Saving South Sudan: Taking a Pre-Failed State Toward Successful Statehood

The World’s First Pre-Failed State

South Sudanese citizens celebrate their independence in 2011. Within months of independence, ethnic warfare would erupt between the Dinka and Nuer tribal factions of South Sudan. From there, the vituperations would only intensify until their ultimate culmination in a civil war beginning in 2013.

South Sudan was a country that was created out of Sudan. In recent weeks, South Sudan has once more found itself in the news, as the ongoing civil war there continues to tear the young country apart. The civil war, which is tribal in nature, has been raging since even before South Sudan achieved their independence from northern Sudan. Beginning as a preferred target by the genocidal Wahhābīst government of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, the United States helped to usher in South Sudan’s independence, after it was determined that the South would never be treated fairly by their northern Islamist oppressors.

While President George W. Bush is most associated with the Global War on Terror and the attendant strategic missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is very often forgotten that President Bush was the most vocal champion of South Sudan’s independence–both during and after his presidency. Unfortunately, as this article will detail, President Bush’s commitment to the partitioning of southern Sudan away from the northern portion, coupled with President Obama’s utter indifference to the fate of South Sudan during his first term, set the stage for South Sudan to become the world’s first pre-failed state.

However, despite these facts, I believe that the United States and its international partners can help to prevent South Sudan’s continued state failures, and add stability to the region that has otherwise been lacking. As this article will detail, I believe that a cantonist approach to South Sudan–a political agreement that diffuses power away from its capital in Juba and returns it to the various, competing ethno-religious tribal subgroups within South Sudan, will foster a much better chance for the nascent country to survive and prosper.

On Cantonism

“Cantonism involves the multiethnic state being subjected to a micro-partition in which political power is devolved to small scale political units, each of which enjoys mini-sovereignty. It is a system that delimits power to the ethno-regions of a given state. Furthermore, cantonism incorporates considerable local sovereignty and development […] Such a system therefore encourages the depoliticisation of both political party formations and ethnic politics.” – Graham Smith writing in “Federalism: The Multiethnic Challenge”

The ethno-religious conflicts of the past two decades are the result of the collapse of great empires. Some of the most devastating conflicts today throughout the Developing World are in nations that were most affected by imperialism and the subsequent imperial collapse. These nations were strewn together by imperialists of one sort or another for colonial purposes. The Balkans, Iraq, and Syria, all represent excellent case studies of what happens when states are created without any regard whatsoever for the histories, cultures, and desires of the people who live there. Sudan is another such instance of a foreign colonizer (in this case, the British) creating a political situation on the ground that did a great disservice to the local people there (as will be detailed in the succeeding section).

Here is a map of the 26 cantons that comprise Switzerland. This is what I propose to do to Failed States like South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq. This, I believe, will calm much of the violence in these states and will create a new political reality that stabilizes the politics of these states and, hopefully, takes these states down the path of cultural democracy, as cantonism did for Switzerland beginning in 1291 A.D.

Cantonism is more colloquially known in Political Science and International Relations circles as the “Swiss Model.” This is because cantonism was a system created for and adopted by the Swiss in 1291, A.D. At its core the system was “based on the principle of equality, a principle that remains the basis of the canton system today. Thus Swiss history has led, not to a centralized state, but to ‘nation by will.’

Small communities of varying size, economic strength, and cultural traditions live voluntarily and in mutual respect in the same federal state.” In the case of Sudan, which as you will see, has been torn asunder by tribal and ethnic hatreds, the abundance of inequality between the various groups in South Sudan today, and the fact that these groups are subordinated to a relatively weak government that is dominated by one ethnic group (primarily, the Dinka tribe), only increases the instability in the country.

There has been a greater movement toward the idea that centralization and unification are the keys to a successful state. However, as the Swiss have proven (and the United States, to a lesser extent), this is not so. Particularly in the case of a state like South Sudan, that has been defined by its internal contradictions and subsequent political chaos (detailed below). The very notion of encouraging groups that have no desire to live together to do just that is incredibly short-sighted and arrogant. What’s more, it’s inefficient, as these new states, like South Sudan, will be consigned to permanent civil war, lest an alternative be found.

Here is an ethnographic map of South Sudan. As you can see, cantonizing the country would not be difficult, since most ethno-religious tribes are already geographically divided.

