By voicing concern, Russia and Angola delayed a further round of targeted sanctions against South Sudanese leaders proposed by the UN Security Council. Many have explained this action as part of the growing geopolitical competition between Russia and the West (the USA, UK and France co-sponsored the sanctions): Russia and China are cultivating closer ties to various African states, and increasingly, the West is challenging African leaders. Such may be the case, but the timing of these sanctions is dangerous for peace and has an inherently problematic dynamic.
With the peace agreement in its infancy, sanctioning figures who will prove essential to both the political and technical implementation of the deal is highly questionable. The proposed Security Council sanctions target the current South Sudanese military Chief of Staff General Paul Malong Awan and rebel commander Major General Johnson Olony. Previous sanctions have hit a group of other military leaders on both sides. The concept of targeting only military figures is a problem as it ignores the drivers of the conflict, which are politicians, and it ignores the fact that military leaders will prove the linchpin in a complicated process of integrating formerly fighting armed forces as part of the critical security sector transformation agenda.
Considered by many as a hero of the previous conflicts, Malong is one of the most powerful figures in South Sudan. As the army’s Chief of Staff and a major political figure, Malong will be essential to the success of any peace deal. He is a critical backer of South Sudan’s President Kiir and plays a pivotal role in the leadership of the formal institutions of government, as well as customary institutions of Dinka society, the largest tribe of South Sudan.
Olony is seen by his Shilluk people as a protector, and is one of the more active leaders in a very active theatre of the war. His allegiance would be needed by any group attempting to control the areas to the north of the city of Malakal in the oil-rich Upper Nile State, where his supporters live.
As has proven the case with several figures already sanctioned by the USA, EU, Canada and UN, ostracizing these two key players has the potential to create serious “spoilers” to the peace. With such sanctions comes a kind of political blacklisting in terms of the international community. Given the coercion placed on South Sudanese government and opposition leaders to conform to international wishes, there will undoubtedly be pressure to leave any sanctioned leader out of power-sharing arrangements.
However, such arrangements do not remove these figures from the equation; they are significant power brokers in their own right, and both the president and the rebel leader Machar need their support. The sanctions, therefore, present a major problem. They force the top leaders to choose between those who wield power locally and the legitimacy accorded by the international community: an untenable choice, and one not conducive to building peace.
The recent history of the use of sanctions in the current South Sudan context provide a cautionary tale of how not to use targeted sanctions in support of peace, some of those sanctioned have rebelled before and been a spoiler threat before. After a first set of targeted sanctions were imposed on several military leaders in May 2014, two opposition figures, Peter Gadet and Gathoth Gatkuoth, were pushed aside by the opposition leader Machar – presumably after the sanctions they were no longer palatable to his potential international supporters. Gadet and Gatkuoth left the opposition movement, arriving in Khartoum, Sudan to announce they had launched their own rebellion and would fight both the government and the opposition rump that had agreed to the peace deal. They did, however, indicate a willingness to negotiate directly with the South Sudanese government should someone be willing to purchase their individual loyalty and have already engaged with the Sudanese government to the north (The Republic of Sudan that is).
Sudan is likely interested in supporting the rebellions in order to foster insecurity in South Sudan; which would be in the interests of Sudan as they view a strong South Sudan as a threat by virtue of the connections between current opposition forces inside Sudan and the political leadership in the South (both were formerly a part of the same rebel movement the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army, which has since seen a remnant continue to fight in Sudan as SPLM-North, while the main body SPLM has become the only significant political party in newly independent South Sudan). The two leaders, and many of their supporters, have a history of presenting a threat as spoilers and have had to be negotiated with to avoid collapse of earlier peace agreements, including in the months following the major Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 that ended the long running Second Civil War in Sudan. It is thus no surprise that they might take such a course of action, further raising question regarding the approach taken by international actors at a critical moment in the peace process.
The sanctions already in place having failed to support the peace, it is thus unclear why the UN has moved to continue the strategy of placing targeted sanctions on South Sudanese military figures. While Gadet and Gathoth have yet to spoil fully the agreement, they hold such a threat over the deal; violence has already occurred in the areas where their forces operate in Unity and Upper Nile state. The most recent fighting has been seen in the areas of Johnson Olony’s forces, as Olony attempts to assert the independence of his rebel group from the main SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) rebel group.
There are, thus, major problems with the idea of sanctioning the figures required to play a central role in the implementation of the peace agreement. A better understanding of the politics in South Sudan, and the way the country’s communities and individual leaders are connected, would have allowed the UN to recognize its current approach is applying coercion that is unlikely to work toward securing peace in South Sudan, and instead has potential to do great harm.
Dr. Matthew LeRiche is a Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland and a Senior Fellow, Centre for Security Governance. He is author of South Sudan: From Revolution to Independence (Oxford University Press, 2012).