South Sudan’s Imperiled Future
Published: December 26, 2013 1 Comment
Two years after South Sudan declared independence from Sudan, political tensions between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, the former vice president, have erupted into violence, raising the possibility of civil war and ethnic cleansing.
Some 50,000 civilians are seeking protection at United Nations bases across South Sudan. The United Nations Security Council voted on Tuesday to nearly double its peacekeeping force in that country to 12,500 troops and now must make sure that those reinforcements arrive as soon as possible.
There is fault on both sides. Mr. Kiir’s initial accusation that Mr. Machar, a rival and critic of the Kiir government, was plotting a coup against him likely was overblown. The violence has its roots in a longstanding political rivalry, ethnic tensions and the fact that in July, Mr. Kiir, who comes from the Dinka tribe, fired Mr. Machar, who is a Nuer. Since then, Mr. Machar has allied himself with other rebel groups and has refused to negotiate unless his political allies are freed from detention.
The leader of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, said on Thursday that “well over a thousand” people have been killed in 11 days of fighting.
Fears of a broader blood bath are growing, as are concerns that the country will unravel; that production at South Sudan-based oil fields, which are crucial to the economies of both Sudan and South Sudan, will be interrupted; and the fighting will draw in neighboring countries. On Thursday, rebels loyal to Mr. Machar captured some oil wells in oil-rich Unity State.
The United States, which played a major role in South Sudan’s birth as an independent state, has a special responsibility to mediate a political solution. In a message last week, Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser and an Africa expert who has long worked on issues connected to Sudan, urged leaders on all sides to renounce violence and engage in peaceful dialogue. She also warned that if Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar insist on using force and mass violence, “the United States will have no choice but to withdraw our traditional, robust support.”
On Monday, South Sudan’s government threatened a major offensive to retake strategic towns seized by the rebels. But Donald Booth, the special United States envoy, met with Mr. Kiir, and afterward he said that Mr. Kiir was ready to begin talks to end the crisis. The fighting has already spread to half the country’s 10 states.
The United States, European partners, and leaders of Kenya and Ethiopia who arrived in the capital of Juba on Thursday should be pressing for negotiations and make clear that South Sudan’s leaders will face sanctions if they drag their fragile country into another senseless war.
Sudan and South Sudan fought a civil war that killed more than two million people before a peace deal was reached in 2005. It is unfathomable that having achieved independence from Khartoum, Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar would again risk their country’s future by waging a conflict in which all sides will surely lose.