Who can halt the crisis in South Sudan?

When South Sudan celebrated its independence from the Republic of the Sudan in 2011 many analysts feared for the future. The conflict now raging in the world’s youngest state has serious regional and international implications. For the US, South Sudan’s independence was seen as one of the few visible successes of President Obama’s first administration’s Africa policy: no longer. But this crisis is not due to the lack of international support.

Just as we saw in Eritrea, which obtained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 but has been deeply troubled ever since, this current conflict is about poor political leadership within a country that is still in need of a massive state-building exercise. The violence, fighting and displacement that broke out on 15 December was not a deliberate coup, but the result of deteriorating relations between the president, Salva Kiir, and his ex-vice president, Riek Machar.

Kiir has become increasingly authoritarian over the past 18 months and his total ministerial reshuffle in July improved nothing. When the president tried to take fuller control of the republican guard, this developed into a standoff that sparked what in effect became an accidental coup.

Until this new crisis erupted, international engagement was focused on the border issues with Sudan and encouraging Kiir to reconcile with his former enemy, President al-Bashir of Sudan. The unintended consequence of this strategy was to increase internal tensions within the party of government in South Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

There is also an ethnic dimension playing out between Nuer and Dinka – the president is a Dinka, while Machar represents the Nuer. This is nothing new for South Sudan, as inter-ethnic tensions have been a feature of the political landscape here long before independence but the discovery of three mass graves by the UN in recent days signal how quickly this crisis has deepened.

Kiir has deployed his army to fight supporters of Machar. Thousands have been killed and tens of thousands internally displaced by this fighting. A major crisis is looming and humanitarian access is now the most immediate international preoccupation.

The UN has announced it is doubling its forces on the ground, and the leaders of Kenya and Ethiopia visited South Sudan’s capital, Juba, today to try to halt the fighting. The crisis has already internationalised with Ugandan troop intervention. We do not know what other neighbours are considering – Sudan especially. This is already a rough neighbourhood, with instability in Darfur, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Civil war in South Sudan would only add to this insecurity.

Having invested so heavily in South Sudan’s independence, the international community will not stand by – and while responding to the humanitarian crisis should make it clear that long-term support and investment requires stable and accountable government. What is most depressing for South Sudan is that whether Kiir succeeds militarily over Machar or there is a negotiated compromise, the country is likely to become more autocratic.

An elite power struggle within the tiny leadership looks to be drawing the whole country into a full civil war that is rapidly developing ethnic dimensions. There seems little that outsiders can do about this currently except contain the crisis and encourage South Sudan’s political leadership to step back from the brink and re-focus on building a viable state that will benefit all their citizens.

Alex Vines is director of regional and security studies at Chatham House.

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