That alternative is cantonism. By taking power away from the weak central government in Juba and diffusing it to the various ethno-religious tribal groups of South Sudan, the U.S. can help to stabilize the region. Time is not on the international community’s side, as South Sudan slides down the morass of civil war and humanitarian crisis that risks destabilizing the entire region and exacerbating greater animosities beyond the borders of dysfunctional South Sudan.

Matters of Blood & Faith

Sudanese Islamist leader (and genocidal maniac) Omar al-Bashir.

People often conflate what’s happening in South Sudan with the genocide of Christians in Darfur. In fact, while the Bashir regime of Sudan is responsible for both the atrocities that occurred in Darfur and South Sudan, it is important to point out that the troubles between Bashir’s Islamist regime in Sudan, and the rebel factions in South Sudan, happened independent of the genocide in Darfur (which is, in fact, in western Sudan). This is very important because, while religion did play a role in Sudan’s conflict against the South, tribalism and history played a much more significant role than it did in the Islamist genocide of Christians in Darfur.

A map of Egypt and Sudan. As you can see, Sudan’s geostrategic position at the head of the Nile made it very desirable for the Egyptians in a post-British North Africa.

As with most Failed, or Failing, States (and now, in the case of South Sudan, Pre-Failed States), Sudan began its existence as a European colony. This time, it was a British colony. Even still, Sudan was not only coveted by the distant Europeans, but also by the nearby Egyptians. Sudan sat at the head of the Nile River, upon which the Egyptian economy has traditionally depended. The Egyptians had long desired to unite Sudan with Egypt as the British were engaged in full-fledged decolonization of the entire region. Subjugating Sudan to Egypt would have, theoretically, created a powerful post-colonial Egyptian state. The British, however, remained committed to their divide-and-conquer strategy for managing colonized peoples, even though they were in the process of pulling out of their colonies worldwide and returning control to the indigenous peoples.

Old habits die hard.

In 1953, the British resolved to hold a referendum on the issue of Sudanese independence by 1956. There was a large push from the Sudanese during this period for independence, not just from the colonizing British, but also from the lustful Egyptians. This push for independence was especially pronounced among the more educated, Islamic population of northern Sudan. The northerners traditionally held a majority of the political power in Sudan, both before and during British colonization (and they intended to maintain their grip on power).

Indeed, during the 19th century, it has been widely reported that Sudanese traders from the north would routinely plunder the south in search of ivory and slaves. In fact, throughout their history, the dominant Muslim ruling class of northern Sudan routinely referred to their southern countrymen as abid,” or “slaves.” The southern population, which was a polyglot mixture of peoples–consisting of different ethnicities, tribes, and religions–were not even consulted during the referendum.

The north, as always, decided their fate.

The rise of General Omar al-Bashir, and his mentor, Hassan al-Turabi, founder of the Wahhābī Sudanese political party, the National Islamic Front, meant that a rabidly Islamist government would be ruling over Sudan. Dissidents and rival Muslim factions were soon silenced, the various institutions of the Sudanese government were brought to heel; in keeping with their Wahhābīst interpretation of the Qur’an, Christian activities were curtailed and oppressed–as were women.

General Bashir also created the People’s Defence Force (PDF) which was modeled off of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Civil servants, teachers, students, and higher-education candidates were all forced to join the PDF (as were young people who were pulled off of the streets). This force would become the tip of Bashir’s spear that would be thrust into the heart of the unsuspecting south. Bashir also encouraged merchants from the north to move into the south and begin displacing the local populations there in land-grabbing schemes. This generated obvious resentment among the dispossessed southern Sudanese populations.

SPLA rebels readying for battle during the war against Omar al-Bashir’s People’s Defense Force (PDF).

Meanwhile, in the south, both Muslim and non-Muslim Sudanese had joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) due to their anger toward what they viewed as “land-grabbing by northern merchants.” The slide toward a north-south civil war was inevitable, as chauvinism and arrogance drove the northern Islamists southward and the southerners felt they had no recourse but violent action. As the war progressed, the PDF would engage in a mélange of terror, rape, pillaging, and genocide directed against their southern neighbors. Indeed, in a sort of snapshot of what is occurring in Iraq and Syria today with the Islamic State of Al Sham, thousands of women and children were captured by the PDF as war booty and forced into slavery.

