Civilians pay price for South Sudan leaders' realpolitik

More than 400 000 people in a country of six million have been driven from their homes. (AFP)

More than 400 000 people in a country of six million have been driven from their homes. (AFP)

As fighting continued to rage in South Sudan this week, two pieces of news encapsulated the young country's descent into the abyss.

About 200 people, mainly women and children fleeing the fighting in the oil-producing Upper Nile, drowned when the boat on which they were crossing the Nile sank. On the same day, it emerged that talks between the warring sides in neighbouring Ethiopia had been shifted to a nightclub in Addis Ababa after they overran their booking at a hotel.

The two-and-a-half-year-old ­country is in a state of civil war after a dispute between Salva Kiir, the president, and Riek Machar, the sacked vice-president, drove the country's patchwork military into opposing factions.

Although the political divisions at elite level remain complex, on the ground this has translated into ethnically targeted killings, often pitting the largest ethnic group, the Dinka, from which Kiir hails, against the Nuer people of his rival, Machar.

More than 400 000 people in a country of six million have been driven from their homes and 63 000 civilians are hiding at a handful of United Nations peacekeeping bases. The death toll is in excess of 10 000.

Oil halt
The fighting has already brought a halt to much of the fledgling state's oil production, with reported damage to facilities in Unity state and the Upper Nile, on which the economies of both Sudans depend.

The bleak outlook was underlined by Jok Madut Jok, a former government minister who now heads the Sudd Institute think-tank.
He said it is "as bad as it gets", with elites on both sides letting mayhem reign in the hope of gaining political advantage.

"Every nightmare that the people of South Sudan have been experiencing is becoming a reality by the day," he said. "There is no let-up in the conflict, there is no ceasefire agreement in Addis Ababa, no genuine desire on the part of the warring sides to set aside their differences for the good of the nation."

Ceasefire talks have remained deadlocked for more than a fortnight, with both sides ignoring pressure from the international community while they wait to see how the military campaign will develop. Regional actors in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African bloc, have so far disappointed, appearing to take their lead from Uganda, which has waded into the civil war.

Ugandan air and ground forces have been seen to join Kiir's forces in attacks on rebel positions and questions have been raised in Uganda's Parliament following unconfirmed reports of casualties.

Military intervention
Support from Uganda, as well as from former foe Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, has emboldened South Sudan's president and his supporters into thinking they can isolate Machar and wait for his forces to desert him.

Yet a military solution holds little or no prospect of restoring stability to a state that was already embroiled in armed conflict across much of its eastern and northern territories.

Key to understanding the conflict is the Sudan People's Liberation Army, the SPLA, which became the national army after the civil war that split the two Sudans, creating an independent nation in the south in 2011.

With 700 generals, it has largely operated as a way to farm out oil and aid money to militia commanders in return for keeping the peace. Now that peace has dissolved, there will be no simple switch from a civil war to a guerrilla war, said Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert and executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University in the United States.

"It was never a conventional war in South Sudan and it's never going to be a guerrilla war," he said. "It's a conflict based on raids and counter-raids."

The crisis has left the UN with its billion-dollar peacekeeping operation, as well as the United States and Europe with their sizeable aid budgets, ­looking powerless.

In testimony to the US Congress, anti-genocide activist and Clinton-era adviser John Prendergast inveighed against military solutions and called for women, religious leaders and grassroots activists to be included in the current negotiations over South Sudan.

"Partial and noninclusive peace agreements that are negotiated only among those with the biggest guns don't lead to lasting peace," he said.

In reality, the biggest guns can afford to set the terms and wait for the international community to pick up the tab both for the humanitarian crisis already taking place and for the grinding reconciliation process that would have to follow a political settlement.

As Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, asked: "If Salva Kiir, who essentially owes the existence of his state to US diplomatic backing and UN assistance, cannot be restrained from escalating a conflict, who can?" ­– © Guardian News & Media

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