The world’s youngest country, a mere two and a half years old, now stands on the precipice of a new civil war which threatens to hurl South Sudan back into the violence from which it just emerged. For the South Sudanese who fought and suffered so dearly for their independence, and for those around the world who supported the new state, this development is tragic and disappointing, but it is hardly surprising or without vast precedent.
Most African countries that emerged from colonial rule or long periods of dictatorship have experienced rocky transitions marked by violence and coups. Sudan itself, from which South Sudan split in 2011, was born into a civil war and has been rocked by three major coups since independence in 1956. Similar stories have plagued the neighboring states of Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, and Congo. South Sudan’s own fledgling state has been rendered vulnerable by a major rift in the country’s political leadership, where past unresolved grievances were left to fester.
When politicians use ethnic mobilization to promote their agendas, violence can metastasize quickly. The potential for explosion in South Sudan is even worse because of the billions of petro-dollars that have poured into the country, much of which were used to purchase sophisticated weaponry.
That there were going to be problems and even eruptions in the early years of this new republic was widely predicted. What is much more unpredictable, however, is how South Sudan’s leaders react to this, the biggest crisis their new country has yet faced. How they respond will dictate South Sudan’s fate for years to come, and decide whether it has a future more like prosperous Botswana or bloody Somalia.
The worst-case scenario is rapidly unfolding: political and personal disputes are escalating into an all-out civil war in which certain ethnic groups are increasingly targeted by the others’ forces and the rebels take over the oilfields. This will inevitably bring opportunistic leaders from neighboring Sudan into the fray, as Khartoum’s government has long exploited divisions within South Sudan and provided support to various armed groups to sow further division and destruction. Certainly the Sudan regime might see the instability in the oilfields as an opportunity to aggressively move into bordering regions, take possession of some of the southern oil areas, and keep the oil flowing northward.
There is a real opportunity here for South Sudanese leaders and the broader international community to respond in ways that could prevent the country from plunging into chaos and protracted conflict.
President Salva Kiir has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership by following up on his offer of dialogue with his opponents, releasing political prisoners, appealing for calm through television and radio, and pressing those troops that remain loyal to not commit human rights abuses. Should the president indicate a willingness to openly discuss the deep political grievances that are driving the violence, and do so inclusively, that would send a strong signal that peace is possible. The leading rebel, former Vice President Riek Machar, must stop inflaming the situation by calling for the ouster of the current government and indicate his willingness to negotiate with President Kiir and work within the rule of law for the restoration of an inclusive government and elections in 2015.
The United Nations could play the most critical role in containing the crisis in South Sudan. There is much international hand-wringing and regret that not much can be done when violence is so quickly escalating. But recent examples in Congo and Ivory Coast demonstrate that when a UN force on the ground is buttressed with a more robust mandate and greater international support, very positive outcomes are possible. And the recent international mobilization to respond to the conflict in the Central African Republic shows that when political will is generated, military assets can be deployed quickly in defense of civilians.
Given those models, the UN Security Council can save countless lives by sharpening the civilian protection mandate of the UN force already on the ground, giving it additional resources to do the job, and instructing it to create safe havens in which vulnerable populations can take shelter. The UN mission could also be supported by New York headquarters to be more proactive in ensuring humanitarian aid reaches the neediest, thus preventing the health and nutritional crises that in the past made South Sudan one of the deadliest conflict zones globally since World War II. The Security Council could also authorize a group of experts to begin collecting evidence of war crimes for possible future referral to the International Criminal Court.
Finally, the United States should immediately deploy its Special Envoy for the Sudans, Donald Booth, and a team of diplomats who can deliver strong messages to key leaders and to the broader South Sudanese public, as well as support mediation efforts led by neighboring African states as well as South Sudanese church leaders.
Two and a half million South Sudanese died for the creation of this new state. With robust international action and statesmanship by South Sudan’s leaders, millions more deaths can be prevented.
George Clooney, a co-founder of Not On Our Watch, and John Prendergast, a co-founder of the Enough Project (enoughproject.org), together founded and run the Satellite Sentinel Project (satsentinel.org), an initiative focused on preventing mass atrocities.