Three years ago this week, outside a makeshift polling station in Bentiu, South Sudan, I interviewed Riek Machar, vice president of the then semi-autonomous region. Machar had just cast his vote for South Sudan’s independence; I asked him what he would say to those who doubted that South Sudan, desperately underdeveloped and with experience of ethnic strife, could be a viable nation. “We will show them” he said, with a confident gap-toothed smile.
Today, doubters must feel vindicated. A power struggle between Machar and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir became public when Kiir fired Machar from the vice presidency in July. That political dispute has since metastasized into a bloody conflict with ethnic overtones. In a land where unchecked weaponry is ubiquitous, youth unemployment overwhelming, and military discipline fractured, this crisis has the potential to tear the fledgling nation apart.
Machar denies Kiir’s allegation of an attempted coup on Dec. 15, but acknowledges leading rebels opposed to the government. The United Nations now estimates that at least 1,000 people have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced.
The prospect of South Sudan descending into civil war has sent supporters of its succession scrambling. The U.N. authorized a significant increase in peacekeeping troops, the U.S. dispatched its envoy, Donald Booth, and the East African IGAD bloc is sponsoring negotiations in Ethiopia this week.
These initiatives seek to stop the violence — a crucial first step. And if the international community is satisfied with merely enabling diplomats to move on to the next crisis, this approach may be sufficient. But if the goal is to prevent this crisis from recurring in another six or twelve months, those with leverage over South Sudan, including both China and longtime U.S. supporters, such as Susan Rice, face a much larger challenge. They must convince South Sudan’s leaders to reform their entire structure of governance, and take seriously the task of ethnic reconciliation.
The ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, chaired by Kiir, has had to grapple with a curse common to successful liberation causes. Dictatorial leadership strategies that helped the S.P.L.M. appear united in its fight for independence are ill-suited to democratic governance. The result is that South Sudan is a multi-party state in name only, with all meaningful positions of power held by members of the S.P.L.M.
Within the S.P.L.M., Kiir has stifled dissent, and the line between the S.P.L.M.’s military and political authority is blurry. As recent events show, this is a source of systemic risk, leaving the military all too available in disputes that should be channeled into political dialogue.
The population, too, doubts the political process. Under both British colonialism and the Khartoum regime, ethnic affiliation was the only sure guarantor of protection. Southerners have never experienced rule by a government committed to serving its constituents.
In advance of independence, citizens’ expectations of their new government were unrealistically high. Southerners in rural areas consistently told me that they expected nationhood to bring electricity and schools in a matter of months. This in a country that has just 35 miles of paved roads. Still, in the two-and-a-half years since independence, many southern politicians have let down their constituents. As petro-dollars came in, corruption grew, as did allegations of ethnic favoritism.
Khartoum’s divide-and-rule approach throughout the war years means South Sudan’s major ethnic groups spent decades pitted against each other. And the task of reconciliation, begun by civil society and religious leaders, and carried forward by many ordinary southerners, has never been fully embraced by the political elite. President Kiir was chosen by the S.P.L.M. from South Sudan’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, and Machar, from the second-largest Nuer group — a choice meant to reassure South Sudanese that their leaders’ vision transcended ethnic loyalty. Yet the claim was always fragile; when Kiir fired Machar the illusion of ethnic harmony at the country’s helm was finally destroyed.
Against this backdrop it would be easy to write off the entire enterprise of South Sudanese nationhood as a naive misadventure. But this would be a disservice to ordinary southerners who demonstrate daily their capacity to rise above their leaders’ failings.
Edmund Yakani, executive director of a local community empowerment organization, reports that many locally refer to the current crisis as the “South Sudanese foolish moment.” Even as rumors of ethnically-based killings spread across the capital, a survey by Yakani’s organization showed many Nuer youth refusing to label all Dinka perpetrators. Anecdotes, such as Dinka soldiers shepherding Nuer students from Juba University to refuge at a U.N. compound, suggest that ethnic warfare is not inevitable. It is, however, an ever-present risk — one compounded by a political system that cannot handle dissent.
IGAD is right to insist that Kiir, the democratically-elected leader of South Sudan, cannot be overthrown by violence. But the opportunity for unscrupulous elites to instigate violence by casting political disputes in ethnic terms will remain until the long process of reconciliation is complete. Until then, the best way to mitigate these risks is to tackle the country’s governance flaws.
The S.P.L.M. needs reform; it also needs to create space for true multi-party democracy. In addition, officials with military roles should not be allowed to hold political positions. Those at the Ethiopian negotiations may be able to cross South Sudan off their emergency list without any commitment made to these reforms. But if they do so, they will leave South Sudan back at square one.