Facilitated by USAID’s then-administrator, Andrew Natsios, and Ambassador John Danforth, al-Bashir signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 with the SPLM. Though the US took credit, it was a hard-won peace largely negotiated behind the scenes with Garang and Vice President Ali Osman Taha. USAID notes that the CPA “usher[ed] in a new era of American assistance in Sudan. The country became a U.S. priority in Africa, and among the highest in the world.”
Garang died in a 2005 helicopter crash attributed to “pilot error.” He was replaced with Salva Kiir, whom US President George W. Bush described as “a friend of mine.”
In November of that year, Kiir addressed the US government-funded think tank, the Wilson Center. “I have met very important officials and I have not only come to know at personal levels but has afforded me to know how things work at the American Government,” said Kiir. This led to the establishment of “the two chambers of the national legislatures” in the south, “as well as the council of ministers (Cabinet) of the Government of National Unity.”
“Aid” continued to mold fractured southern rebel movements into a cohesive whole in preparation for the independence vote. In November 2005, US Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, noted the southern factions’ “inability to come together (sic).” Perhaps more importantly, aid was also used to propagandize the southern civilians into supporting unity. Run by the Grand Africa Media Service Co., the Khartoum Monitor was established in 2000 by southern journalists. Its publisher, Alfred Taban, won the NED’s Democracy Award 2006.
In 2007, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Republican stalwart of humanitarian interventionism, told Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice: “Salva Kiir needs his people to be trained with regard to the security, with the death of John Garang, if anything happened to him. So if you can quickly make sure that his people are trained, that would be helpful.”
The Obama years: chasing “millions of dollars worth of oil”
The US-backed Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) promised a referendum on particular forms of government for the south, including the possibility of secession. In September 2010 just months before the referendum, President Obama’s Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and future head of USAID, Samantha Power, said of her boss: “The President decided to participate in this event, which was actually at one point originally intended as a ministerial, because this could not be a more critical time in the life of Sudan.”
NED funded and championed a host of South Sudan civil society and propaganda organizations, including: the South Sudanese Network for Democracy and Elections, Eye Radio 98.6FM, the Internews Community Radio Network the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, and the South Sudanese Women’s Empowerment Network.
With pro-Western PR stunts like wearing the Stetson hat, regional leader Kiir promoted US iconography. This was bolstered by a visit from Hollywood star, George Clooney, who “observed” the referendum, which was officially monitored by the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) in Khartoum and the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau (SSRB).
But USAID influenced both organizations: “we are playing a key role by providing technical and material assistance, and have provided significant funding to international and domestic groups to both educate voters and ensure credible observation of the referendum.” This included a voter registration drive, which according to the European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) was more concerned with getting 60 percent of registered voters to participate, as the CPA demanded, than educating the populace about the issues.
The referendum took place in January 2011. Having seized control of southern media, the US by proxy blocked out pro-unity arguments. The EUEOM concluded: “An almost complete absence of pro-unity campaigning created an environment where debate on the consequences of secession or the continued unity of Sudan was drowned out.”
Despite a preposterous 98.83 percent of voters opting for independence, US President Barack Obama instantly recognized the new government of Salva Kiir and his Vice President Riek Machar as the leaders of the Republic of South Sudan.
In 2011, the SPLA was legitimized in the eyes of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). SPLA soldiers were trained in de-mining and tactical casualty combat care by AFRICOM personnel.
Joseph Kony’s “Christian” Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is the African equivalent of “al-Qaeda”: an elusive terror group that offers the US a pretext to arm several nations under the banner of counter-crime and counter-terrorism. Commenting on the LRA, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Karl Wycoff, said in February 2012 (paraphrased by AFRICOM): “the United States is providing training, equipment and logistical support for military efforts in Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan to fight the insurgency.”
But South Sudan, flooded with US arms and training, descended into civil war. Noting the importance of oil to the equation, AFRICOM stated that “South Sudan’s government in Juba turned off the flow in early-2012, charging that the Sudanese are siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil (sic).” Also in 2012, US President Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travelled “to the world’s youngest country, … where she and President Kiir discussed security, oil and economic opportunity.”
Years of US meddling culminate in humanitarian disaster
US efforts to create an oil vassal state did not go according to plan. The South’s Kordofan and Unity states remained in conflict, with the African Union trying to mediate. With the northern Sudanese government based in Khartoum attacking the states, the SPLA sent troops to occupy the oilfields. Citing SPLA attacks, the Sudanese Armed Forces annexed Kordofan.
A year later in December 2013, Kiir accused Vice President Machar of attempting a coup. This led to the South Sudan Civil War, in which Machar formed the rival SPLM-In Opposition. The peace of 2015 was ruptured after the SPLM-In Opposition splintered and stoked more internal fighting.
In July 2015, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) reported: “The Obama administration is blunt: the humanitarian disaster now underway is the result of unscrupulous political leaders who have exploited an ethnic conflict that they cannot control.” But the CFR neglected to mention who empowered these corrupt leaders.
China has quietly done what successive US administrations had hoped it would not do: courted South Sudan’s government and invested in the country’s energy. The International Crisis Group has said that, “by 2013, roughly 100 Chinese companies were registered in South Sudan, covering energy, engineering, construction, telecommunications, medical services, hotels, restaurants, and retail.”
Meanwhile, the public suffers the consequences of neocolonial games. South Sudan’s GDP is under $5bn compared to Sudan’s already small $35bn. Extreme poverty is over 60 percent, compared to 25 percent in Sudan. Malnutrition is 12 percent in Sudan and not even measured in South Sudan, though USAID suggests that it could be as high as 50 percent. Infant mortality in South Sudan is 62 deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 41 in Sudan. The republic is suffering under internal power struggles and violence, including a border clash that left 24 dead on January 5, 2022.
Many of these economic disparities and political problems existed while the south was part of Sudan, but after decades of US meddling, there is little light at the end of the tunnel.