Just two and a half years old, independent South Sudan is facing its first major crisis. In a country that remains heavily militarized, President Salva Kiir’s accusation that his former vice president had orchestrated a coup was explosive. Armed clashes broke out on the streets this week, and mortar shells have been rocking the normally peaceful capital. On Wednesday the U.S. Embassy evacuated all nonessential staff. A day later, after two U.N. bases were attacked in Jonglei state, U.S. President Barack Obama dispatched 45 troops to the young nation to protect the U.S. Embassy and personnel. Earlier this week, Kiir donned military garb to address the nation, dispensing with his trademark black hat, a gift from former U.S. President George W. Bush. This shift from civilian leader to military commander is ominous. South Sudan needs a political solution, not another civil war.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a coalition of former rebels who fought together — and at times against one another — during almost a quarter-century of civil war, is synonymous with governance and power in South Sudan. After the charismatic leader John Garang died in a plane crash in 2005, Kiir took the party’s reins. Nevertheless, Garang’s face is still featured on every denomination of South Sudan’s currency. Given the ruling SPLM’s broad-based popularity, the ongoing struggle over the party’s leadership will likely sway the outcome of the country’s 2015 presidential and legislative elections. In an International Republican Institute survey conducted earlier this year, 79 percent of those polled viewed the party favorably or very favorably, just over four times the percentage for its nearest rival, the United Democratic Front. Quite simply, most South Sudanese can’t imagine supporting anything but the SPLM brand.
Since the party holds such power, devising a credible and transparent system to transfer authority within it is critical. Three of South Sudan’s most powerful men, each from a different ethnic group, have spent the past few months vying for a place at the head of the party. Each of them has seen it as his ticket to the presidency. In a country emerging from decades of war and the authoritarian rule of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, any public campaign over executive power is unprecedented. The South Sudanese have never experienced the promise and pain of a winner-takes-all democratic process. In Sudan power has for decades switched hands only via coups. South Sudan must forge a new way forward, avoiding the pitfalls of its northern neighbor. Reconciliation and dialogue must trump a desire for vengeance.
In April, amid rumors of Vice President Riek Machar’s political ambitions, Kiir stripped his deputy of most of his powers. For a few months, Machar patiently hung on in office with just those powers explicitly granted to him under the constitution. Then in July, Kiir fired Machar and the entire Cabinet after Machar announced plans to challenge Kiir in 2015 presidential elections. Simultaneously, the president’s relationship soured with Pagan Amum, the SPLM’s secretary-general, who served as Kiir’s chief negotiator with Khartoum on separation issues after South Sudan’s independence. Since then, relations between those two factions of the ruling party have grown even more fraught. Recently Machar and Amum came together and coordinated with some other dissenting factions of the party, including Garang’s widow, to challenge Kiir.
Of the three who were vying for party leadership at the beginning of 2013, Amum is being held by state security forces, Machar is in hiding and denouncing the current government’s legitimacy, and Kiir has adopted military dress. The potential for dictatorship and mass violence is growing. Still, there are glimmers of hope. Kiir has promised that he will “sit down with him — Riek — and talk … but I don’t know what the results of the talks will be.” Leveraging this commitment must be the centerpiece of any further engagement. Discussions must also include the 10 senior SPLM party members who are being detained under accusations of plotting the coup.
Many longtime observers worry that the country is on the brink of descending into another sectarian civil war. Reprisal violence against members of Machar’s tribe, the Nuer, is ongoing. Numerous accounts confirm that armed men have been going door to door looking for Nuer, even pulling some off public buses. In other places, targeted attacks against Dinka, members of Kiir’s tribe, are unfolding. In a country with a heterogeneity of diverse ethnicities, the emerging ethnicized dimension to what began as a political contest is deeply concerning. During Sudan’s two-decade-long civil war, a devastating schism between Nuer and Dinka factions led to some of the bloodiest fighting. Reconciliation between communities affected by the 1991 Bor massacre — in which the former vice president played a critical role — remains elusive. Conservative estimates suggest that Machar’s forces killed at least 2,000 civilians at the time. Now that forces aligned with him are fighting again, these memories have risen to the surface.
Responsiblity to protect
As a major contributor to the process that led to South Sudan’s independence and a guarantor of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan’s second civil war, the U.S. should commit itself to a sustained and multilateral campaign of diplomacy to ensure that South Sudan makes its way through this crisis. The United States must engage actively with South Sudan’s key stakeholders to secure guarantees of due process for detainees and push for a political solution. The U.S. government’s Atrocity Prevention Board has a major role to play in coordinating a response across the government. The U.N. must take up a civilian-protection role by establishing patrols, blocking off corridors for humanitarian assistance and creating safe zones for those at risk. Obama’s decision to double down on diplomacy by committing his essential staff to staying on in Juba is laudable. However, much more needs to be done to protect civilians, especially since U.N. bases are now subject to attack and not being respected as sacrosanct. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued that the international community’s “effective external response” to the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya proved that “the responsibility to protect can work.” South Sudan demands the same commitment from the entire international community.
To be sure, growing pains are common in societies working to secure their independence after years of marginalization and authoritarian rule. Building a cohesive national identity among South Sudan’s 81 ethnic groups will take generations. Still, the looming specters of mass intercommunal violence means we cannot afford to be complacent. The United States committed itself to the South Sudanese people’s long march toward independence decades ago. It would be a shame if America allowed a return to war when the South Sudanese are so close to securing their future.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to account for the latest developments.
Akshaya Kumar is the Sudan and South Sudan Policy Analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Enough Project.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.