South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation almost four years ago as a result of an overwhelming vote for independence following the historic peace deal with the north. But the initial euphoria soon gave way to internal conflict. Unlike South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), which managed to unite the country in its post-conflict infancy, squabbles over power and position within the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) quickly led to mass murder along ethnic lines.
People are dying daily as a result of the civil war, hunger, and preventable diseases. Thousands of women have been raped, children have been forced to join the fighting, and over 3.5 million people are facing famine as former the country’s former liberators betray their principles, turn on erstwhile allies and loot billions of dollars to fund their ruthless fight for power. The government is spending more than a billion US dollars a year to wage a civil war while the economy collapses and the population suffers. Continued fighting is preventing humanitarian access to those most in need.
The internal strife in the SPLM was a match that lit a pile of gunpowder. Conflict with the north had been the one factor uniting our people for so long that we had not developed a coherent national identity or faced up to our many internal problems until the fairly rapid transition to independence exposed them. Other factors that led to the implosion were an overly militarised state with a severe lack of experience and capacity for governing, and our oil riches, which have enabled our leaders to behave with impunity and provided an incentive for conflict.
Since the outbreak of war in December 2013, there have been nine rounds of peace talks hosted by East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). They have failed to yield any tangible results. The warring parties have refused to engage with any genuine good will, simply exploiting the public relations opportunities, delaying meaningful action and buying themselves time to train and arm their forces.
IGAD’s representatives have also failed to be honest negotiators and serve anything other than their own self-interests. Many of the group’s member states either publicly or privately support one side or the other and IGAD thus lacks the moral and political leadership necessary to mediate effectively between the warring parties or enforce any agreements reached. While our leaders negotiate fruitlessly in luxury hotels, citizens from every demographic across the country suffer the immense repercussions of continued conflict
The same individuals who led the country into war stand to benefit from the power sharing agreement and transitional government that looks like the inevitable conclusion of an IGAD-led process. This will not help our country heal or find longer-term solutions.
Thankfully, South Africa has been named by the AU as one of the five additional countries charged with supporting IGAD in a new round of talks. This is a huge opportunity for change. South Africa must use its unique position as a party to the expanded peace talks and host of the AU Summit to push for a process which immediately de-escalates the situation and puts more pressure on the parties to sign a permanent ceasefire, agree on a transitional government and help facilitate a longer term inclusive national dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict.
IGAD, the UN and the AU have all expressed support for the imposition of an arms embargo and targeted sanctions in the form of asset freezes and travel bans. South Africa can help turn this bold rhetoric into bold action. Targeted sanctions could make those obstructing peace feel some of the pressure that they have put on the rest of the country. Given that South Sudan’s leaders keep their money, send their children to school, and seek medical treatment outside of the country, travel bans and asset freezes could change their calculations.
South Africa should also push for the overdue report of the AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan to be released to provide evidence on who has committed atrocities, who is obstructing peace and who should be put on the sanction list. Timely release of the report would restore AU’s political and moral credibility. The combination of targeted sanctions and the real possibility of prosecution would put serious pressure on the warring parties to respect international humanitarian law and move towards a permanent ceasefire.
The African Union unites all of us on this continent, and South Africa, as host of the upcoming summit, is in a powerful position to influence the situation in South Sudan for the better. I call on my brothers and sisters who are no strangers to conflict themselves to stand with us in our fight for peace and in our time of need. Your success serves as a model for the entire continent and gives me hope that one day I will be able to return to a country that has for far too long been blighted by war, but that I long to be able to call home. DM
Photo: A photograph made available on 09 March 2014 shows South Sudanese people standing up during a dust storm in the biggest IDP camp for Dinka ethnic group placed in Minkamman, South Sudan, 04 March 2014. A power struggle between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar turned violent in mid-December, when clashes erupted between their ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. EPA/JM LOPEZ
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