South Sudan’s Terrible War Is a Year Old
And there’s no peace in sight
A year ago on Dec. 15, 2013, fighting broke out between factions of South Sudan’s presidential guard. The battle in the capital’s barracks quickly escalated and plunged the country into civil war, pitting the forces of Pres. Salva Kiir’s Dinka-dominated government against the rebels of former Vice Pres. Riek Machar, largely made up of members of the Nuer ethnic group.
For the world’s youngest country, it has been a horrible year. An estimated 50,000 people have died and half of the country’s population of 11 million now depends to some extent on foreign aid. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes … and even the country.
Despite holding what is probably the world record in successive peace deals—the warring parties managed to sign five of them over the last year—there was never any great hope that the conflict would end quickly.
Fighting abated after about six months, but this was due more to the weather than any political will to find a peaceful solution. South Sudan has a six-month rainy season that turns the country’s decrepit infrastructure into a muddy mess.
Now the rainy season has come to an end. The conflict is already heating up and with the fighting going into its second year, it looks like some militias that so far have stood on the sidelines are now willing to join the fray, possibly extending the killing into yet more parts of the country.
No interest in peace
The international community, led by the regional organization IGAD, has concentrated on brokering a power-sharing agreement. Kiir and his opponent Machar so far aren’t having any of it. So now the world is considering sanctions against individual politicians and commanders, as well as an arms embargo.
But even these efforts will go nowhere.
Neither Kiir nor Machar has any real interest in sharing power. Kiir sees himself as the rightful leader and enjoys the backing of regional powers including Uganda. Militarily, he and his allies have managed to secure the biggest prize—the country’s oil fields—and to keep the conflict away from the capital Juba.
There is no question about Kiir’s personal responsibility for the outbreak of violence, nor his inability to implement successful development policies for his young country. But his opponent Machar is no better—and nobody in the international community has any appetite to support his own bid for power.
Machar in turn has nothing to gain by entering into a traditional power-sharing agreement, either. Like in many African states, the South Sudanese political system centralizes power in the hands of the president. As vice president, prime minister or member of a government of unity, Machar would be at the mercy of Kiir, without any real resources or power of his own.
As a rebel leader, only a massive outside intervention has any chance of outright defeating him. And such an intervention is highly unlikely.
A continuous civil war?
Strict sanctions hurting both parties on a personal and economical level might have the potential to drive them back to the negotiating table. But such sanctions are very hard to enforce.
South Sudan is completely dependent on its petroleum exports and oil money is the main prize that all conflict parties hope to lay their hands on. But no one’s even talking about an export embargo, because South Sudan’s main customer—China—would surely veto any such an initiative in the U.N. Security Council.
An arms embargo on the conflict parties would be nice, but also almost certainly impossible to implement. After decades of conflict in the region, too many small weapons are in circulation for disarmament to work.
More importantly, nobody has so far come up with a vision for a lasting political settlement. Neither Kiir nor Machar seem to be even remotely interested in putting their young nation before personal ambitions, a sentiment many of their followers obviously share.
Under these circumstances, it’s hard to be optimistic for South Sudan.