The crisis in South Sudan should not be a surprise to anyone but that does not make it like 'all' the other crises in sub-Saharan Africa.
Most of the reporting suggests this is all about a power struggle in a weak state with the army splitting apart into rebels and government-led troops, something we've seen time again in places like the Congo, Rwanda and the Ivory Coast. In the case of South Sudan, this isn't entirely accurate and the reporting does not reflect the nuances at play. This is not a case of a purge from government of competing interests nor is it a feud that has ultimately come to take on the exacerbating effects of tribal undertones. This is a long-standing tribal feud masked by a so-called struggle for power and all in a state that has yet to celebrate its third birthday. Meanwhile, after weeks of stalled talks in Addis Ababa, both government and rebel forces over the weekend accused each other of violating a tentative cease-fire reached on Thursday, January 23. The majority of the effort during talks was on pressuring President Salva Kiir to meet a certain amount of rebel demands, including the release of 11 detainees – top former government leaders – held by the government. Mr. Kiir has said the 11 will be subjected to South Sudan's judicial process. It is clear now that the solutions offered in Addis Ababa invariably resorted to type and this will only undermine, rather than help, South Sudan.
There is really only one leader right now capable of keeping this country together and while it's comfortable to draw cautionary parallels to the 'Big Men' of Africa and their history of wielding enormous power, President Salva Kiir isn't one of those, or at least not yet. He genuinely wants an end to the centuries-old conflict between tribes and the creation of a unified South Sudan. But for Mr. Kiir, the Dinka and Nuer, the former vice-president-turned-rebel leader's tribe, have fought for centuries. Indeed, for many doing so is a rite of passage and too few have the capacity that Mr. Kiir does as leader to rise above this history and, frankly, centuries-old method of resolving conflict. As a result, opportunists abuse their positions of power and Riek Machar is just such a man. It is completely understandable why he was turfed from cabinet. Unfortunately for Mr. Kiir though, the sacking allowed Mr. Machar to crack open long-standing fissures and create the current conflict.
On the ground, Bor, where fighting was alleged to have flared over the weekend, has always been the flashpoint for traditional conflicts and has hardly seen a peaceful period either before or after independence. This is the heart of tribal conflict for the whole country and the unhappy epicentre of this crisis. If you solve Bor, you unlock the key to Mr. Kiir's objectives for unity throughout the South. However, Bor is too often eclipsed by border issues between Sudan and South Sudan where most of the oil is located or along the Congolese border where the insecurity posed by the Lord's Resistance Army has led to food shortages and resentment by the state government. The international community are focused on these issues for obvious reasons but it misses a trick and could lead to wrong-headed proposals or some sort of templated approach to conflict resolution now unfolding in Ethiopia.
In other parts of Africa, these issues are eventually addressed through the painstaking negotiation of new power-sharing arrangements and the reintegration of rebels. But unlike these other conflicts, South Sudan has never been integrated nor are there partners prepared, or even equipped, to share in government.
Mr. Kiir needs more support now but this should not come in a dilution of his power through the accommodations being proposed with the rebels. The UN and the AU need to ramp up efforts within the country, particularly in Bor first and foremost. The rebels need to see that the government has support and that long-standing methods of resolving conflict will not be tolerated. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir needs to be convinced that this is an opportunity to finalize a deal on the border before outright war cuts both sides off from a vital source of revenue. And Mr. Kiir needs to know that this support comes with a price: our expectations that he will continue to seek to do the right thing and rise above a default to tribal fault lines.
So far, President Kiir has refused calls from the rebels and the international community to release the 11 detainees. "We're keeping the seats warm for them," explains one opposition delegate about the expected presence of the jailed leaders for the next phase of negotiations.
Those talks, scheduled for February, would focus on the details of a firmer "monitored ceasefire" and a political chinwag to try and patch-up the murderous political rivalries that have plunged the country into chaos.
Joseph Pickerill is a consultant in Toronto and a former member of the U.S. State Department's Conflict and Stabilization Bureau based in South Sudan between its referendum and independence in 2010-2011.