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It is necessary to place the current political crisis in South Sudan within a historical context and accept that if the South Sudanese were able to fight for independence over six decades and unanimously vote for independence in 2011, there is no reason that they cannot vote for peace and stability in 2014

In every society there are political struggles. However, when there are large reserves of petroleum and other resources these political struggles take on added dimensions and become regionalised and internationalised. On the very day that Nelson Mandela was interred in South Africa, the celebration of the life of the great African freedom fighter was not yet finished when the news came from Juba, South Sudan, on fighting and violence. This violence has since spread with over 180,000 displaced persons and more than 1,000 reported deaths. The quick intervention by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union pointed to the urgency to contain such militarized political struggles in Africa that could provide room for mischief by external forces. The ongoing talks in Addis Ababa must be the basis for a credible ceasefire and the disarming of the factions. Peace activists internationally must expose the duplicity of foreign forces that are covertly supporting this militarized disruption of the newest African state. When the violence broke out in Juba, the western media went into overdrive to depict the political struggles as “tribal” all the while these forces had direct foreknowledge of the forward planning for war in South Sudan. Not far behind these journalists were the humanitarian entrepreneurs who felt that they had not profited from the investment they had made in the support for the South Sudan independence. These same humanitarian entrepreneurs are using the discourse of state failure. Thus, a brief historical account is here necessary to reconstruct how the militaristic past influences the political struggles of the present. In the recent past, the strategy of talking while fighting has only served the arms merchants and the humanitarian entrepreneurs. In this submission there is an attempt to place the political and military struggles in South Sudan in an historical context. In the conclusion there is the call for vigilance and commitment from the African Union to ensure that this political conflict does not take any more lives unnecessarily.


In 1955, just a year before Sudan became independent from Britain/Egypt, some members of the Sudanese army mutinied in the town of Torit in what is now the Republic of South Sudan. The mutiny led by Southern Sudanese soldiers was fuelled by fears that politicians from Northern Sudan political parties would lay exclusive claim to the spoils of a post-colonial state and exclude the Sudanese citizens from the South. Indeed, when independence came in January 1956, those who had struggled for self-determination against British colonialism did not believe that their brothers and sisters in the Southern part of the society deserved to be free from all forms of oppression and chauvinism. The distribution of political power in the new state confirmed those fears: British colonial power was replaced with political power based in the centre and northern parts of the country. The mutiny spread quickly, turning into a rebellion that lasted until 1972. This rebellion, known as “Anya-nya,” mobilized the peoples of the South, regardless of ethnicity and religion.

After 17 years of war, a power sharing agreement with President Jafaar-el-Numeiry was reached in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in 1972, bringing to an end this first war. The Addis Ababa Agreement was short-lived as the Sudanese central government revoked the autonomous status of the South in 1983. This revocation came in a context of increased oppression all over the Sudan. That same year, in the town of Bor, the capital of the present Jonglei State, an army officer and former member of the Dar es Salaam School of thought, Colonel Dr. John Garang, mutinied and escaped to Ethiopia with many of his soldiers, mainly from Southern Sudan. The second mutiny led to the second civil war that lasted until the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was reached in 2005. At that moment, it was agreed that after six years there would be a referendum where the peoples of South Sudan would decide whether to be part of the larger Sudan or seek independence. A lengthy article last year revealed the extent of the machinations of “The Wonks who sold Washington on South Sudan.” [1] What this long and detailed article on the role of the humanitarian lobby failed to bring out was the role of the extreme evangelicals in raising South Sudan as a base for their proselytizing in Africa. For the keen eye it will also be discernible to grasp the level of investment that some sections of the strategic planners in Washington had placed in the division of the Sudan.


