How to rescue South Sudan

President Obama helped create the new country of South Sudan, and now he’s trying to save it from a violent civil war. He and others must first focus on building national identity and social trust.

AP Photo
President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting on South Sudan with leaders from Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, the African Union, and Uganda July 27, 2015, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

During his first term in office, one of President Obama’s proudest moments was his role in the creation of the world’s newest nation. South Sudan was born in 2011 in northeast Africa to end a long civil war in Sudan. Yet ever since a civil war erupted in South Sudan itself in 2013, Mr. Obama has been on a rescue mission. His quest is a tale about the need to first weave a country together with a common identity before anything else.

On Monday during a trip to Africa, Obama put his legacy on the line by personally negotiating with top leaders of the neighboring states of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan to encourage them to help end the conflict. The United States and the United Nations can do only so much in a situation that requires neighborly pressure to resolve.

The war started with a political clash between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar. It has since opened ethnic fault lines, mostly pitting Nuers against Dinkas. Tens of thousands of people have been killed with more than 2 million forced from their homes. The country’s abundant oil resources have helped fuel the conflict.

The basic problem is that this country of 11 million was put together with many of the right elements of a state, such as a legislature, a bureaucracy, and a budget largely derived from oil exports, but without a cohesive narrative about national identity. The one big unifier had been opposition to rule by the Arab-dominated government in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. After independence, the leaders of South Sudan as well as its backers such as the US should have put more effort in building trust and creating shared bonds.

“Helping groups inside states move beyond ... zero-sum thinking to accepting a shared national narrative is especially hard,” said UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman in a recent speech. To enable a society to heal after a conflict, he said, political groups must reconcile competing visions of identity and history. It is easier to separate armies, tend to the needy, and rebuild roads and ministries. But building respect at all levels of society is the main route to peace and security.

“We need to find ways in our work in the aftermath of conflict to break the vicious cycle of divided communities when the hatred and sense of victimhood are most pronounced and palpable,” Mr. Feltman said. He cites post-apartheid South Africa as a good example of a country that used a reconciliation process to establish a forward-looking national identity.

South Sudan’s competing factions have been given a deadline of Aug. 17 to accept a peace deal. Otherwise, the US and other countries might impose an arms embargo and other sanctions. Yet even if a peace pact is inked, the real work lies in creating social bonds and recognizing a common future. Obama’s legacy in Africa depends on it.

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