Independence Movement

Mandela or Mobutu Moment in South Sudan?

South Sudan, Africa’s newest country, is facing one of those consequential moments that will impact millions of lives.

Photo Illustration by Brigette Supernova/The Daily Beast

Just a day after South Sudan marked its fifth anniversary as the world's newest independent country, fierce fighting between rival factions has resumed, putting the already tenuous August 2015 peace deal in jeopardy. Hundreds are alleged to have been killed in the last few days, and thousands displaced. Command and control on both sides of the fighting appears to have broken down. Nothing seems safe as UN buildings and personnel have been attacked and U.S. diplomatic vehicles have come under fire. Helicopter gunships and tanks have been deployed along with other heavy artillery. Regional leaders are actively promoting a ceasefire, but as someone from that region once told me, "The guns talk louder than the voice."

During the last half century, one African country after another has faced momentous and extreme forks in the road in which leaders’ decisions had profound, legacy-altering consequences. In South Africa, for example, President Nelson Mandela chose an inclusive, non-punitive path out of the racist apartheid era and prevented a full-scale war and economic breakdown. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), President Mobutu Sese Seko chose a divisive, violent path when confronted with political opposition internally and instability on his eastern borders, leading to a series of wars that have generated more deaths than any conflict globally since World War II.

South Sudan, Africa’s newest country, is also facing one of those consequential moments that will impact millions of lives. The onus of responsibility for deciding which fork to take rests squarely on the shoulders of South Sudan’s President Kiir, and First Vice President Machar. These are two of South Sudan’s founding father, but after leading the two primary rebel factions which fought each other in the 1990s, then unified to win the right to an independence referendum in 2011, they fell out again in 2013.

Their latest dispute led to a brutal new war that has driven two and a half million people from their homes and left nearly five million of their citizens “severely food insecure,” i.e. without enough to eat. Their actions and choices in the coming couple of months will dictate whether a three-headed dog from hell—famine, economic collapse, and inter-ethnic war—will be unleashed.

These three threats are grave and immediate.

First: the threat of famine. I just returned from a visit to the oilfield region of South Sudan, where food insecurity and malnutrition have reached emergency levels in some areas, just one step below famine. Malnutrition is the silent killer in so many African conflicts, and is why South Sudan, Congo and Sudan have cumulative death rates that are far higher than other higher profile Middle Eastern conflicts. The massive humanitarian aid effort led by the United Nations and numerous international and local organizations has so far averted famine in most war-devastated areas, but new fighting in the last week in Wau to the west of the oilfields displaced tens of thousands of people overnight, presenting the aid providers new resource challenges at a time when the global aid delivery system is overwhelmed by 65 million refugees worldwide. If fighting continues between forces aligned with President Kiir and Vice President Machar, especially given the scorched-earth tactics both sides utilize, including massive cattle raiding, aid agencies will simply not be able to keep up with their pace of destruction. Combined with a collapsing economy, failing markets and rapidly rising food prices, full-blown famine in certain areas could result.

Second: the threat of economic implosion. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that without corrective measures, South Sudan faces “a risk of total economic collapse.” The South Sudan government’s disastrous economic management and corrosive corruption have produced a completely hollow economy. Huge spending over the last two years on the war combined with accelerated theft of state assets—with billions of dollars stolen—meant that the drop in global oil prices was simply the last straw for an undiversified economy that completely relies on petroleum exports for its foreign exchange. The U.S. and other donors pledged to provide economic support if Kiir and Machar created a government of national unity, as called for in their August 2015 peace deal. Since its creation in April 2016, however, the still factionalized unity government has not done the minimum necessary to unlock this critically needed funding, and have relied on borrowing from the equivalent of international loan sharks with no transparency for where the money is going, making it very hard for the U.S. and others to help. However, if we wait until the economy actually collapses, the cost of a rescue later will be much greater than preventing one now.