The military organisation that emerged in this second war, the Sudan People Liberation Army(SPLA) and its political wing, SPLM (the Sudan People Liberation Movement) fought for fundamental changes in the structure of the Sudanese state towards a more decentralised system of government and equitable power sharing among the four regions of the country: South, North, East and West. Although John Garang’s vision of a federal but united Sudan was progressive and forward looking, the SPLA/M remained by and large a Southern Sudanese orgainisation. Ideologically the SPLA/M professed to be a progressive movement but its ideological orientation became compromised by its extension into the fundamentalist Christian political lobby inside the United States political system. In summary John Garang fought for a secular and democratic federal Sudan. In the peace agreement of 2005 between the Sudanese government and the SPLA/M, Southern Sudan would be governed by the SPLA/M for a transitional period of five years, after which its citizens would decide in a referendum whether to secede from or remain party of a united Sudan. In the 2010 referendum, Southern Sudanese overwhelmingly (99 percent) chose to go a separate state. In July 2011, Africa’s newest nation was born with General Salva Kiir Mayerdit as its first elected president. John Garang, who died in a plane crash on 30 July , 2005 (on his way back from Uganda), unfortunately did not live to see his vision of a united Sudan demolished by his own fellow Southern Sudanese. Neither did he live to see how external forces had moved decisively to remove all vestiges of the ideas of secularism from the platform of the SPLM. Instead chauvinist nationalists and militarists were to preside over the transition of the self-determination project in South Sudan, and a new state, created on war rubble.

The first act of the new government was to apportion power among the many military factions, with the first prize going to Salva Kiir and second prize to Dr. Riaek Machar, his Vice president. Other military leaders became governors of the ten states into which Southern Sudan had been partitioned by the North. Dr. Machar, who was apparently not happy with his reward, made his intentions known -- to run for president of the party and state in 2015. Machar who had been removed from the position as Vice President in July 2013 was campaigning to become the President and leader of the SPLM in readiness for the planned elections in 2015. The secretary general of the ruling SPLM, Pagan Amum, also announced his intention to run against Kiir in 2015.

President Kiir moved swiftly to show that he was in charge and dismissed both politicians from the party executive and removed his deputy from the cabinet. When Salva Kiir sacked the entire cabinet in July 2013, there was adequate warning that this was not the end, but the start of a new power struggle inside the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement, what some media claimed could turn into "a full-blown catastrophe".

Constitutionally there was nothing wrong with what Kiir did but politically, it was one of the sparks that waited to catch fire in a nascent state where leaders were not committed to the reconstruction of society. Machar’s ambition to hold the highest office in the land and Kiir’s intention to occupy that position much longer represented the priorities of politicians who had not placed the reconstruction of the society as a priority. If the experience of some of past African presidents is anything to go by, political maneuvering is at the centre of the conflict that has divided the army and has led to widespread internal displacement of civilian populations across many states, especially in Bor the capital of Jonglei state, where John Garang started his movement thirty years ago.


The political crisis was sparked off by fighting that broke out within the presidential guard on 15 December 2013. That same evening fighting quickly spread to other army barracks in the capital. Security forces moved quickly and arrested 11 prominent politicians that were suspected of an attempted coup to install Machar as President. Significantly, Dr Machar was not among those arrested, as he had slipped through the security net and began a foot journey to his home state, the Unity State.

In Juba, security forces and militiamen went on the rampage targeting innocent civilians mainly from the Nuer community. Some days later dissident army commanders seized military installations in three states and declared allegiance to Machar. In Bor the mutineers in turn targeted innocent civilians purely on the basis of ethnic origin, being Dinkas. Without any further effort to understand the underlying causes of the conflict, international press went into turbo mode and declared the conflict as being an ethnic war between the Nuers, under Dr. Machar, and the Dinkas, under President Kiir. International media outlets continue to frame this political struggle in terms of ethnic or “tribal” war, with the stamp of failed state placed on South Sudan by such headlines as, “South Sudan: The State that Fell Apart in a Week.” [2]

Attempts to frame the current conflict in terms of ethnicity are not only intellectually lazy but politically naïve and at best simplistic. Peter Greste, the international correspondent of Al Jazeera puts it so well: “The fault lies not in the DNA of the South Sudanese tribes. It lies with the political leaders who use ethnic patronage to build their power bases; or who incite their ethnic kin to carve out a geographic or political niche”.

Out of the 11 politicians who were arrested following the coup attempt but now released, six are Dinkas, two Nuers while the remaining three are from different ethnic groups. Most news reporters have not mentioned that the widow of late John Garang, Ms. Rebecca Nyandeng, herself a Dinka, was put under house arrest. In an interview with the BBC she makes the points that those arrested were concerned about the lack of democracy within the ruling SPLM party.

