South Sudan at a Crossroads: World’s Newest Nation at Risk

South Sudan faces its sternest challenge yet, as a political struggle in the upper echelons of power threatens to engulf the world’s newest nation in a full-scale civil war with ethnic overtones. Fighting appears to have intensified even though rival factions recently signed a cease-fire, intended to suspend the five-week long hostilities, which has claimed over a thousand lives and displaced more than half a million people from their homes.

The onus is on key stakeholders—at the national, regional, and international levels—to  react swiftly to ensure that the agreement is implemented fully, afford the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) the necessary support to protect civilians,  and promptly address growing humanitarian concerns.

There are several underlying factors behind the instability in South Sudan— fragile statehood, widespread poverty, and prevalent insecurity. However, the trigger to the latest tragic episode points to the heavy clashes that erupted in Juba on December 15th of last year, after President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar (who was removed from office in July 2013) of leading an attempted coup.

Machar has denied the charge, but praised the rebels’ capture of two key oil producing states—Jonglei and Unity. Machar has also publicly criticized President Kiir and has vowed to challenge the incumbent for leadership of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).  This has resulted in politicians settling their scores on the battlefield, just a few years after the success of a long struggle to earn independence, which came in July 2011.

Of greater concern is the ethnic dimension of the heavy fighting, which has largely pitted soldiers against one another from the two largest ethnic groups—Dinka and Lou Nuer—within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), groups that are politically aligned with the President and former Vice President, respectively. Both sides have been accused of targeting civilians based on their ethnicity, as evidenced by a spike in inter-communal violence across the country. In December alone, an estimated 2,000 Lou Nuer attacked Dinka civilians sheltered at a UNMISS base in Jonglei State, killing 11 people, including two UN peacekeepers, showing a disturbing disregard for international law.

Moreover, approximately 5,000 Lou Nuer fighters known as the “White Army” have joined Machar’s forces—estimated at 10,000 regular soldiers—which are fighting government troops. Astute observers suggest that the SPLA are gaining the momentum, particularly in major urban centers in the greater Upper Nile region, but retreating rebels still pose a military threat. Still, a military solution, on account of historical precedent, is a poisoned chalice considering the ethnic component and cyclical nature of the violence.  For the sake of civilian lives, a peaceful resolution to the crisis should be the way forward.

The severity of the situation prompted a swift response from Washington, with the current administration having invested political capital and real money in the country’s genesis. The United States got the Security Council to commit an additional 5,500 peacekeeping troops and has been working with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to organize peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which led the warring factions agreeing to a cease-fire. US President Barack Obama welcomed the agreement signed on January 24th as a first step toward ending the civil strife, but urged the leadership to immediately and fully implement the deal.

While calling for the cessation of hostilities and the release of 11 politicians arbitrarily detained by the government in Juba, the agreement failed to address a key rebel demand—withdrawal of Ugandan troops fighting alongside government forces.  The unfortunate record of broken agreements continues as both sides accuse each other of violating the truce amid increased fighting. Rebels accused government forces allied with the Justice and Equality Movement—a Darfur-based rebel group—of taking advantage of the cessation of hostilities to make inroads into rebel-held territory in Unity State.

Rebels have also clashed with the SPLA in Upper Nile region, with allegations of the latter killing civilians, a charge the government denies. Further complicating matters has been the slow deployment of the monitoring and verification team to oversee the cease-fire, and there is no agreed-upon date for the release of political prisoners. These are concerns that must be addressed to revive the already tenuous cease-fire, as fresh talks are slated to resume imminently.

Yet these steps will not suffice to fully address the root causes that have led to the current upheaval and which has brought the country on the brink of civil war. United to End Genocide reached out to citizens, civil society leaders, women, youths, and academics directly affected by the crisis to hear their thoughts on the next steps. These include: security sector reform to improve an unprofessional national army that is deeply-divided along ethnic and ideological lines; an inclusive and comprehensive dialogue; the institution of a truth and reconciliation commission; investigation into the killings and accountability for perpetrators; and last but not least, a constitutional review to limit power and install fixed term limits for the presidency.

The global community owes it to the people of South Sudan to take the necessary actions that will avert a further escalation of violence.