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Solutions to prevent all-out civil war in South Sudan

REGULAR readers of this column may have noticed its absence from the international news pages of late.

RESIGNED: Ordinary people fear all-out civil war is looming.
RESIGNED: Ordinary people fear all-out civil war is looming.

This is because for most of the past six weeks I have been overseas following up on stories from the rainforests of Colombia to the deserts of South Sudan.

There will be more on that Latin American story in The Herald Magazine soon, but for now it is South Sudan on which I want to focus.

Earlier this week fresh talks resumed in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa aimed at ending the conflict that erupted on December 15 in the world's newest nation. Since then thousands of people have died and the ranks of those displaced by the fighting have swelled to nearly 900,000, close to a tenth of South Sudan's entire population. This, despite a ceasefire that was signed more than two weeks ago.

What started as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar has escalated into full-scale conflict, with some of the fighting taking on an increasingly ethnic dimension.

President Salva Kiir is an ethnic Dinka while Mr Machar is from South Sudan's other large tribal group the Nuer. It was shortly after President Salva Kiir accused his rival of staging a coup attempt that forces loyal to Mr Machar took up arms against the government. All along Mr Machar has denied there was a coup plot, but this has not stopped the bloodletting.

It would be nice to think the war-war has given way to jaw-jaw as delegates from the warring factions try to strike a deal at the talks in Ethiopia. But around the time these "peacemakers" were taking their seats in Addis Ababa, I visited the two large UN bases that have become sanctuary for the mostly Nuer people fleeing Dinka attacks around South Sudan's capital Juba.

There I met ordinary South Sudanese who had a very different and alarming take on how events in their young nation may play out in the weeks and months ahead. Admittedly, most of those I spoke with were Nuer but almost identical accounts can be heard from ethnic Dinka elsewhere across this already impoverished country where a large segment of both communities lives on the edge of hunger at the best of times.

"The violence that brought us inside the barbed wire of this camp seeking safety is still going on," insisted one Nuer man.

As far as he is concerned, South Sudan is moving into the throes of an ethnic civil war that is becoming every day more difficult to prevent. He is not alone. Almost without exception, every ethnic Nuer I talked too over the course of a week in the Juba 3 and Tomping camps were unanimous that things will get much worse before they get better in South Sudan.

Colleagues who have interviewed many Dinka people say they express similar views.

Time and again I listened to accounts of ethnically motivated killing by both communities. Now, though, the perpetrators are not limited to armed and politically motivated players but involve ordinary people. Many regularly use the word "revenge" or talk of how they can "no longer trust" each other. In short, these are extremely dangerous times for the world's newest nation and a major challenge for an international community that dutifully mobilised to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.

What then are the chances of stopping the current wave of killing before South Sudan plunges into all-out civil war?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that all those gathered round the negotiating table in Addis Ababa are already inextricably connected and tainted by the recent political manoeuvring and violence.

How many times across post-colonial Africa have we seen failed attempts to strike peace deals through face-to-face. negotiations between warring leaders? Quite frankly, the record of brokering such peace deals across the continent over recent decades has been appalling.

For the international community's part, the current efforts underway in Ethiopia to provide a platform for mediation are well meaning but almost certainly doomed to similar failure.

For such efforts to succeed, not only do those South Sudanese leaders at loggerheads genuinely need to desire peace but should they deliberately try to prevent it there must be measures to hold to account those who perpetuate the suffering, war crimes, and flagrant profiteering that accompanies their actions.

How naive it is to assume the suspicion and bitter differences that currently exist between the South Sudanese government and rebel representatives can be cast aside at the talks in Addis Ababa and that both will blithely work together for the benefit of all their people Nuer, Dinka and other ethnic groups alike. Given such a forlorn hope, what then can be done?

Well, perhaps South Sudan's best chance of avoiding catastrophe and achieving peace lies in two things. To begin with the international community needs to abandon its tired insistence on involving the current "tainted" leadership and their empty rhetorical talk of peace.

Instead, international action would be better served - as would the South Sudanese people - by redoubling efforts to engage the country's civil society, bringing fresh and genuine players without mercenary motives to the negotiating process.

During my time talking to ordinary people in the camps around Juba, I was struck by the degree of resignation that all-out civil war was looming. But even given such pessimism I also sensed a still lingering belief among these same people that by moving beyond the country's current warmongering leaders peace may just yet prevail.

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