What Went Wrong

By Alex de Waal

Alex de Waal is the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and a Research Professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. His most recent book is The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, war and the business of power (Cambridge, Polity, 2015).

At the heart of South Sudan’s descent into chaos is a failed effort at security sector reform. When Sudan’s long civil war ended in 2005, the U.S. – along with other donors – poured money and expertise in trying to transform the guerrilla Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) into a professional army, the core institution for national defense when South Sudanese voted for independence six years later. These programs failed completely. In 2013, on the eve of the current civil war, the SPLA was a bloated, factionalized, coalition of militias, who split apart along ethnic lines. The reason was the political leadership and strategy adopted by President Salva Kiir Mayardit.

In 2001, the incoming George W. Bush administration linked up with Britain, Norway, and northeastern African nations to energize Sudan’s moribund peace process. The outcome was a compromise peace deal, in which the southern rebel SPLA became the government and army of an autonomous southern region, pending a vote on independence. But the SPLA had not won the war and was not even the biggest or most effective armed group in South Sudan – there were numerous militia groups of uncertain allegiance or, more dangerously, funded and backed by Khartoum (Sudan’s capital).

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