Third: the threat of inter-ethnic war. Conflict in South Sudan is fueled by competing kleptocratic networks in a greed-fueled winner-take-all pursuit of state control, but the easiest way politicians and army officers from both factions mobilize forces is by targeting competing ethnic groups. President Kiir’s recent attempt to expand the number of states in the country from 10 to 28 has further heightened ethnic tensions because of the way the borders are drawn favoring certain groups over others, consolidating the control of oil by the president’s allies. Vice President Machar’s faction has continued to support militias in regions that previously were not caught up in the war, exacerbating the risk of famine and creating opportunistic military alliances with communities resentful over the 28 states proposal and abusive treatment by the government army. All of this threatens to plunge the country back into the flames of full-scale inter-ethnic war.

Inter-ethnic war may not actually be the worst-case scenario here, as one analyst told me. “Spurred by economic deterioration, the nature of insecurity may be moving away from clear ethnic divisions at the national level towards a far more fragmented and localized range of conflicts characterized by less predictable flare ups and fault lines of an increasingly economic nature. This would follow more of a ‘Somalia-isation’ path of conflict dynamics than Rwanda in the darkest days. I am not sure which is worse. Certainly the polarized and ethnically fueled conflict in South Sudan over the last couple years was frightening in its scale and hatred. But the unpredictability and lack of command and control when the dynamics become more localized and fragmented could signal a longer-term, sporadic descent into anarchy and insecurity that may be even more intractable and harder to address for the international community than full scale inter-ethnic conflict.”

The good news is that there are proponents of peace in both camps. Those benefiting from beating the drums of war shouldn’t be allowed to hold the entire nation hostage. The key to the prevention of war, famine, and economic implosion is the degree to which President Kiir and Vice President Machar are willing to exercise leadership and govern together. Their deputies held highly constructive joint rallies with South Sudanese living in neighboring countries, but the most important messages for peace must come from the top. The president and vice president could hold public rallies or peace meetings in different regions of the country, conduct joint meetings with leaders from internally displaced camps, establish the promised committee to decide upon the disputed state boundaries, create a joint plan for cantonment of their respective forces and the eventual demobilization of a significant number of them, propose a joint rapid response team to any sign of inter-factional conflict, arrange a weekly meeting to address core challenges of peace implementation, and/or do a joint weekly radio or television program focusing on the issues of the day. Most urgently, they need to actively begin addressing together the most serious problems facing the nation, and be seen to be doing so by their respective constituencies.

At this point, the costs of war and grand corruption for the leaders of both factions are negligible. This must change. The billions of dollars that have been stolen from the South Sudanese people should be investigated, identified, and returned to the country. A fraction of those funds could help finance the bailout the economy so desperately needs. Certain leaders in both factions who have enriched themselves personally at the expense of the country should be subject to legal and regulatory action that results in the freezing and seizing of their ill-gotten gains. These kinds of sanctions will certainly not harm the country or the people, but will only target those war profiteers who have robbed the country and plunged it back into conflict. As one South Sudanese analyst told me, “Some powerful army leaders who have their own ambitions are interested in stirring up a violent crisis to take matters into their own hands. Those beating the drums of war ought to be taken seriously. International pressures should focus on the spoilers.”

The United States has a special relationship with South Sudan, supporting its long-suffering people during continuous war, the peace deals that have temporarily ended those wars, the referendum that led to an independent country, and the institutions of the newly independent state. The U.S. can again play a catalytic role in preventing a worst-case scenario by continuing to lead the massive life-saving humanitarian response, leading international pressures for the full implementation of the peace deal, speaking out on behalf of democratic processes and space for civil society, brokering along with the IMF a highly conditioned bailout of the economy to avert collapse, developing mechanisms to target the lost billions of stolen dollars that can legally be recovered and returned to South Sudan’s people, and robustly mediating factional differences to allow the emergence of peaceful compromise.

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For President Kiir and Vice President Machar to tame the three headed dog from hell at South Sudan’s doorstep, they will have to follow in the footsteps of Mandela and not Mobutu. The consequences otherwise will be unthinkable. What their legacy will be is entirely in their hands, and millions of lives will be impacted by the actions and decisions they take in the coming weeks.

This column was updated on July 10 at 10:50 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time.