By Raphael Obonyo
Despite two ceasefires, thousands of lives lost and over a million and a half civilians displaced, fighting continues in South Sudan, pitting government troops against opposition forces. The latest ceasefire – the second since violence erupted in December last year – was signed in May between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar.
Flagging commitment by the two leaders to resolving their political differences peacefully is putting to the test the ability of mediators to broker an effective ceasefire. But ever since the fighting started, it has become clear that the world’s newest nation was born with many internal institutional weaknesses. If left unaddressed, political analysts say, it could lead to a complete rewrite of the political and economic landscape of the entire region.
The spark for the current fighting can be traced back to July 2013, when President Kiir fired Mr. Machar and his entire cabinet after a protracted power struggle within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Upon his dismissal from the government, Mr. Machar announced he would run for the presidency in elections then scheduled for 2015.
On 15 December 2013, after days of rising tension over political issues, various elements of the Presidential Guard started fighting in their barracks in the capital Juba. The fighting quickly spread to the general headquarters of the Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA) and to other military installations. By 16 December, it had spilled out of the barracks into residential areas of the capital, pitting rival supporters and resulting in large-scale killings and human rights abuses. Since then, this picture has been replicated in most parts of the country.
A ceasefire reached in January quickly fell apart days later as fighting resumed, with each party accusing the other of violating the ceasefire. After month of intense peace talks and external pressure, a second ceasefire was signed in May but it too has been ineffective as violence continues unabated.
Political experts say the current conflict is part of a political tug of war between Mr. Machar and President Kiir. The president has accused his former deputy of attempting a coup d’etat while Mr. Machar is convinced the president is assuming dictatorial powers.
While some analysts maintain that the violence is political not tribal, it is of concern that the conflict has been running along ethnic lines with the Nuers backing Mr. Machar and the president receiving his main support from the Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the country.
George Omondi, a research fellow at the Kenya-based Africa Research and Resource Forum, is among those who dispute the view that the fighting has tribal origins. In an interview with Africa Renewal, Mr. Omondi said it appeared that Mr. Machar and his group feel that the president is consolidating power around himself and are therefore determined to stop him.
“They want to stop Kiir from becoming like many African leaders who, after independence, forgot the national agenda,” he said The current fight is not new, he continued, especially if one looks at the history of SPLM when in August 1991 Machar attempted to overthrow John Garang, the late founder of South Sudan’s liberation movement. An estimated 2,000 civilians were killed in the fighting that ensued.
The expectation among analysts was that the second ceasefire would create conditions for the two parties to start discussions on a transitional government. But those hopes are now fading in the face of ongoing violence, raising fears of more deaths and destruction in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Even as regional leaders strive to bring peace, the two sides continue to accuse each other of escalating the war.
Majok Gunadong, South Sudan’s ambassador to Kenya, says his government has only been fighting a defensive war. He told Africa Renewal that his government was “committed to peace and it requires the support of everyone to realize this goal,” adding that South Sudan was engaging the rebels only “as a matter of self-defense.”
South Sudan’s strategic importance in East Africa has added a sense of urgency to regional efforts to end the war.
There are fears that the war could degenerate into a regional conflict if left unresolved, as evidenced by the presence of Ugandan troops fighting on the side of the government. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s relations with its northern neighbour Sudan have been less than cordial since Sudan was split into two.
The two ceasefire agreements, brokered by international mediators, including leaders of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and supported by the United Nations and the African Union, have so far been unable to stop the fighting.
“African countries have a responsibility to take swift and decisive action to solve the crisis in South Sudan,” says Mr. Omondi. “However, the world must also realize that South Sudan is not different from African countries that have engaged in the fight against authoritarianism.”
South Sudan’s “man-made crisis” has created a humanitarian disaster. “The South Sudanese people are bearing the brunt of the failure to stop the fighting,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement on South Sudan’s national day. “They are living in squalor, their livelihoods have been lost and they are plagued by hunger, disease and insecurity.” About 100,000 civilians have sought shelter at UN bases around the country.
The conflict has also put at risk the ongoing regional integration efforts and joint infrastructural projects in the region. But according to Mr. Gunadong, the crisis will have only a temporary effect on the admission of South Sudan into the East African Community (EAC), a regional economic group comprising Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, because an agreement has already been reached to start negotiations in October 2014.
But Mr. Omondi disagrees, arguing that even before the current crisis, it was clear South Sudan had not achieved the minimum requirements needed to join the EAC, such as building democratic institutions. Civil society groups in South Sudan have asked the EAC not to admit South Sudan to the regional body until the country becomes stable and democratic.
Economic integration in East Africa, as in other regions of the continent, is still minimal. The crisis in South Sudan will likely derail its plans with Kenya to build an oil pipeline to Kenya’s Indian Ocean port of Lamu. Before the war, South Sudan was earning an estimated $7 billion a year from oil revenue. Continued fighting will not only delay the pipeline along with other infrastructure projects, but also increase the flow of refugees to South Sudan’s neighbors.
Phyllis Kandie, the chair of the EAC Council of Ministers, also expressed concern that war in South Sudan poses a serious challenge to regional integration.
“Stable countries make strong regional entities. It is therefore in the best interest of the East African Community that South Sudan remains stable. The civil war in the country could undermine social cohesion, political stability and economic prosperity in the region,” said Ms. Kandie, who is also the Kenyan official in charge of East African affairs.
Being a political problem, asserts Mr. Omondi, a research fellow in Kenya, the solution lies in politics. South Sudan needs a deal that is not based on power sharing, he says. The deal should strengthen state institutions that would guarantee transitional arrangements. But to find a speedy solution, he suggests that sanctions should be imposed. “Sanctions would go a long way to bring about a ceasefire. But they need not be imposed by Western countries or the United States. Sanctions imposed by the countries around South Sudan would be more effective, since roots are deeper within the region” Mr. Omondi said.
However, Mr. Omondi admits this is unlikely to happen. IGAD, he says, insists on solidarity among members, fearing that sanctions imposed on friendly countries could spoil regional relations. For example, if the Kenyan government freezes the assets held by South Sudanese leaders in Kenya, it could complicate that country’s crucial role in resolving the conflict, a view shared by many experts.
Ultimately, the challenge for African countries is to ensure that the youngest country on the continent finds a solution out of the current crisis and channels its energy towards economic development.
Raphael Obonyo is a global young diplomat and external adviser on the UN Habitat’s youth advisory board.