By George Clooney & John Prendergast
After suffering so long for independence, South Sudan faces a new civil war. What the country’s leaders and the international community can do to contain the crisis.
The world’s youngest country, a mere two and a half years old, now stands on the precipice of a new civil war which threatens to hurl South Sudan back into the violence from which it just emerged. For the South Sudanese who fought and suffered so dearly for their independence, and for those around the world who supported the new state, this development is tragic and disappointing, but it is hardly surprising or without vast precedent.
Most African countries that emerged from colonial rule or long periods of dictatorship have experienced rocky transitions marked by violence and coups. Sudan itself, from which South Sudan split in 2011, was born into a civil war and has been rocked by three major coups since independence in 1956. Similar stories have plagued the neighboring states of Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, and Congo. South Sudan’s own fledgling state has been rendered vulnerable by a major rift in the country’s political leadership, where past unresolved grievances were left to fester.
When politicians use ethnic mobilization to promote their agendas, violence can metastasize quickly. The potential for explosion in South Sudan is even worse because of the billions of petro-dollars that have poured into the country, much of which were used to purchase sophisticated weaponry.
That there were going to be problems and even eruptions in the early years of this new republic was widely predicted. What is much more unpredictable, however, is how South Sudan’s leaders react to this, the biggest crisis their new country has yet faced. How they respond will dictate South Sudan’s fate for years to come, and decide whether it has a future more like prosperous Botswana or bloody Somalia.
The worst-case scenario is rapidly unfolding: political and personal disputes are escalating into an all-out civil war in which certain ethnic groups are increasingly targeted by the others’ forces and the rebels take over the oilfields. This will inevitably bring opportunistic leaders from neighboring Sudan into the fray, as Khartoum’s government has long exploited divisions within South Sudan and provided support to various armed groups to sow further division and destruction. Certainly the Sudan regime might see the instability in the oilfields as an opportunity to aggressively move into bordering regions, take possession of some of the southern oil areas, and keep the oil flowing northward.
There is a real opportunity here for South Sudanese leaders and the broader international community to respond in ways that could prevent the country from plunging into chaos and protracted conflict.