South Sudan: Limits of UN Peacekeeping


Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

René Wadlow5 Nov 2016 – The appropriately named UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is in crisis. In fact, it has been a miss from the start as foreign military are not the ideal agents for “State building”.  South Sudan is not a “failed State”; it is a State only as an international fiction as developing a functioning, pluralistic Sudanese State after decades of civil war was impossible.

There have been two phases to the Sudanese civil war. The first phase (1954-1972) had begun on the eve of Independence and ended with negotiations facilitated by the All-African Conference of Churches.  The 1972-1982 decade was one of relative peace, but the decade was not used to heal the divisions or to work out forms of government, administration and legal systems that would be acceptable to all segments of Sudanese society.  International attention on Sudan had diminished once the 1972 peace agreement was signed, and warning signals that all was not well were ignored internationally. Thus in 1982 southern soldiers who had been integrated into the national army revolted, and the second phase of the civil war continued from 1983 until the end of 2004. In 2003 began the armed conflict in Darfur, western Sudan and continues to this day. However, the Darfur conflict is only indirectly related to the North-South civil war.

During the 2005-2011 period there was an effort to create a Government of National Unity, a central government in Khartoum but with a largely autonomous Government of South Sudan ruling in the south. The linchpin of the 2005 peace agreement was that after five years, a referendum would be held in which the citizens of southern Sudan would have the options of continuing the con-federal system put in place by the peace agreement, of modifying it in way not set out, or of succession, thus creating a new independent State of South Sudan. When the peace agreement was being painfully hammered out over several years of on-again-off-again negotiations, many hoped that the southern Sudanese would vote to continue the con-federal form of government which, after five years, would be seen to be working and bringing benefits to the peoples of both north and south.

The historic leader of south Sudan, John Garang de Mabior, was installed as first vice-president of the Government of National Unity, and he spoke of his hope for a con-federal but “New Sudan”.  Although Garang had spent most of his life as a military commander, he had a PhD in agriculture from a US university and so had some feeling for the difficulties of establishing an ecologically-sound agriculture. We had had several long discussions on federal forms of government during a week-long visit to Geneva in 1999 of Garang and his close co-workers.

Unfortunately, just as he was made first vice-president of the Unity Government, he died on 30 July 2005 in the crash of Ugandan military helicopter on his return from a meeting with the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. As with many strong African personalities, Garang had no entourage of strong, competent persons to take over leadership positions. Salva Kiir Mayardit, a long-time military companion of Garang in the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) had been chosen by Garang as his second-in-command, knowing that Kiir would take no personal initiatives.  On Garang’s death, Kiir was named President of South Sudan and first vice-president of the Government of National Unity.

There had been little improvement in the standard of living of the people in south Sudan since 2005 while there had been a showy development of Khartoum with many new Chinese-built buildings and roads. Thus the people of the south had seen few positive benefits from the con-federal system.  Many in the south hoped that as an independent State more of the revenues from the sale of oil to China and other Asian countries would come their way. Thus, in the referendum, the south voted to become an independent State. The Association of World Citizens had been asked by the Sudanese government to be one of the election observers, and we sent a five-person team.  The voting itself was relatively fair, but voting is only the first step in State-building. Kiir continued as President, and taking a big gamble, took Rick Machar, a rival “war lord” as his vice-president.

President Kiir is a Dinka and Machar is a Nuer.  The Dinka and the Nuer provided much of the southern leadership and fighters during the civil war.(1) By July 2013, the two leaders split, not so much because of their ethnic identities but over how to divide the wealth and aid money between them. However, they dragged into their split their two separate ethnic groups which began fighting, causing large refugee and displaced-persons movements. Among the Nuer, the Dinka and the Murle of South Sudan, Kalashnikovs have replaced spears, and the limits on violence against women and children have largely disappeared.  Traditional taboos against killing women, children and the aged broke down during he civil war, and after 1991, the taboos no longer held in south-south fighting.

The United Nations has had a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan – some 12,500 persons – since before the 2011 independence. Troops, international, regional or national, can sometimes restore “calm” but they rarely deal with the fundamental causes of tensions. Other agents are needed to develop the economic and social capacity of the State and to build bridges among communities.

In July 2016, South Sudanese troops rampaged through the capital Juba  killing, looting and raping. Aid workers in a hotel near the UN compound were brutally attacked, and the UN troops did not respond to their cries for help. While there have been many abuses and failures in areas with fewer international observers or the media, the July attacks were in the center of the capital city.

The U.N. was under pressure to investigate and it set up an independent investigation. The report stressed that the U.N. force was badly disorganized and lacked leadership. Basically, the U.N. troops did not want to get shot at by people who also had guns.  On 1 November 2016, the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested that Lieutenant-General Johnson Ondieki, the Kenyan force commander be replaced as soon as possible.  The Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied accusing the U.N. of using Ondieki as a scapegoat and announced that it would withdraw all its forces – some 1000 soldiers – from South Sudan.

As a new U.N. Secretary-General takes his post on 1 January 2017, the UNMISS report may open a door to a serious consideration of the role and limits of U.N. troops and of the need for other categories of conflict-resolution workers.


(1) The classic study on the Nuer is E.E. Evans-Prichard The Nuer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940). For a more recent study see Sharon E. Hutchinson. Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War and the State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996). Also see Sharon E. Hutchinson and Jok Modut Jok “ Gendered Violence and the Militarisation of Ethnicity: A case from South Sudan” in Richard Werbner (Ed) Postcolonial Subjectivities in Africa (London: Zed Press, 2002.


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Nov 2016.

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2 Responses to “South Sudan: Limits of UN Peacekeeping”

  1. John Ashworth says:

    It’s difficult to take seriously an article with an error of fact in the second paragraph. The first phase of South Sudan’s struggle is generally held to have started in 1955, not 1954. If the author wishes to present a revisionist historical viewpoint then he should explain why he chooses 1954; if it is an error, then it is a very careless one.

    But having read the whole article, I just wonder what is the point of it and what he actually says apart from presenting a selective narrative of events from 1954 (sic!) to date.

    And while I have great respect for the three authors whom he cites, I wonder why he has chosen to quote only those particular works and not others which might be more relevant to his topic?

  2. Rene Wadlow says:

    The point of the essay is in the title “Limits of UN Peacekeeping” and the need to have a greater number of people who can help build bridges among groups – divisions which led to the armed conflict in the first place. On the 1954 date for the start of the first round of the civil war in Sudan: having been somewhat involved in the late 1960s for the World Council of Churches which led to the 1972 agreement, I spoke with some of the people involved. The storm clouds were already gathering in 1954, though the storm as an armed rebellion only broke in August 1955. I see storm clouds as the start of a conflict