Can South Sudan—the world’s youngest country—find peace? USIP’s Susan Stigant discusses the country’s political crisis and how its exacerbated by the outgrowth of opposition groups, millions of displaced citizens, and other complex challenges to restoring stability. Nevertheless, Stigant explains that peace is possible with U.S. leadership.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Episode Transcript

Host: Let's shift the conversation to something that is playing out overseas, a drama that is affecting millions of lives. Susan Stigant is with us. She is director of Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, tweeting @SusanStigant. South Sudanese President Salva Kiir said he hopes his meeting with his arch-foe will bring an immediate end to the devastating war in the country. Susan, welcome. Thank you for being on POTUS today.

Susan Stigant: Thank you for having me.

Host: It's a relief to be able to talk about something that is, well, it's important in a lot of different ways and, clearly, we have seen just a terrible deterioration in [South] Sudan since just a few years ago. Is this a ray of hope?

Susan Stigant: Well, as you said, I think it's been a really disappointing and sad story to see the terrible humanitarian crisis unfold. While it's hopeful that President Kiir and the former vice president Dr. Machar are talking, I think there are some serious concerns about whether the government that fell apart and the political crisis that sparked the violence, sparked this humanitarian crisis, whether that government can be put back together again and end the violence and provides South Sudan a path towards peace. So, we have a long way to go.

Host: What is the issue that separates the two sides?

Susan Stigant: Well, the crisis actually began in December 2013, and it's part of a longstanding political competition. There was a party convention between the key leaders of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the SPLM, and there was essentially a difference about how decisions should be made. At the bottom of the contest, though, was a question about who would run as president for the country and for the SPLM. 

Susan Stigant: But the conflict has actually moved away from a crisis between two sides, and this is one of the challenges of the way that the negotiations are being held right now. Just because you get an agreement between President Kiir and Dr. Machar doesn't mean that the other parties, the other armed groups, the other opposition groups who have become a part of the conflict will be happy. It also doesn't mean that the citizens, 200,000-plus of which are still taking shelter in UN mission compounds in the country and 4 million of which are displaced from their homes, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're ready to accept the terms that the two top political leaders might agree to.

Host: I wonder here, Susan, how much of this is about the two individuals, as opposed to two opposing philosophies.

Susan Stigant: Yes. I think most people agree that there is a fundamental competition. But the violence that took place was certainly sparked by that competition between the individuals, but it's become more complicated than that. You can imagine a political competition in a country that doesn't turn violent, but because of the events that took place in the capital city, it was actually quickly spread throughout the country. They played on previous divisions, previous violence that had taken place among South Sudanese and quickly turned into both a political conflict and communal-level violence and conflict. So it's not just about the two individuals. There are many layers of this violence and of this conflict that will have to be addressed.

Host: Once again, we are speaking with Susan Stigant, president, oh, sorry, director of Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace about [South] Sudan. In 2011, obviously, we go back seven years, it was about this time, it was July, I think, when South Sudan became independent from Sudan. It just seems there was so much promise at the time, and yet, it has deteriorated so far. What's the prospects for the future?

Susan Stigant: As you said, 2011 was really a moment of great hope. I had the privilege of being there on the day of independence and actually during the six years prior, and to see this promise, this hope, this idea that life would get much better. I think in the immediate term, the situation is not particularly hopeful. There's a terrible humanitarian crisis. Over 4 million people have been displaced from their homes in the country, over half of the population depends on external assistance just to survive and get enough food every day, and the economic crisis that has followed from that because oil is no longer being produced, or significant corruption and challenges. It means that it would take a significant investment from the international partners in order to just stabilize the economy. So the prospects are challenging.

Susan Stigant: I will say, though, that compared to some of the other conflicts that you probably talk about, I think peace in South Sudan is possible. It's a place where the United States has taken a leading role in the past, has worked effectively with partners from Europe, and actually have been able to work in partnership with some of the other powers globally with China and Russia, certainly in the past to figure some shared way forward. So it's complex, it's a terrible situation. But in many ways, there is a way forward that might be more complicated to forge in Syria or some of the other terrible conflicts that are taking place around the world.

Host: Susan, the Security Council of the United Nations a couple of months ago, or last month, as a matter of fact, voted to renew sanctions against six South Sundanese officials, travel ban, assets freeze for blocking peace in South Sudan. Are they proving effective or not?

Susan Stigant: The sanctions are a really important signal that the international community is paying attention, and that the actions of leaders in South Sudan have to change. But those will really only be effective if they are used to support a broader strategy to have a peace process that will address the fundamental reasons that this violence started. So sanctions alone are not a strategy. They're a tool and they're an approach to help to advance a strategy. The other challenge with the sanctions is that to really implement those, they need to be enforced by the neighboring countries and that's been quite difficult to get some of the other neighbors, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan on-board to make sure that the individuals feel the impact of some of those sanctions.

Host: How much do the average citizens feel the impact of these sanctions, or do they at all?

Susan Stigant: The sanctions that have been levied are targeted against individuals as opposed to the country broadly. I think that's an important development to the extent that it's not giving a blanket approach that might have some of the negative impacts that other sanctioned regimes have had. The individuals who have actually been targeted, most of them it's unclear whether that's touched them particularly closely, but on the reputation side, the credibility and the visibility, South Sudanese really respect the United Nations. They're the world's newest country. That international recognition is incredibly important so I don't think we can underestimate the importance of the signal that they send.

Host: I wonder, given the economy, how much it affects public opinion and whether or not people are feeling itchy about their government. I was looking at one story that Al Jazeera had reported that there was an agreement signed between Sudan and South Sudan under which South Sudan is going to start pumping its oil through Sudanese territory. I can only imagine that an increase in production of any kind of a product that is going to be making its way out of the country is going to bring money to the country. I would think that that would help solidify any economic downturn and, therefore, it would help to abet instability, but I'm not sure you can give us some more guidance on that.

Susan Stigant: Yes. The negotiations that are playing out right now are fascinating because they're being currently hosted by President Bashir, the president of Sudan. So, for average South Sudanese who voted overwhelmingly, 98% in favor of separating from Sudan only seven years ago, it's a very interesting dynamic that now, Sudan, is brokering this agreement.

Susan Stigant: In terms of the oil flow, I think the amount of money ... It's an important development if oil could flow. All of the oil flow has actually been going through Sudan historically. There isn't a pipeline that goes out of South Sudan directly. It goes up through Sudan previously. It could help to generate some income, but the reality, even during the peaceful times, is that a lot of that money didn't make it to really fundamentally changing the lives of South Sudanese, addressing the really significant development needs that were left behind from decades of the previous civil war and that corruption and accountability, and transparency of the economic resources remained a significant issue. 

Susan Stigant: So from what we hear from many South Sudanese is they really would be thrilled at the prospect of some economic recovery, but have some fundamental questions to make sure that that is done in a way that really puts the country and all the people back on a better path.

Host: Susan, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.

Susan Stigant: Thank you so much.

Host: Susan Stigant is ... Thank you. Yes, thank you. Susan Stigant, director of Africa Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, shining a spotlight on an issue that is probably far under-reported. She is tweeting @susanstigant, S-T-I-G-A-N-T. 

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