Key ministries in Kiir’s government are in the hands of ethnic Nuers. His right-hand man in the cabinet, Dr. Benjamin Barnaba, the Minister of Foreign Affairs is a Nuer. The Minsters of Higher and General Education, the Minister of Labour, the Speaker of Parliament, the chief of staff of the army as well as governors of Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity states are all ethnic Nuers.

The narrative of tribal conflict overshadows other critical questions that need probing, including the information that Dr. Riek Machar is currently sheltered in western legation in South Sudan. This information that Dr. Machar was for a few days holed up in a western legation in South Sudan places the burden on the western imperial forces to explain to the world that they were not complicit in feeding the ego of Dr. Machar and giving him encouragement for this armed “rebellion.” The fact that a few days after this “coup attempt” Machar had constant access to western media sources verify the claims that elements from the western embassies had been courting Machar. When the dust settles the Pan African intelligence circuits will have to provide evidence to the Security Council of the United Nations of any complicity of UN personnel in Juba in giving succor to those planning a military rebellion and assisting them in escaping from Juba.

The political history of Dr. Machar is not one that comes with a good reputation. It is one of opportunism and self-seeking career building at all costs. In 1991 when his attempts to dislodge Dr. Garang from the leadership of the SPLA/M failed, he fled to Khartoum, the lion’s den, and entered into an agreement with the very regime he was fighting against. The defection from the liberation movement led to a large scale devastation in the South, most notably the massacre of thousands of civilians in Bor in 1991. Machar recruited gullible youths who raided cattle and raped women. Yet, this is the same Machar that some western NGOs choose to support in Juba in the past few years.

The army commanders who have now rebelled against the government were most likely acting on their own account. But Machar would like us to believe that they are under his command. The army commander, who seized Bor in December 2013, Maj-General Peter Gadget, is a notorious militarist, whose allegiances cannot be relied upon. He led a rebellion against the government in Juba, in which Machar was the VP. It was only after he was given amnesty in 2011 that he agreed to be integrated into the SPLA. He was rewarded by Kiir by being put in charge of 8th Army Division of the SPLA based in Bor. Dr. Machar claims Gadet has been installed as military governor of Jonglei. One militarist not yet spoken for in this present round of military/politico struggles is David Yau Yau who had campaigned in the elections in 2010 in Pibor County of Jonglei State. He had led a Murle insurrection against the Government of South Sudan in 2010 and was later given amnesty at the time of independence 2011. Yau Yau signed a ceasefire with the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) in June 2011, which integrated him and his militia with the SPLA. In April 2012 he defected again, and has been leading a Murle militia in the South Sudan. Hundreds of people have been killed, property looted and thousands of others displaced from their homes in Pibor County, Jonglei State, since Yau Yau took to the bush for the second time in 2011. In 2013 prior to the new political and military struggles David Yau Yau was again granted amnesty so that he would not be open to an alliance with the Machar forces. The contradictions between his youth army and the forces of Machar’s White Army has compounded the political battle lines since Machar is now fighting on two fronts, against the central government and against the youths of David Yau Yau.


From the period of the study of Evans Pritchard on the Nuer, western anthropologists have worked with the political authorities to create ethnic boundaries in the Sudan. First it was the British who divided the regions of South Sudan along ethnic lines, then, the conservative forces in Khartoum redrew the boundaries to incite ethnic divisions. There are currently three main regional groupings in South Sudan. The three regions are:
Greater Upper Nile states: Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile
Greater Bahr Al Ghazal: Lake, Western Bahr Al Ghazal, Northern Bahr Al Ghazal and Warap
Greater Equatoria: Western Equatoria, Central Equatoria and Eastern Equatoria.

