Juba's troubled diplomacy a year laterBy MACHARIA MUNENE | Monday, July 9 2012 at 14:25
With the kind of drama that has mostly characterised South Sudan’s relations, especially with Sudan, the newest state seems to have difficulties protecting its national interests. One protection tool is diplomacy, the ability to influence other entities into agreement while safeguarding the image of the state. This calls for common sense in finding space in the world arena. Finding space meant tactical accommodation and occasional display of symbolic toughness, as appropriate. How well has South Sudan performed in the first year?
It had the advantage of learning from other African countries but it suffered many of the maladies common in weak countries.
Although President Salva Kirr Mayardit declared in November 2011 that the people of South Sudan “will never allow our sovereignty to be violated by anyone”, the challenges they faced were immense. Sovereignty hinges on “dual acceptance”, from within and from without, and South Sudan had problems on both counts. There was a war within, creating internal divisions that affected its ability to relate to other countries positively. The government in Juba, therefore, had to try and practise internal diplomacy to convince various peoples to accept that they are one and to project that oneness beyond its borders.
In practising diplomacy, other than internal tensions that could be exploited by external forces, South Sudan faced four realities. One, it is landlocked and has to depend on the goodwill of others to export and import large quantities of goods and services. Two, its independence was not welcomed by all and was subsequently received in one of three ways: welcoming, hostile, and indifferent. Three, the country is richly endowed with big land, minerals and other natural resources that attract sub-regional, continental and extra-continental exploiters. Four, South Sudan acquired many suitors from near and far, some well meaning and others nefarious.
Its success in dealing with those realities was mixed. It succeeded in assuring many of its neighbours, Kenya and Uganda and Ethiopia, that it looked up to them for support. It downplayed long time differences that might arise with these countries, including the issue of use and exploitation of those resources that cut across state boundaries. It wants to join the East African Community and encourages the construction of alternative outlets to the sea, to the Indian Ocean and to the Red Sea. It supports the construction of the Lamu-Juba corridor that would give it friendly access to the Indian Ocean as well as the Ethiopia-Djibouti line to the Red Sea.
South Sudan was diplomatically outwitted when dealing with its neighbour in the north. It suffers from created poverty due to its long subordination within the Republic of Sudan where Khartoum siphoned wealth from the South. A culture of the South depending on the north was deeply entrenched. It is largely Juba’s effort to break from this dependency which led to renewed war that exposed its diplomatic weakness.
South Sudan is poor in diplomatic warfare. This explains why Juba was largely blamed for “invading” what is its own territory, what it calls Panthou. The 1956 border placed Panthou in South Sudan but Gaafar Numeiri unilaterally grabbed it in 1980 after the oil was discovered and renamed it Heglig. Although the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement recognised the 1956 borders as the legitimate ones, the peculiar thing is that it is Numeri’s name for the place, Heglig, which is accepted and used internationally. This is because Khartoum seemingly did its homework well and had the Arab League on its side. Seeing no problem with Bashir calling Africans “insects” to be vanquished, the League gives him money to remain intransigent on unsettled border issues.
In contrast, Juba has no equivalent of an Arab League offering support and the closest is the African Union, AU. South Sudan, however, failed to make headway there partly because it did not campaign or explain its position to potential supporters. It assumed that they, particularly friendly African countries, knew but they apparently did not. This diplomatic short coming was probably because the best of its diplomatic strategists were yet to be deployed.
The lack of diplomatic strategy was evident at the United Nations where South Sudan allowed itself to be portrayed as the aggressor. Its attempts at display of symbolic toughness appeared to reinforce the aggressor image. It seemingly did not lobby powerful countries that guide the decisions and activities of the United Nations. Juba also failed in attracting the global media that shape world opinion and through which public diplomacy is conducted. Its story was not told.
Attention to the rising Asian powers, China and India, which are competing to dominate the world, came late. Both have growing interests in the two Sudans in terms of oil and other natural resources. They play balancing acts so as not to lose access to resources and are ambivalent on how to treat the two rival hosts. Had Juba lobbied them much earlier than it did, it probably would have received some diplomatic support.
In the one year of its existence, therefore, South Sudan had a troubled diplomatic experience. Officially welcomed into statehood by many, it was virtually abandoned to fend for itself. The year was one of transition, of experiments in governance, and of facing hard international realities. Former guerilla fighters and exiles took positions as diplomats and other government officials but their diverse experiences and expectations created internal tensions that affected Juba’s ability to determine the right policy. While Juba succeeded with its southern neighbours, it appeared to be outwitted by Khartoum as it muddled through diplomatically. It was blamed for the border flare up at Panthou mostly because its public diplomacy was poor. It did not tell its story.
Macharia Munene is a professor of History and International Relations at USIU- Nairobi.
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