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South Sudan: ending the bloodletting

The international community has a responsibility to end the bloodletting in South Sudan. And neither of its factional leaders, with blood on their hands, can be part of its future.

Refugee woman breastfeeding The human cost: South Sudan refugees in Uganda. Flickr / European Commission. Some rights reserved.The recent killing of 200 people, mostly civilians, by rebels in Bentiu in South Sudan should have been a “game changer” for the four-month-old conflict. Or so hoped Toby Lanzer, a top United Nations official in Juba with long experience from the frontline of armed conflict.

But save for condemnations of the act by global leaders, the game in South Sudan remains the same—killings on a colossal scale by pro-government forces and rebels. The UN says that thousands, maybe tens of thousands, have died. Many more have suffered grave human-rights violations, including sexual violence and starvation.

Much of the progress this underdeveloped country had realised over nine years of self-rule since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has been severely damaged. The economy has ground to a halt. Roads and buildings have been destroyed, oil is no longer flowing and international investors who created jobs and provided the services behind a burgeoning urbanisation have packed up and gone.

Tribes are back to the days when they quarrelled almost at the drop of a hat; national identity, which was a challenge even before this war, will now be harder to forge. The two institutions in which the whole country had confidence, the ruling party (the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement) and the army, have lost their universal appeal. It is a country of military forces, where only the armed have a fighting chance. Even UN camps universally recognised as safe havens in war have been attacked. Democracy is a long shot but still the only solution to the madness.

Neutral broker needed

In a country with no independents, the president, Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, now lead factions nearly equal in size. They have blood on their hands, but can only make peace work if the international community—which immediately means the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) of eight east African states, including Sudan and South Sudan—can guarantee a peace agreement.

The two institutions in which the whole country had confidence, the ruling party (the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement) and the army, have lost their universal appeal.

As the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, said ahead of the resumption of IGAD-led talks in Ethiopia, this is the time for an agreement. The talks as currently constituted may not however yield durable peace and IGAD’s hand should be strengthened by the involvement of the UN, possibly through an additional mediator with broad international backing.

In particular, IGAD leaders—especially the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni—have given open support in the talks for Kiir’s preferences. This has hardly encouraged him to negotiate in good faith, while allowing Machar to use the talks as a cover for his raw push for power. A former president, such as Thabo Mbeki (South Africa) or Benjamin Mkapa (Tanzania), would bring political clout to the talks and address not just Kiir but also the other east African presidents as equals.

Mediation framework

The parameters of such mediation should at a minimum include an interim power-sharing agreement between Kiir and Machar, with a government mandate to organise free elections in 2015—which both men should be banned from contesting. Individuals responsible for such terrible violence should not as a matter of principle exercise enduring legitimate authority. In practical terms, the duo would not co-operate in the long term and their sour relationship would hold up reconciliation and anyway challenging democratic reforms.

A transitional government led by Kiir and Machar would not require constitutional change but it would need the stewardship of the international community. All top political leaders in South Sudan are now beholden to either man, so the country risks entrenchment into two blocks associated with the ethnic affiliations of Dinka and Nuer and meshed with the aspirations of members of other communities.

The UN has a good experience of running elections. Its staff on the ground, led by Hilde Johnson and Lanzer, have been remarkably courageous, reporting atrocities not just by rebels but also by the government—such as the shocking attack by pro-Kiir militia on the UN camp in Bor, which the UN said might constitute a war crime.

The officials have however filled the space of the political UN, whose powerful countries have been reluctant to call Kiir to account, perhaps in deference to Museveni and his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta. There is no doubt that Africans need respect in international relations—but respect is not cosying up to leaders ruining their countries.

About the author

The writer, a researcher based in Nairobi, previously worked with a South Sudan media strengthening project.

Read On

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, spoke in vitriolic terms about the rival South Sudanese leaders after meeting Kiir and Machar, attacking them for failing to countenance a pause in the violence to avert famine. A ceasefire agreed in early May initially appeared to be holding but each side accused the other of violations.


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