cc UN
Map of the Republic of South Sudan

Source: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
The strategy followed by the British and the administrations in Khartoum was to foment ethnic cleavages in these three regions. In terms of the political geography of South Sudan, Bor is in the South of Jonglei state, the very heart land of the those Dinkas who have identified with Bor as their ancestral base. The “rebels” are in control of a ghost town as the civilians have fled the city, fearing attacks by ill-disciplined soldiers loyal to Gadet and armed Nuer militiamen, the White Army. But there are ethnic Dinkas from Bor that are also fighting alongside Maj-General Gadet. These are soldiers who can be considered to be politically aligned and sympathetic to the widow of late John Garang, Ms. Rachel Nyandeng. The defence minister, Kuol Manyang, a Kiir loyalist and a Dinka from Bor, and the former governor of Jonglei state, is likely to play a key role in the attempts to recapture Bor. When Machar defected from the SPLA in 1990s, it was Mr. Manyang who was sent by Dr. Garang on a punitive military expedition against Machar’s rebel forces. Unless there is an immediate cessation of hostilities, the worst is yet to come and Machar knows that very well. The battle lines in Jonglei State cut across ethnic loyalities. They are a mirror of the broader political struggles within the SPLM/A leadership for control of the state.

The situation in Unity State is slightly different. This is Machar’s home town. The military uprising there is being led by loyalists to Machar who have been induced by his blandishments and promises about the future when he captures state power. On 21 December 2013 the commander, 4th division of South Sudan’s army, Maj. General James Koang Chuol announced that “he had overthrown Unity State’s acting governor, Joseph Nguen Monytuel, after he was involved in plot to assassinate him.” He declared that he had deposed the governor and that his forces were no longer loyal to President Salva Kiir. There was no mention that this mini-coup was in support of Machar. But Machar, nevertheless, told the former BBC correspondent, James Copnall, that Koang was the new governor of Unity State, while Peter Gadet who was fighting for control of Bor was the military governor of Jonglei State.

The rebellion in Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile, is less clear. It is neither under the central government nor under forces loyal to Machar. The rebellion could be explained as well in terms of political topology of rivalry between Machar and Kiir, as two prominent ethnic Shilluk, Dr Peter Adwok and Mr. Pagan Amum, seem to have thrown in their lot with Machar. But one other person to watch is Dr. Lam Akol, who together with Machar broke away from the SPLA/M in 1991 and signed a separate deal with the Khartoum Government. Dr Akol like Machar changed sides frequently. In 1994 after having split with Machar he formed his armed movement, SPLM/A-United. Later both re-joined the SPLA/M. But in 2009 Lam broke away again and formed his own party, SPLM/A-United.

Although Akol’s party is represented in Parliament, he went into self-exile in Kenya and was not present at the Independence celebrations in July 2011. But he has been back since July 2013 after “amnesty” from President Kiir. He seems to have been conspicuously silent on the current political crisis, perhaps waiting to see the outcome of the power struggle between his former colleagues. By January 7, 2014 he emerged as one of the leaders of the SPLM government delegation in the IGAD talks in Addis Ababa. In this flipping and flopping of political and military actors many are watching to see if the western support for Machar will bear fruit and his military rebellion will be rewarded. Ultimately, the western backers of Machar want to see if he has the political gravitas for a long guerilla campaign.


It is into this complex political and military alliances that the IGAD negotiating team is entering. All of the member states of IGAD have a stake in the outcome of the present military and political struggles in South Sudan. The members of IGAD are Djibouti, Eritrea Ethiopia and Somalia (in the Horn) Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. In terms of the interests of forces these countries do not all agree. The same western forces that have been giving a voice to Machar in their news outlets have been in the past strong allies of both Uganda and Kenya. Yet, both societies have interests inside South Sudan that are independent of western economic interests. Machar’s claim of “control” of Unity State gives him a strong bargaining position in the current conflict. Most of the oil production is in this state; the Unity state borders the Republic of the Sudan and the oil pipeline runs through the Sudan. Machar could cut a deal with Khartoum and starve the Kiir’s administration of its main source of revenue (95%). Given his checkered history, if Machar fails to dislodge Kiir as President of the country, it would not be far-fetched that he could enter into an agreement with Khartoum to declare a separate state in Unity State, a client state to the Bashir regime in the North. Such a move would cripple the South economically and politically. In such an event, a war between the South and North would be inevitable. Such military adventures would distract further the Northern Sudanese people from addressing the authentic demands for self-determination by the peoples of Darfur and the Blue Nile. The question that must be posed is whether this scenario had been planned by the forward planners in Washington who felt that they had not profited enough from the support of the SPLA since independence.

