For the past month, South Sudan has been embroiled in a violent conflict of tragic proportions that erupted just before Christmas 2013, denying South Sudan's citizens the opportunity to peacefully and joyously celebrate Christmas and the New Year. While there are many underlying causes, the immediate trigger of the violence was a political power struggle within the country's ruling party (the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the "SPLM"). The internal struggle, sadly, erupted onto the populace and thousands of innocent civilians – mostly from the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups – have perished and many more have been displaced from their homes. Underlying the conflict are also deeper structural issues, such as poor governance, corruption, nepotism, and tribalism. The turmoil threatens the world's newest nation with collapse and regional instability.
After concerted regional and international pressure, the delegations of the two warring parties – headed respectively by the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, and his former Deputy, Dr. Reik Machar – arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia earlier this month to negotiate an end to the ongoing conflict that erupted on December 15, 2013. However, despite the magnitude of the crisis and regional and international pressure, the parties have thus far failed to reach an accord on the cessation of hostilities, let alone discussing the root causes of the crisis and laying a framework for moving the country forward. As such, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) sponsored peace talks remained stalled.
As of this writing, the warring parties' delegations have shown little interest in realizing a political and peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict. Each party to the conflict appears to be continuing fighting to improve its negotiating position and consequently maximize its gains in any future political deal. For instance, President Kiir has been launching large military offensives to recapture the positions that have been taken by Dr. Machar's forces, while Dr. Machar has been fighting to retain his positions, including the oil fields in Unity State, as well as threatening to attack Juba, the Capital of South Sudan and the seat of government. These violent encounters have imposed enormous costs upon the citizens of South Sudan.
Neither IGAD, nor the other international key players, including the US, the UK and Norway, have succeeded in pushing the two parties to end the increasingly ethnic-centered violence. However, the longer this conflict continues the more complicated and intractable it will become. More actors will be tempted to become involved, current alliances will shift, and new ones will emerge. Such a scenario is imminent and not far-fetched if the current multilateral efforts in Addis Ababa fail to convince the parties to reach an inclusive and comprehensive political settlement. Essentially, the prolongation of this increasingly ethnic conflict may transform it into a full-fledged civil war with a regional dimension.
While it is evident that the warring parties are short on political will to end the violence, the mediation process is also structurally deficient. The current IGAD-led mediation process lacks capacity, leverage and impartiality. Uganda, the leading member of IGAD has already become a party to this conflict. According to numerous reports, the Ugandan military is engaged in the fighting in South Sudan. Moreover, the South Sudanese rebels believe that Kenya’s position on the conflict is not that different from Uganda's. In addition, Eritrea, despite being an IGAD member, is currently not involved in the IGAD mediation efforts. However, there is a risk that Eritrea might eventually intervene and support one of the conflicting parties if the conflict is prolonged. Meanwhile, Sudan undoubtedly is carefully calculating how best to exploit the conflict for its own interest and is likely to side eventually – based on strategic considerations and its own domestic conflicts in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Southern Kordofan – with one or the other of the conflicting parties. Ethiopia is the only member of IGAD that remains relatively impartial and interested in an immediate end to this tragic conflict, before it spills over elsewhere in the region. However, Ethiopia cannot lead the IGAD mediation effort alone, nor can it counter the influence of President Museveni of Uganda.
Consequently, it is critical that the mediation process be restructured if the current peace talks are to deliver a lasting political settlement for the ongoing conflict. The United States, in collaboration with the other Troika countries that assisted in the creation of South Sudan, the UK and Norway, and possibly China as well, should proactively lead the mediation efforts to assist the conflicting parties to reach a lasting settlement to the crisis in South Sudan. These nations have the political, economic, and diplomatic leverage to pressure the conflicting parties to end the violence and formulate a lasting political solution to the crisis in South Sudan. Together, these nations possess sufficient leverage to pressure the leaders of South Sudan to convince their respective forces and constituencies to stop the ongoing violence. Such multilateral efforts should be empowered and mandated by the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) and, if necessary, by the UN Security Council under the provisions of Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.
While participation of the warring parties is vital in ending the immediate violence, the political process should not be designed solely to serve the interests of the two conflicting parties. Subsequent phases of the process must discuss the root causes of the crisis and should be as inclusive as possible. Ultimately, a comprehensive national dialogue that includes opposition political parties and diverse civil society organizations should occur.
The peace talks after the cessation of hostilities should focus on the issues that relate to the broad agenda of nation-building in South Sudan. The structure of inclusive, democratic and functioning state institutions should be agreed upon with clear timelines and mechanisms for implementation, if South Sudan is to transform into a viable state. The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) should be transformed from a mostly ethnic-based liberating militia into a professional state army that represents and defends all the citizens of the Republic South Sudan. In addition, other security forces and organs should be reformed and reorganized according to international democratic and human rights standards. The SPLM should also be transformed from a liberating political organization into a democratic political party that is recognized and operates within a democratic set of rules. The government should be accountable to the people of South Sudan and serve their interests based solely on the grounds of citizenship. A robust anti-corruption program should be established to return stolen assets, prevent further theft from the national treasury, and a transparent financial system must be established. Finally, given the past and current horrific and often ethnically motivated human rights violations, South Sudan should implement national truth, justice and reconciliation processes. If South Sudan does not implement such measures, supported by international mechanisms, the country will not realize lasting peace.
In conclusion, the post-independence situation in South Sudan is extremely complicated and risks spiraling out of control. The future of the world’s newest nation is in serious jeopardy. It is vital that the parties and multilateral mediators address the root causes and give truth, justice, accountability, and reconciliation the importance and priority they deserve. The US, the UK, Norway, China, other interested states, the AU and the UN should assist the people of South Sudan to overcome the challenges and obstacles of this post-independence, nation-building era, while recognizing that South Sudanese are the ultimate drivers of their own destiny and respecting their sovereignty.
Professor Laura Beny co-authored this article.