Nuer leader, and former SPLA commander, Riek Machar. He would be responsible for the “Dinkas Massacre” in the 1990s and, in 2013, was the former vice-president of the newly formed South Sudan who was accused of plotting to overthrow President Salva Kiir (himself a Dinka).

Yet, despite the unity toward slaughter with which the northern Wahhābīsts in the PDF acted, the southern forces were disunited along tribal lines. Two of the primary tribal groups of southern Sudan who comprised the SPLA ranks were the Nuer and Dinka tribes. These two tribes, historically, hated each other and warred frequently. Their animosity toward each other stemmed from their differing experiences during the British colonization of Sudan. A vast majority of the Dinka benefited from and therefore served the interests of the British colonizers, whereas the Nuer viscerally opposed British colonization and were often subject to terrorism and torment brought upon them by the pro-British Dinka.

Indeed, the two tribes could not even agree on the objectives of their SPLA resistance to the north. For the Nuer, led by Riek Machar, they feared for a completely independent southern Sudan. For the Dinka Leader, John Garang (who had controlled the SPLA since 1983), they sought to create a united and secular Sudan, free of Bashir’s control. Such differences could not lend themselves to the kind of effective resistance needed to stem the onslaught of a religious zealot like Bashir and his PDF. What’s more, rival sub-factions within the Nuer tribe began fighting each other.

To compound the conflict between the northern and southern Sudanese, Bashir’s government became committed to developing the south’s vast oil wealth. Indeed, the religious impetus to terrorize the south was intimately wedded to the hope of fulfilling the promise of the vast oil wealth in the south. Therefore, the north-south civil war was not just historical and religious, but also economic. The oil fields rested mostly in territory belonging to both the Dinka and Nuer tribes of the south. Thus, the PDF began ethnically cleansing those regions, in order to create safe zones from which Bashir’s forces could conduct oil drilling operations and be free of Dinka and Nuer military harassment.

Sensing the divisions within the south, and also wanting to stabilize his position in the southern oil fields–whilst wanting to quell other restive populations of Sudan (predominantly in the western province of Darfur)–Bashir moved to make a deal with the Nuer at the expense of the Dinka. Bashir promised to share the oil wealth with Riek Machar, the leader of the Nuer. This prompted Machar’s Nuer faction to become a proxy force for the Bashir government in defending the oil fields from SPLA attack.

South Sudanese troops guard an oil installation at risk of attack during the ongoing civil war.

Finally, by 2002, with the oil flowing, a peace settlement with the north had been reached. The south was given a quasi-independent state and the government in Khartoum began focusing its genocidal mania on the innocents in Darfur. Thus, for all intents-and-purposes, the south was allowed a freehand to govern itself. Within a few years, the south would seek to formalize its independence by becoming a sovereign state free of northern influence.

The belief was that an independent South Sudan, untethered from the hateful rule of the north, would be able to fulfill its potential. It had a diverse population, oil wealth, and a desire for freedom that many assumed made it a natural candidate for statehood. However, the proposed country had little in the way of infrastructure (its transportation, education, and health infrastructure was particularly poor). Its only natural resource is oil. However, South Sudan is landlocked, meaning that it would need to broker deals with its neighbors to get the oil from its territory to ports for export.

Sudan_map 34_14
As South Sudan was partitioned away from Sudan and granted independence, the tenuous unity of those tribal groups within South Sudan began to wither, as they too sought independence from South Sudan. This was the case between the Dinka Ngol tribe and Misseryia Arab nomads in the oil-rich district of Abyei. The Dinka sought to establish their own homeland there, whereas the Arab nomads sought to make Abyei a part of the Muslim-dominated north.

Just as many people believed that independence from the north would help to resolve the south’s problems, many more had come to believe that independence would soothe the tribal and religious differences within the south’s population. This was not so. In fact, the exact opposite occurred. One telling example of this is that of the oil-rich district of Abyei. This place was claimed as the homeland for the Dinka Ngol tribe, who very much wanted their land to be a part of the new South Sudan. However, Abyei was also claimed by Misseriya Arab nomads in the south, who wanted very much to be a part of the Islamist northern Sudan.