The South Sudan neighbours to the south – Uganda and Kenya – have much to lose in a renewed war north of their borders. The scourge of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda was brought under control when South Sudan became independent. It is therefore understandable that the President of Uganda has come out strongly in support of President Kiir threating to go militarily after Machar. Ugandan troops are said to be guarding the international airport in Juba and they have allegedly bombed rebel positions in Jonglei State. The contradiction in this rebellion is that the same US military that is supporting the Ugandan military to fight against the LRA is now being called upon to support IGAD against Machar who many believe is a western client. Inside Southern Sudan it was known that Machar had been a sympathiser of the Lord’s Resistance Army and disagreed with the military commanders from Western Equatoria who had taken a firm line against the LRA.

Of the regional neighbours, the situation of Kenya is the most complex. For about fifty years Kenya was a base for western destabilization in Africa. However, in the past ten years the levels of capital accumulation in Kenya have given the political and financial leadership in Kenya a level of confidence for them not to be simple puppets of the West. This newfound confidence of the Kenyan bourgeoisie has been compounded by the differences between a section of the leadership of Kenya and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Hence, although in the past it would have been expected that the Kenyan leadership would act in accordance with western military interests and support Machar, in this instance, the Kenyan position is one that serves the interests of Kenyan banking and commercial capital.

In terms of foreign investments in South Sudan, Kenya has the largest presence and the political leaders of South Sudan have boosted real estate prices in Nairobi. These same leaders have ensured that the financial sector of Kenya is thriving both in Nairobi and in Juba. According to the chief executive officer of the Kenya Bankers Association (KBA) Habil Olaka, among the major Kenyan corporates in South Sudan are the Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), Equity Bank, Co-operative Bank and the financial services group UAP Holding and Resolution Group among others.

There are also projected joint regional investments such as the Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSETT) and the standard gauge railway projects which would be adversely affected by a civil war in the world’s newest country. Kenya hopes to have South Sudanese oil exported through its ports, depriving the Sudan of needed income in terms of pipeline rental fees. It is thus, not accidental that the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has been most vocal in calling for a ceasefire. In this instance, the interests of the US and the Kenyan leadership are colliding in South Sudan. Both Uganda and Kenya are the major trading partners with South Sudan. A fall back into war will not just mean another influx of refugees but also a real setback for their own economies.

An important segment of the Nile lies within South Sudan borders. The militarization of struggles over water has already been part of the discourse of the forward planners for war. The conservative Israeli interests in the South would like to have a client state at the source of the Nile that could be an ally against its arch enemy, Egypt. It is therefore no wonder that Egyptian politicians have always tried to play a neutral position in the Sudanese conflict. As Ethiopia plans a dam on the Blue Nile, the volume of water reaching Egypt will decline, so any instability in South Sudan poses an existential threat to that country.

Ethnicity does play a role as a convenient instrument by power hungry politicians to lay claim to a share in the state power. And in a country with weak social structures, as is the case of South Sudan, the politicisation of ethnicity offers an apparent coherent explanation of power struggles. Democratic forms of resolving contradictions seem to be an alien concept to people steep in militarist thinking, like the leaders of the varying political factions in South Sudan, including President Salva Kiir and his rival Dr. Machar. The party that John Garang founded, the SPLM, did not have the space for building real social bases among a people that had been exploited and oppressed for decades. The war between the North and South was mainly a militarist campaign against the central government of the Sudan. The religious and militaristic nature of the Bashir regime in Khartoum ensured that the struggles in the Sudan were based on the politicization of race, religion and ethnicity.

When President Kiir went on national TV to announce that there had been an attempted coup, he appeared not as the civilian president he had been elected by the people but as an army general of the SPLA. And this is where the problem partly lies. The armed wing of the SPLM was simply declared at independence as the national army and is nothing short of an amorphous collection of armed units with divided allegiance to different military leaders. The current crop of leaders in South Sudan has been shaped in the culture of war and militarism.

