Crisis threatens a nation in transition
In early December 2013, South Sudan hosted a conference attended by international investors interested in the country’s abundant oil resources.
The extra revenues generated by potential investment were to be used to boost the capacities of the world’s youngest state and to develop the economy. The conference, considered a success, was to be the first step in a new phase in South Sudan’s development.
Just two weeks later, armed clashes between the government and rebels signalled the beginning of a violent political crisis that has threatened to plunge South Sudan into a protracted civil war.
Ever since a 2010 referendum that overwhelmingly granted South Sudan independence from Sudan, after a brutal civil war spanning decades, the fledgling government has faced the difficult task of exercising its newly-acquired independence. State services had been rendered inoperative by the fighting. Human development indicators, used by organizations to analyze the country, were terrible. Millions are still vulnerable to extreme poverty, violence and communicable diseases.
A common anecdote about the state of affairs in South Sudan at the dawn of independence is that there was only around 40 kilometres of paved roads in the entire country.
Furthermore, the war that lead to independence entrenched the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) — the political wing of the rebel group that lead the South Sudanese against Khartoum — as the primary political actor in an independent South Sudan.
The SPLM’s political hegemony was matched by lingering internal fissures, grudges and power struggles from the civil war that threatened the political stability of the new state.
The crisis began as a dispute between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar. Both are old hands within the SPLM and were leading figures in the war that lead to independence.
Kiir has accused Machar and his associates of planning a coup d’état, a charge that Machar denies. He, in turn, accuses Kiir of dictatorial tendencies and of actively undermining democracy in the new nation.
The president dismissed his number two in July 2013, and in November disbanded the political organs of the SPLM. On December 15, shooting between ethnic Nuer and Dinka soldiers was portrayed by the government as a coup attempt lead by Machar, who denied this before fleeing into the bush and assuming leadership of a rebel group challenging the government and occupying key cities.
The shroud of conflict has obscured the series of events that sparked the fighting but it is clear that the political crisis promptly lead to violence, some of which has included ethnic killings.
About half a million people have been displaced from their homes and upper estimates say 10,000 have been killed in about a month.
Much like some of the other countries that have won independence in the 21st century, such as East Timor and Kosovo, the international community was instrumental in supporting the South Sudanese government as it embarked on the long, challenging process of transformation and nation-building. The United States and China have been major backers of the Juba government.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) began operating one day before independence in July 2011, and has an extensive peacekeeping and state-building mandate from the UN Security Council, designed to support the government enforce the rule of law, promote economic development and mitigate political conflict and protect civilians.
In a conversation with the Herald, UNMISS spokesperson Ariane Quentier said that she could not speculate about the causes for the crisis and how and why it descended so suddenly into violence.
She did say that the crisis was political in nature, but added it would be an oversimplification to characterize it as only political, as the crisis has the potential to take on an ethnic element.
Quentier went on to say that the situation remains volatile and it was unclear what role her organization will play in a post-crisis South Sudan, but that the mission will continue to provide protection for civilians that have sought refuge in UN compounds.
UNMISS is actively documenting human rights violations by all parties — violations that the mission demands accountability for.
Peace negotiations running concurrently with the continued violence have not yet been able to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire, but undoubtedly an international presence will be required, be it UNMISS or the African Union (AU), to help enforce any agreements.
Machar and his supporters have demanded that political figures jailed by Kiir of being involved in the “coup” be released as part of a comprehensive deal.
The government has refused, saying that they will not reward those seeking to gain power through violent means.
As negotiations continue unsuccessfully in Ethiopia, the violence in the country has lead to a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in South Sudan estimates from the 468, 000 internally displaced people, with a further 83,900 who have crossed the border into neighbouring countries, increasing pressure on South Sudan’s neighbours.
Both Quentier and Michelle Delaney, an OCHA South Sudan Public Information Officer, stressed to the Herald the immediate need for food, water, shelter and healthcare.
Urgent funding needs total approximately US$209 million, says OCHA and only US$104 of which has been received so far.
Not only has the fierce fighting led to scores of deaths, fracturing an already fragile political climate, but OCHA expects that the humanitarian crisis is likely to undo the small gains made in poverty reduction and education in the years since independence and complicating the ongoing reconstruction.
South Sudan’s immediate political future remains unclear, as each side seeks to gain the upper hand at the negotiating table.
In the meantime, what is clear is that the SPLM’s infighting and the failure of the country’s political system to peacefully mediate the transformation into statehood has victimized hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese.
It remains to be seen if Kiir, Machar and their supporters can come to an enforceable ceasefire.
A ceasefire that must lead to reconstruction, reconciliation and accountability for human rights violations, if South Sudan is going to exit this crisis with a fighting chance of a lasting peace.