What’s more, the divisions that had defined the Dinka and Nuer elements of the SPLA had become increasingly pronounced. The civil war that has defined South Sudan’s politics presently is directly linked to the animus between the Dinka and Nuer tribes, and their original disagreement during the formation of the SPLA in the 1980’s. Indeed, in the 1990’s, the Dinka and Nuer warred even as they fought against Bashir’s forces from the north. During this civil war in 1991, Riek Machar led his rival Nuer faction in a horrific genocide against their purported Dinka allies. Machar and his men would perpetrate what came to be known as the “Dinkas Massacre,” in which 2,000 Dinka men, women, and children were systematically killed by Machar and his Nuer forces.

“I will not allow the incidents of 1991 to repeat themselves again.” – Salva Kiir, President of South Sudan and Dinka tribal leader speaking to the press in 2013, following what he claimed was a coup attempt against him by his former vice-president, Nuer leader Riek Machar. 

Nuer leader and former South Sudan vice-president Riek Machar walking alongside Dinka leader and current South Sudan President Salva Kiir (Kiir wears the cowboy hat because of the relationship he built with former U.S. President George W. Bush).

After having achieved independence, by 2013, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir had accused his former vice-president, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup. This was not merely a political disagreement between a president and his former vice-president.

It was a tribal and historical conflict that had been allowed to boil over to catastrophic levels. Much as he did in the 1991 civil war, Machar was leading his Nuer faction against the rival Dinka. The fighting intensified, as Kiir and his Dinka forces retaliated against those suspected of supporting Machar and his Nuer tribe. Soon, the fighting spread to the oil-rich cities of Bentiu, Malakal, and the capital of the rebellious Jonglei state, Bor. Indeed, by 2014, the United Nations claimed that the humanitarian crisis created by the South Sudan Civil War was “on par with those in Syria, Iraq, and the Central African Republic.”

“In one neighborhood, 300 [Nuer] men were rounded detained in a building used by police and then murdered by gunmen, alleged to be members of the South Sudanese armed forces.” – From a Human Rights Watch report on Dinka leader and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s response to the purported coup attempt by Riek Machar and his Nuer loyalists. 

Problematic Partition

“President [George W.] Bush could have been the desk officer for South Sudan.” – Former Bush Administration National Security Council staffer Andrew Natsios, speaking to Ty McCormick for his Foreign Policy article on this subject.

U.S. President George Bush Meets With Sudanese Vice President Salva Kiir
President George W. Bush, more than any other foreign leader, was the reason why South Sudan exists today as an independent state. Photo Courtesy of Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images.

Since the Clinton Administration, the United States has supported the efforts of those pushing for the independence of South Sudan. When George W. Bush ascended into office in 2001, very few had any idea of how committed to African issues he would become. Having mostly been associated with the Middle East and the Global War on Terror, very few realized that he essentially served as the midwife for the South Sudan state. As the world was transfixed on the outcome of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and demanded a resolution to the ongoing Iraq War, President Bush was also–possibly even more so–entrenched in the South Sudanese independence movement. He kept the torch alive for independence throughout his presidency.

“Key administration posts, including the special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, ambassador to South Sudan, and assistant secretary of state for African affairs, have remained vacant for extended periods during [Obama’s] presidency.” – Ty McCormick reporting on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy toward South Sudan

When President Barack Obama was sworn into office in 2009, everyone assumed that not only would he undo the mistakes of his predecessor, but that he would also usher in a new, more egalitarian and beneficent age in American politics. However racist it may seem, many assumed that as the United States’ first African-American President, Mr. Obama would naturally craft policies that benefited people of color everywhere as no other American president has managed to do. Thus, it was with great consternation that Africans and African-Americans alike could not rectify the hope that a potential Obama Presidency had instilled within them with the reality that the Obama Administration was unwilling to aid them with beneficial policies.

“President Obama didn’t engage him [President Kiir]. He didn’t treat him like a head of state.” – Former Bush National Security Council member and former special envoy to Sudan (2006-7), as reported by Ty McCormick

President Kiir of South Sudan and President Barack Obama. Though many had hoped that America’s first African-American leader would prove instrumental in resolving many of the crises plaguing Africa, the fact is that his apathy on the issue of South Sudan precipitated a serious civil war and major humanitarian crisis.

In the case of Africans, this was no more evident than the Obama Administration’s policy toward South Sudan. When the Obama Administration assumed office, the outgoing Bush Administration had significantly moved the needle in the direction of South Sudanese independence. The ball, as it were, had started its inexorable roll–a move personally started by the quasi-South Sudan desk officer, President George W. Bush.

