NAIROBI, Kenya — On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will become the most senior U.S. official to visit South Sudan since its birth last summer, a visit that comes after a troubled year of relations aggravated by the fact that U.S. officials believe South Sudan’s president personally lied to President Barack Obama on several occasions.
Clinton will meet President Salva Kiir in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, the day after a Thursday U.N. deadline for Sudan and South Sudan to agree to final peace deal on remaining issues or face possible sanctions. The State Department said that Clinton’s exact message to South Sudan’s leaders would depend on the progress of the final negotiations, which are expected to continue late into Thursday in Ethiopia under the auspices of the African Union.
But Clinton likely has a wider mission: try to reset a foundering relationship with a country that at its creation in July 2011 seemed set to be the U.S.’s newest friend in Africa.
The United States played a key role in brokering the 2005 deal that imposed a truce on the fighting between Sudan’s government in Khartoum and South Sudanese rebels and that ended in South Sudan’s independence. Yet during South Sudan’s first year as a nation, the U.S. has grown increasingly frustrated at decisions taken by its South Sudanese friends, including Juba’s refusal to cut ties to rebel allies across the border in Sudan, its decision in January to shut down oil production as part of a dispute with Sudan, and its military advance northward in April to capture the disputed oilfield of Heglig.
Untold up to now, though, has been the degree to which the relationship has been soured in Washington, all the way up to Obama, the details of which McClatchy has learned from multiple sources with knowledge of the events.
The problems began the first time the two leaders met, on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in September. Kiir was more than 30 minutes late for the meeting, say multiple sources. When President Obama pressed him on ending support for the rebels inside Sudan, Kiir denied that there was any support at all, angering the White House, which had strong intelligence linking South Sudan’s army to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, a rebel army that was left across the border when Sudan was partitioned. U.S. officials want South Sudan to end that support, fearing it could lead to a protracted border conflict.
Weeks later, during a follow-up phone call that was arranged to move past the September meeting, Kiir again denied his military’s support for the rebels. The South Sudanese leader then followed up with a personal letter to Obama that a former U.S. official familiar with its contents described as an "apology letter."
In that letter, Kiir wrote that he did know about his military’s support to the Sudanese rebels, but he could not admit that to Obama because his advisers were in the room and they did not know he was aware of that support. Kiir said he was working to lessen the support.
The letter was received "incredibly poorly" by the White House, the former official said. The former official was not authorized to discuss the matter and asked to remain anonymous.
Relations reached a low point after an April 2 conversation between Obama and Kiir following days of border clashes between South Sudan and Sudan. In that call, Kiir told Obama that South Sudan would not send forces north to seize Heglig, a Sudanese-controlled oilfield. Eight days later, the South Sudanese forces did just that.
The personal fallout between the two heads of state is far from the only point of disagreement between the two countries. The State Department issued a scathing report on South Sudan’s human rights record, and the South Sudanese government has admitted to losing billions of dollars of oil revenue that were meant to help develop a country that lacks roads and hospitals.
Still, U.S. officials defend South Sudan, saying they always knew its growing pains would be severe. Kiir, like much of his government, has spent most of his life fighting a guerrilla war and has only minimal formal education. His country is one of the least developed in the world.
Kiir’s cause is also helped by the fact that the U.S. long has had bitter relations with Sudan, whose president, Omar Bashir, is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court and which has deployed proxy forces against South Sudan. Diplomats say Sudan is now the party most obstructing the current negotiations.
In a recent interview in Washington, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, said that the U.S. was pleased with South Sudan’s recent proposals at the negotiating table. He said the South Sudanese government also should be commended for progress in curbing internal fighting between rival tribes.
“Yes, we are disappointed in some things,” said Lyman. “But we have a very good dialogue with Juba on all of it.”
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @alanboswell