By Ahmed Hussain Adam
South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, is in deep political crisis. In July 2011, the people of South Sudan overwhelmingly voted to establish an independent sovereign state in the hopes of ending the unspeakable persecution committed against them by successive governments of Sudan, including the current regime in Khartoum. The existence of an independent South Sudan, however, has come at large costs. In the struggle for independence, millions of South Sudanese people have been killed or forcibly displaced. Today, the South Sudan faces mounting obstacles that are testing its ability to rise above ethnic violence and despair.
Reports on current ethnic violence in South Sudan are frightening. There are many indications that unless there is an immediate response, the unfolding ethnic violence could escalate into a genocide or a civil war. Such a catastrophic war could inflict enormous human suffering; undo the progress South Sudanese have made to establish political stability. Equally important, a crisis in South Sudan would undermine regional peace and threaten international security.
What began as a political dispute in the newly established state has burst into rampant ethnic violence. Earlier this year, President Salva Kiir dismissed several members of his cabinet, including former Vice President Riek Machar, sparking military personnel loyal to Machar to refuse disarmament. After Kiir claimed a coup, Machar alleged that Kiir was purging the government of his competitors. Former Vice President Machar and other SPLM’s veteran leaders are now challenging President Kiir. The conflict between BET then expanded to their two respective ethnic groups—the Dinka, representing Kiir, and the Nuer, representing Machar. However, the violence has now expanded far beyond the leaders and their supporters, affecting nearly everyone in the country. According to the UN, hundreds have been killed; thousands have been displaced; and the entire population is living in a state of fear.
On a global scale, outside actors are watching, and in some cases, trying to influence the events in South Sudan. The enemies of South Sudan, chief among them the regime in Khartoum, are hoping that South Sudan will fail. South Sudan’s oil fields are a vital interest for North Sudan, and Omar Bashir’s regime has been planning for some time to exploit these kinds of political and ethnic tensions to advance his regime interests. Though Bashir accepted the outcome of the referendum and recognized the Republic of the South Sudan as a sovereign state, he did so only to quell mounting international pressure and threats of increased sanctions and isolation. In the interim, Bashir has explored several other tactics, namely destabilizing the South by exploiting its ethnic divisions. Indeed, Bashir and his racist ruling party in Khartoum are counting on South Sudan to collapse, an outcome his party hopes would leave the state without any option other than to beg Khartoum to re-join the failed union of Sudan.
While Bashir seeks to destabilize his southern neighbor, many are hopeful for the fledgling state of South Sudan. These friends of South Sudan are acutely concerned with the current crisis and rising ethnic violence. The majority of African states, as well as international key players, consider the failure or collapse of South Sudan as a serious threat to regional and international peace and security.
It is imperative that Kiir and Machar live up to their political obligations—ending the ethnic violence that has thrown the state into turmoil. Both leaders need to participate in serious dialogue that accepts the democratic system and paves the way for a functioning government. Such a government should be tasked with clear benchmarks—to restore the rule of law, start a meaningful national reconciliation and healing process, address the population’s basic needs, and carry out free and fair elections in 2015. It is up to the two leaders and their respected groups to decide whether they desire a legacy as liberators or as traitors.
Continued and concentrated efforts by the citizens of South Sudan and their neighbors will bolster the country’s chance at peace. Civil society leaders, including the leaders of interfaith groups, ethnic groups, youth groups, and women’s groups should put pressure on both sides to stop the bloodshed and push for meaningful dialogue. The regional community, including The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), should move swiftly to secure a ceasefire and facilitate dialogue that would lead to national reconciliation. The unfolding violence in South Sudan should not be an excuse for world leaders to forgo aiding the peace and nation-building process. Instead, the regional and international community should continue to invest in South Sudan and assist its people in addressing the profound challenges of nation building. In this context, two measures by the U.S. offer a glimmer of hope for South Sudan: first, President Obama’s recent statement, in which he ensured continued American support in South Sudan, and second, the U.S.'s deployment of special envoy to the region.
Though the Troika countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway) have supported the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the 23-year-old war between North Sudan and South Sudan, their work is far from over. Having acted as friends of IGAD and grantors of the CPA, these governments hold significant leverage on the parties. Since the country's establishment, the Troika countries have provided significant economic assistance and diplomatic support for South Sudan. Till this day, the Troika countries are highly respected by leaders in South Sudan. If these important international actors use their political influence for South Sudanese peace, the global community can avoid the threats the state's political instability poses. Failure of South Sudan is not an option.
Ahmed Hussain Adam is a Visiting Scholar and Co-Chair of the Two Sudans Forum at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), Columbia University in the City of New York.
[Photo courtesy of Freedom House DC]