January 6, 2014
The new year opens with the very real possibility that the world’s youngest country, South Sudan, may fail at statehood without ever having acquired more than its pro forma trappings: a flag, an anthem, and a seat at the United Nations. The government and rebel forces continued to fight over the weekend and failed to begin substantive talks being mediated in neighboring Ethiopia. Only thirty months after the international community helped South Sudan to secede from Sudan and thus end decades of civil war, a collapse of the South Sudanese state would be a geopolitical catastrophe with reverberations well beyond East Africa. Avoiding that calamity will require a radical break with the conventional analysis that has undergirded the approach to the crisis so far. 

The conflict has spread with surprising speed since South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit rather foolishly tried to use a relatively minor December 15 mutiny as a pretext to eliminate political rivals. Nonetheless, a first key point is that it was foreseeable. The country’s political and social tensions were left unresolved at its independence, and have worsened under the dysfunction, rampant corruption, wholesale incompetence, and increasingly dictatorial tendencies of the Salva Kiir government.

Second, while the South Sudanese are ultimately responsible for their own fate, people outside the country share responsibility for either condoning or excusing the bad choices and failures of leadership that led to the current situation. (Daniel Howden, who reports from Nairobi for the Guardian newspaper, noted last week the roles of Hollywood actors, including George Clooney and Matt Dillon, in promoting an overly simplistic public understanding of South Sudan’s problems  in recent years. The celebrities’ script painted South Sudan as simply a victim of Sudan, and helped conceal the new country’s internal problems.) A great deal of moral culpability for the political failure, and the humanitarian disaster it has wrought, belongs to advocates and celebrity dilettantes who cavalierly treated a delicate and complex political and social ecology as little more than an exotic stage on which they could preen themselves.

Third, international organizations and Western governments have exacerbated the crisis by persisting in their misread of the situation and by systematically depriving the United Nations force for South Sudan of a robust mandate and the resources to carry it out. (See Sudarsan Raghavan’s succinct analysis in the Washington Post this past weekend.) The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) was originally authorized more than two years ago to have 7,000 military personnel and 900 police, in addition to a proportionate civilian component—this to cover an area roughly the size of Texas. This force probably was inadequate even under the best circumstances. After the current conflict broke out last month, the UN Security Council hurriedly authorized UNMISS to have up to 12,500 military personnel and 1,323 police, although the additional forces have yet to be recruited and deployed. The UN force’s mandate has been framed almost entirely in terms of development, rather than anything more robust, and the mission is run by a Norwegian politician who comes to UNMISS from a desk job at UNICEF—as if the problems of South Sudan were due merely due to a lack of material aid, as opposed to conflicts rooted in deeper pathologies.

Fourth is the exaggeration of the conflict’s ethnic dimension. It certainly exists, with armed groups committing atrocities against civilians of the two largest tribal groups, the Dinka and Nuer. Still, much of the media coverage has erred in casting the bloodletting in purely ethnic terms. Examples abound of politics that ignore tribal lines. Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior, the widow of South Sudan’s revered founding father, John Garang de Mabior, is an ethnic Dinka like President Salva Kiir, but she also is one of his fiercest critics, and Salva Kiir clapped her under house arrest last month. Also arrested  was the former secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Pagan Amum Okiech, a member of the Shilluk, the country’s third-largest ethnic group. On the other hand, South Sudan’s foreign minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, who has remained loyal to his president, is a Nuer, like former Vice President Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, who at least nominally heads the forces in rebellion.

A fifth issue is intervention by neighboring countries. With the United States and its European partner reducing embassy staff or evacuating citizens, those countries most likely to intervene will be pursuing their own interests, and possibly aggravating the situation. As The Economist noted, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has thrown “his diplomatic and military weight wholesale” behind Salva Kiir. Ugandan forces have been reported to have joined Salva Kiir’s men in battling rebels for control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei, South Sudan’s largest and most populous state. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has so far abstained from the conflict, instead joining Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in trying to mediate the crisis. Still, Kenyan companies are among the largest investors in South Sudan and Kenyan-owned businesses reportedly have been looted in Bor as well as in the state capitals of Bentiu and Malakal.

Sixth, the international hopes for the peace talks, which formally opened over the weekend in Addis Ababa, may not be justified. The East African regional grouping of nations that is mediating the discussions may not even have convened the relevant parties. Riek Machar may be the opposition leader who previously held the highest governmental title, but it is not readily apparent that he actually commands the forces fighting the government. It is certainly not at all clear that the rebel “White Army”—so called because of the ash the mainly Nuer fighters smear on their bodies to ward off insect bites—even has a chain of command. The more regular units among the rebels are led by Major General Peter Gadet Yak, a former commander of South Sudan’s 8th Division and one of the country’s more effective battle leaders. He is not even a party to the talks. And at least a dozen prominent opponents of Salva Kiir, some representing not insignificant South Sudanese constituencies, also are absent, having been detained in the aftermath of the supposed putsch.

To its credit, the US State Department released a strong statement late Saturday evening urging the Salva Kiir government to “to uphold its commitments and release political detainees immediately,” noting correctly that “to be meaningful and productive, discussions of political issues requires the presence of the senior SPLM members currently detained in Juba, among others.”

Not surprising, but nonetheless disappointing, is the absence at the talks of South Sudan’s religious leaders. These include figures who largely have retained their credibility through the decades of struggle against the Sudanese government and the thirty months of independence. Thus, they command broad public support irrespective of ethnic divides. Just days before the violence broke out, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, and Paride Taban, retired Roman Catholic Bishop of Torit, had unveiled a detailed plan of action for dialogue, healing, and reconciliation at local and national levels. The two men lead a National Reconciliation Committee, and their initiative, supported by the Norwegian and Swiss governments, has drawn explicitly from the experience of faith-based groups in South Africa’s post-apartheid truth and reconciliation process. Since the fighting started, Archbishop Deng Bul repeatedly has emphasized that the conflict is not ethnic, writing in one pre-Christmas missive: “We condemn and correct the media statements and reports that refer to the violence as conflict between the Dinka and Nuer tribes…These are political differences among the Sudan People's Liberation Movement Party.” And yet he has no place at the negotiating table.

Seventh: For any peace to have any chance of being sustainable, the negotiations must encompass a discussion of the immediate and long-term political future of South Sudan. This includes consideration of a short-term power-sharing arrangement that reflects realities on the ground. (The mismatch between notional “authority” and actual power contributed immensely to the present difficulties.) A viable peace process also must include a decentralization of resource management. (Absent a sense of national identity, is it any wonder that people resent that the wealth under their feet flows to some far-off capital?) And negotiations must move the country toward long-delayed elections. None have been held since independence and a number of observers have pointed out that the pre-independence poll was compromised by fraud in a number of important races.

Also in need of a frank airing is whether Salva Kiir – having precipitated a civil war by intention, incompetence, or miscalculation – is even the right person to lead South Sudan forward. 

Ultimately, if the South Sudanese are to have a country of their own, it will be up to them to define a positive sense of national identity and purpose, and to construct a state that can provide all their communities with not only some semblance of order, but other vital common goods and perhaps some basic services. In this process, outsiders can and should be supportive, especially if they are realistic about what is actually happening and what they can and will do about it.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.