What is needed is mature leadership that is based on a true commitment to building strong institutions, such as an independent judiciary, a professional public service, trade unions and worker associations, a treasury that will be transparent, a professional army and police force. The temptation by individual politicians to use state resources for primary capital accumulation is what is destroying the social fabric in many neo-colonial states, where the ruling classes have no wealth of their own. As Frantz Fanon and Walter Rodney have argued, the ruling classes in Europe and North America had won economic power before laying claim to state power and hence could afford to relinquish power through the ballot box, whereas the African elites that have inherited state structures modelled along those of their former colonisers have no independent economic basis and hence the tenacious attempts to hold to state power even if that means rigging elections. South Sudan is not an exception but this does not mean that a democratic and just state is not possible.


South Sudan is rich in natural resources: large swaths of the country are arable, there are untapped mineral resources; oil reserves are estimated to be the largest in Africa after those of Angola and Nigeria. With a very small population of just over10 million people and a land mass the size of France, South Sudan can feed and care for its people and afford them a descent life free from war and hunger. What the people of South Sudan need now is shelter, hospitals, schools, roads and clean water. These services have hardly existed for over the last sixty years in which the Sudan has been at war with itself. A massive Pan African Reconstruction project is necessary to focus attention on the needs of population. Great societies have been built on diversity and not ethnic homogeneity, something South Sudanese politicians must know. As a multi ethnic and multilingual society, this newest state in Africa must be built on strong institutions and not around strong men. This was one of the limitations of John Garang’s leadership in a period of war. The SPLM and SPLA were the structures that were not sufficiently prepared to lead the new nation.

It is quite possible to critique the leadership of Salva Kiir for the absence of accountable leadership. This has been a problem with many liberation movements in the immediate period after self-determination. In the past, the African political leadership intervened to support peaceful resolution of political struggles in liberation movements. This current struggle in South Sudan has been compounded by the competing interests of the United States and China in South Sudan. It will be necessary to revisit the Council of the Wonks who lobbied Washington for the independence of South Sudan and interrogate the role of organizations such as the Enough Project and their allied celebrity advocates. There has to be a serious interrogation of the motives behind the accommodation of Machar by a western legation in Sudan. Given the exposures of the NSA, the Obama Administration will be on the defensive to clarify the role of the National Security Adviser in the current political conflict in South Sudan. Urgent steps are required to bring back the country from the brink of another civil war. There is a need for a government of national unity that will include all the warring factions and others represented in Parliament; all political detainees must be released. Kiir must restrained from any form of ethnic and selfish political maneuvering that could jeopardise democracy and reconstruction; he must put the interest of the people ahead of the temptation and quest to consolidate himself as a “strong man.” Everything must be done to entrench democracy, accountability and humanist management of ethnic diversity. If South Sudanese were able to fight for independence over six decades and unanimously vote for independence in 2011, there is no reason that they cannot vote for peace and stability in 2014. It is not about Salva Kiir or Riak Machar; it is not about the Dinkas or the Nuers; after all, there are more than 50 different ethnicities within the borders of South Sudan; it is about a common vision of a people who must live in peace and harmony within a stable state they can call their own.

In the past, military leaders have been adept at talking while fighting. The present talks in Addis Ababa being brokered by IGAD and the African Union must be supported by the United Nations and be pushed beyond the point where the militarists dominate the discussions. Thus far, the African Union and IGAD acted with speed to ensure that there are negotiations. Ultimately there are major contradictions with the members of IGAD because they are all implicated in their forms of extracting wealth from South Sudan. In fact, the presence of Khartoum within IGAD complicates all forms of negotiations because Bashir will be only too eager to militarize the conflict further to blunt the challenges from the oppressed citizens in the North. Hence, the African Union will have to be more forceful in their role in the present negotiations. The present politics of South Sudan will be the first major test whether Africans can prevent mass killings and give meaning to the fact that 50 years of African unity means a commitment to validating the lives of all Africans.

* Horace G. Campbell, a veteran Pan Africanist is a Visiting Professor in the School of International Relations, Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013.

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1. Rebecca Hamilton ‘Special Report: The Wonks who Sold Washington on South Sudan’, Reuters, 11 July 2012.
2. Daniel Howden, ‘South Sudan: The State that Fell Apart in a Week’, The Guardian, 23 December 2013.