Why international intervention may be needed to stabilize South Sudan

South Sudan, the world's newest country, celebrated its fifth birthday Saturday. But the festivities were dampened by violence between rival troops, sparking fears of renewed conflict and the breakdown of a peace agreement.

Stringer/Reuters
A boy displaced in recent fighting plays on a volleyball net as they camp at the Anglican church compound in Juba, South Sudan, on Sunday.

The world’s newest country has suffered a fresh bout of violence in the wake of its fifth birthday, celebrated July 9th, and an uneasy peace hangs over its capital city, Juba, after the two main belligerents called for a ceasefire Monday.

South Sudan was racked by a brutal civil war for the best part of two years, which ended in a peace agreement last August, but this recent spate of aggression, in which more than 270 have died, has sparked fears of a renewed descent into conflict. The situation is complex, but many analysts suggest the only way to take control of the volatility is to intensify international intervention.

“The war has already resumed, and if nothing is done, we will have an escalation,” says Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “What the last week has done is demonstrate that there is no option of pursuing the current strategy.”

That current strategy already includes an international presence: the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), established the same day the new nation was born. But that body of blue helmets has garnered criticism over the years, with some suggesting it has done too little to fulfill its mandate of protecting civilians.

What is needed, according to Dr. de Waal, whose research focuses on Sudan and the Horn of Africa, is an international intervention brigade willing to be more aggressive in its pursuit of peace. Such a brigade could be inserted into the wider UN mission, and it would need to be constituted of African Union (AU) troops.

Indeed, at a Monday meeting of the Council of Ministers – part of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Eastern Africa – representatives of six East African states called for “urgent revision of the UNMISS mandate to establish an intervention brigade.”

Moreover, Wednesday saw the opening stages of the 27th AU Summit, in Kigali, Rwanda, and the delegates have already made clear their intent to consider the situation in South Sudan as a matter of urgency.

“It is with grave concern that we start this Council, as over the past few days we see the resurgence of the conflict in South Sudan, after more than two years of talks,” said Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, chairperson of the AU Commission in her opening remarks for the summit. “Hardly two months after the formation of the Government of National Unity, the belligerents seem to [be] back in the trenches, and the people of South Sudan, instead of celebrating five years of independence, once again are barricaded in their homes or must flee like sheep before the wolves.”

Yet even if an international brigade of AU troops does make its way to Juba, analysts say it is unlikely that the political situation can simply return to the status quo as governed by the peace agreement, which, in the words of de Waal, is now “just a piece of paper.”

The difficulty with the peace agreement was that it did little more than return South Sudan’s politics to the same fragile state they were in when the war broke out in December 2013, without addressing the undercurrents and rivalries that led to the hostilities in the first place.

Indeed, the struggle between the two key rivals, President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, reflects the wider ethnocultural tensions between Dinka and Nuer that have fueled many of the divisions roiling the country since its inception, and thus the violence, as John Mbaku, an economist and senior fellow with the Africa Growth Initiative of the Brookings Institution, explains.

Destabilized by these rivalries, the country has yet to build the infrastructure that enshrines and enforces the rule of law, says Mr. Mbaku, remaining saddled with “with weak, dysfunctional, and highly ineffective institutions.”

Another complication is the uncertainty over who is truly in control of the troops. The two key rivals, President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, were both at a press conference when fighting broke out on July 8th. Both seemed confused, with the president telling reporters that the violence was “something that we cannot explain to you.”

Some analysts suggest the explanation lies with President Kiir’s chief of general staff, Paul Malong, “a figure that many see as the true power behind the Salva Kiir’s presidential throne,” as Clémence Pinaud, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Department of International Studies, has written.

Indeed, as de Waal says, Mr. Malong may simply have been biding his time, awaiting his opportunity to militarily wipe out the opposition. The eerie calm that has settled over Juba may be a reflection of his having attained that goal – at least in the capital.

But the situation is far from predictable, and foreign governments are taking no chances. The United States has sent 40 additional troops to bolster its embassy in South Sudan. Germany and Italy have been airlifting European citizens out of Juba. Uganda, India, and Japan have also been evacuating their nationals.

Whatever the short-term challenges facing Sudan, analysts argue that it has fundamental strengths that still hold the promise of a bright future, such as a rich array of natural resources and significant support among international partners, some of whom regard it as an important ally in the fight against transnational terrorism, while others see it more through the prism of trade.

Yet for these assets to be realized, the current state of conflict, and the underlying tensions, need to be addressed.

“While the international community can and must help, South Sudanese must take ownership of this problem and provide the necessary leadership for its resolution,” says Mbaku. “Those in leadership positions must consider the price that the country and the people are paying for these leaders’ search for personal power and wealth.”

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