Ashish Kumar Sen
The international community needs to take a more active role in defusing the crisis in South Sudan where gunbattles between forces loyal to the president and vice president resulted in the death of 200 people, the Atlantic Council’s J. Peter Pham said. Contending that South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and his vice president, Riek Machar, have been forced into a “shotgun marriage” as a result of an agreement on a unity government, Pham, who is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said it is unreasonable to expect to successfully impose reconciliation upon warring factions that are not ready for it.
“One has to look at why it is that they are not ready,” Pham said. “Part of the answer is a failure of leadership among the South Sudanese themselves. ... As long as we rely on actors whose own interests are not aligned with those of their people or the international community there are always going to be these hiccups.”
In August of 2015, Kiir and Machar agreed to end the conflict that erupted in December of 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of plotting to overthrow him. U.S. officials found no evidence of a coup plot and a team of African Union investigators, led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, similarly found no such evidence.
After more than two decades of war that left around 2 million dead, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011. The violence in Juba over the weekend raised the specter of a replay of 2013 and the possibility of South Sudan slipping back into an all-out war.
Under the terms of a peace deal reached last summer, Kiir reappointed Machar as his vice president in a transitional unity government. But the unity government has been hamstrung from the start by deep-seated political rivalries between Machar and Kiir.
Machar delayed his return to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, to take up his duties amid accusations that he was being obstructed by Kiir. The Kiir government accused Machar of trying to bring with him “an arsenal of arms, inter alia, anti-tanks, laser guided missiles and heavy machine guns.” Given this history it was only a matter of time before a clash between the two sides – much like the kind that took place in Juba this past week.
“For the moment, things are contained,” Pham said. “Fighting can continue in Juba where both sides have a limited number of forces concentrated in very close quarters, but at this point because of the weather it is very difficult for either side to move large numbers of forces to a definitive battle. The real question is what happens in a few months when the rains cease and the countryside becomes passable again and forces can begin to move?”
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen. This commentary is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/south-sudan-heading-down-a-familiar-road-to-war.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 18, 2016, on page 7.