If the conflict in Syria tops the list of the world’s worst civil wars today, the one in South Sudan is a close second. Over the past three years, more than three million South Sudanese civilians have been displaced inside the country or have fled abroad because of fighting and atrocities — including more than 340,000 just to Uganda over the past six months.
A special commission of the African Union concluded in October 2015 that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed, by the government of South Sudan “pursuant to or in furtherance of a state policy,” and by opposition forces, too. Famine is spreading. The state is effectively bankrupt, and the economy is collapsing. The inflation rate reaches triple digits.
South Sudan formally seceded from Sudan in July 2011 after more than two decades of a civil war that killed over two million people, a peace agreement and a referendum. By December 2013, fighting had broken out again in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, between rival militias supporting President Salva Kiir and the recently dismissed vice president, Riek Machar. (Mr. Kiir alleged that Mr. Machar was plotting a coup, but no credible evidence of that has surfaced.) The political struggle between Mr. Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Mr. Machar, an ethnic Nuer, soon took on tribal overtones, causing tens of thousands of deaths in communal fighting.
In the summer of 2015, mediators from the East African organization known as IGAD imposed a peace settlement, with support from the United Nations, the United States and the European Union. I say “imposed” because Mr. Kiir’s faction only signed it under the threat of individual financial sanctions and an arms embargo. The agreement divvied up positions in the government of South Sudan among the recalcitrant leaders of the main groups, who balked at sharing power with the very people they had just fought. Many smaller groups were left out.
The deal promptly collapsed. Hatred and distrust were too deep-seated. No institution was given authority or adequate leverage over the parties to enforce the extraordinarily complex peace agreement or resolve any related disputes. The parties committed flagrant violations of the cease-fires to which they were ostensibly bound. In July 2016, fighting erupted again in Juba between the forces of Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar. Mr. Machar fled abroad after being hunted down by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (S.P.L.A.). The conflict has since taken on even more ethnic and tribal dimensions, and caused more mass atrocities, most recently in Equatoria, a southern province.
There can be no military solution to the conflict today: Neither the government nor any other group has enough power to impose one. The army is trying to hold the country together by brute force, but is failing, because it is fracturing itself and its combat strength is deteriorating.
The multitribal coalition that won the civil war against Sudan is dead. Between the late stages of the conflict between north and south, in the late 1990s, and South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the S.P.L.A. attracted young men from most southern tribes. By now, it has devolved into a militia of Dinka soldiers from the southwestern province of Bahr el-Ghazal, the home region of Mr. Kiir and the S.P.L.A. chief of staff. Troops from most other tribes have regrouped to form their own militias. The army is balkanizing. The only effective weapons it still has are helicopter gunships and fixed-wing bombers, which can cause much destruction but cannot win a war.
Any solution to the current crisis must be political. Yet the bloodletting since December 2013 has been so terrible, the atrocities so horrific, that current leaders on all sides have lost too much credibility to form a new government, or even usefully participate in negotiations over a political settlement. They are lightning rods for the grievances of other tribes and groups. And the 2015 agreement’s failure is evidence that settlements imposed by outsiders without broad local support ultimately fail.
The only way forward, in other words, is for new local actors to broker a new political settlement, with outsiders acting as only supporting cast during the negotiations but guaranteeing its enforcement after it is signed. A similar model was used successfully during the 2002-4 negotiations between north and south, leading to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the war. (I was involved as the U.S. government’s special humanitarian assistance coordinator for Sudan and the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.)
Current leaders on all sides would have to be offered a graceful exit toward a foreign country and guarantees that they would not face criminal prosecution. An interim national government comprising leaders not involved in the crisis would have to be formed to allow for a cooling-off period.
Negotiations for the creation of this interim government should include church leaders, civil-society leaders, traditional tribal chiefs and younger political leaders from all the tribes and factions. The church may be the only institution in South Sudan that still has credibility with the population and does not have blood on its hands.
The African Union’s mantra that African problems call for African solutions has failed to resolve this crisis, or others. With the 2015 deal, IGAD negotiators basically moved around the deck chairs on a sinking ship by giving senior positions to the people who had triggered the conflict, and failed to impose penalties on anyone who violated the agreement.
And enough with all the useless African Union and United Nations resolutions. By my count, the U.N. Security Council has passed at least 27 resolutions on Darfur since 2004, appointing study committee after study committee, and repeatedly warning the Sudanese government in Khartoum to stop committing atrocities. Yet President Omar al-Bashir, for one, has flouted them, and fighting and abuses continue in Sudan.
The new U.S. administration should promptly appoint a high-profile public figure as special envoy for South Sudan — perhaps a former governor or member of Congress — whose role would partly be to deliver a tough message: A zero-tolerance policy for atrocities committed by any side. The U.S. government should back that warning by threatening to confiscate ill-gotten wealth held abroad by South Sudanese leaders; negotiating a way for leaders involved in the current crisis to leave the country; jamming hate speech broadcasts on the radio; shutting down cellphone towers used to encourage ethnic cleansing and monitoring military activities via spy satellites.
The chances of success are slim, but the alternatives are even less promising and the current situation will surely deteriorate. If the violence worsens, or simply continues, refugees will keep pouring out of South Sudan and destabilize the region. The word in diplomatic circles is that some neighboring states are already devising plans for occupying parts of South Sudan if the chaos spreads.
The world’s youngest country must not be allowed to go from independence and great promise just a few years ago to war and famine today, and occupation and collapse tomorrow.
Andrew S. Natsios is director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and executive professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He was United States special envoy for Sudan in 2006-7.