Can African leaders stop a return to war in South Sudan?

African Union leaders are in Rwanda for a summit this weekend. The crisis in South Sudan is at the top of the agenda.

A soldier from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) walks past spent bullet cartridges in the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan in July.

Just five years into its national independence, South Sudan appears to be at the brink of a second civil war.

Forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar clashed in the capital of Juba earlier this month. More than 300 people died in four days of fighting, prompting condemnation from the United Nations as well as the exodus of some 42,000 civilians. More than 800,000 South Sudanese refugees are now living in neighboring countries, most of them displaced by the conflict that ended in August 2015.

This week, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki moon called for an arms embargo along with sanctions on leaders who blocked a peace resolution. But the resumption of fighting seems to underscore the deep flaws of a peace accord brokered by the UN. And some experts say that the ethnic character of the conflict means African leaders may need to take the lead in keeping the peace in South Sudan. 

“The African Union has a particular responsibility in South Sudan,” wrote Mulugeta Gebrehiwot and Alex de Waal, directors of the World Peace Foundation, in an editorial this week.

Under the terms of the 2015 peace accord, which forced Kiir and Machar to go from leaders of rival armies to members of the same administration, the African Union has become responsible for monitoring the tenuous peace.

And this weekend’s African Union summit in Rwanda, where leaders from across the continent have gathered, holds symbolic value, observers say. 

“22 years ago, genocide was perpetrated in Rwanda, and UN troops abandoned the country… This failure sparked transformative changes in how African nations would envision their role and empower themselves to act in the name of collective security, culminating in the creation of the African Union in 2002,” wrote Gebrehiwot and de Waal. 

In South Sudan today, the fighting is the resumption of a power struggle that turned into open war in December 2013, when the Kiir-led Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) took on the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), who were faithful to vice president Machar. Tens of thousands died in that 20-month conflict.

The conflict’s origins may have been a struggle for political power. But divisions fell along increasingly ethnic lines as enmities wore on, with the Dinka group backing the president and the Nuers backing the vice president.

That had tragic consequences for civilians. An African Union investigation from 2015 stopped short of concluding genocide had been attempted. But it found evidence of war crimes, atrocities against civilians committed by both sides, ranging from rape to “the mutilation of bodies, burning of bodies, draining human blood from people who had just been killed and forcing others from one ethnic community to drink the blood or eat burnt human flesh.”

Under the African Union charter, African leaders have the right to intervene in a country in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes – a principle known as ‘non-indifference,' note Gebrehiwot and de Waal.

The African Union has been criticized for slow reactions to crises in the past. But in 2015, the first pan-African standby force became operational. Officials say they aim to be able to deploy the force's 25,000 troops within 10 weeks.

That may be particularly meaningful given indications that some South Sudanese forces may view the UN as an unwelcome occupier. Two Chinese peacekeepers were killed in July and UN camps assaulted, wounding civilians who had taken cover there. And the Economist cited on Saturday a Facebook post by a group affiliated with the state that called for the public to resist the UN’s plans to “invade South Sudan” and “overthrow the government”.

A ceasefire that went into effect on Monday was still holding as of Saturday afternoon.

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