Yet, President Obama refused to concentrate any of his time on the issue of South Sudan. During his first term, key administration positions that were necessary to forming vital links with the burgeoning state of South Sudan remained unfilled, thereby slowing both the push for independence and preventing any independence attempt from being stable. What’s more, when the inevitable independence day did come, President Obama wanted little to do with President Kiir. This is in stark contrast to the personal friendship that Bush forged with Kiir.

As I documented in Yes, Iraq Still Matters to America–More Now Than Ever,” personal relationships between leaders are often instrumental between foreign policy successes and failures. This explains why the Surge in Iraq worked: no matter how difficult of a personality Nouri al-Maliki was, President Bush understood that he had to work with Maliki, if there was to be any hope of the Surge yielding a desired political solution to the miserable Iraq War. In much the same way, Mr. Bush resolved to make a personal connection with Mr. Kiir and to maintain it, in order to usher in a new state of South Sudan. For whatever reason, President Obama was utterly indifferent to the fate of South Sudan, in much the same way that he was indifferent to the fate of Iraq during his first term.

Dead bodies of innocents killed in the ongoing Nuer-Dinka civil war tearing South Sudan apart. Reports of mass rape, genocide, and cannibalism have been reported to various human rights groups–both sides are guilty of these war crimes.

After years of conflict and strife, South Sudan was finally born in 2011. It was a rather basic partition along north-south divides, with little time or effort taken to understand the ethnic and tribal forces that dominated the politics of South Sudan. Thus, President Bush’s commitment to independence at all costs, coupled with President Obama’s indifference toward any outcome in South Sudan, meant that any partition would prove to be problematic.

As the Indian-Pakistan partition has proven ad nauseam, simple partitioning along territorial, ethno-religious lines is not enough. We must take these things into account. But, in a place as diverse as South Sudan, the international community needs to spend a bit more time understanding the forces that undergird the new state.

Like Afghanistan, for instance, the infrastructure linking the country together is severely limited. South Sudan is roughly the size of France, yet 85% of its population is illiterate and a majority of the country is not connected by roadways. Therefore, the notion that a South Sudan composed of all of the various ethno-religious tribal factions could survive in a united way was ridiculous.

In such an environment, loyalty to tribe and/or faith would instantly trump any loyalty to the newfound state. This is precisely what happened in South Sudan. The same year as independence, for instance, the Dinka and Nuer began small brush wars that became exceedingly violent and set the stage for the inevitable blood bath that would befall that country by 2013.

Toward a Successful State


The failure of the South Sudan partition was due, in large part, to the overcommitment of the Bush Administration to the concept of independence for South Sudan, coupled with the succeeding Obama Administration’s absolute indifference to the outcome of South Sudan’s independence. By the time independence was granted, the Obama Administration was ill-prepared to assist their South Sudanese allies in transitioning into an effective state. Mr. Obama ignored his counterpart, Salva Kiir.

The Obama Administration did little to have U.S. representatives in the country, ready to offer assistance and aid to the fledgling South Sudan government, and the previous Bush Administration did not take the time to consider the ramifications that a partition would have for the tribal and ethnic makeup of South Sudan. If it did, a cantonist approach would have likely been adopted over the basic partition that ultimately occurred.

Thus, I believe that the best solution for South Sudan’s political crisis is not through blindly supporting the current partition. Rather, it is by brokering a new political agreement that diffuses power away from the central government in Juba and toward the various ethno-religious tribal elements that comprise the country’s population. Giving groups like the Dinka and Nuer and having the international community, led by the United States, broker an agreement that would share the oil revenue would be the necessary first step toward transforming South Sudan from a Failed State into a successful one.

It won’t be easy and it will take significant time, but this is the only step toward forward progress. Otherwise, South Sudan will be riven by ongoing ethnic and tribal conflicts, matching or surpassing whatever horrors it endured at the hands of Omar al-Bashir. The ingredients needed for a successful new state are there in South Sudan, it just takes the political courage, diplomatic commitment, economic backing, and military support of the international community to help bring that success about.

The U.S. has committed itself to South Sudan’s independence since the Clinton Administration. Their cause and ours are inextricably linked. It would be unethical to wash our hands of this problem, since we helped to create it by encouraging their independence movement to begin with. The U.S. must get the competing sides to embrace cantonism.

It’s their only hope from moving from a Failed to a Successful State.



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