South Sudan: A Conflict Trap Victim?

South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan in July 2011, after a pattern of secession wars beginning as early as 1972. Since independence, the nascent country has been plagued with internal conflict and political strife: ethnic disputes in the Jonglei State, a refugee crisis from neighbouring Sudan to the North, and bitter disagreements over access to and revenue from oil resources. In 2013, a civil war within South Sudan erupted when President Salva Kiir accused Vice-President Riek Machar of organising a coup d’etat against the administration. Machar denied these claims, and split from the governing coalition of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to lead the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – In Opposition (SPLM-IO). Fighting broke out between petty SPLM and SPLM-IO forces, eventually growing into a civil war. Negotiations, mediated by a coalition of international institutions such as the UN and the AU, as well as individual member-countries like the US and the UK, brought forth a number of ceasefire agreements, eventually culminating in Machar’s return to the capital as Vice-President in 2015. However, after fighting broke out once more in 2016, Machar fled, and President Kiir appointed a different opposition leader to the position of Vice President, splitting the SPLM-IO. Internal fighting within the opposition has become a major part of the conflict.

Due to ethnic implications of the conflict (the rebel and government are mostly split along ethnic lines) and fighting in the southern regions (the agricultural center of the nation), ethnicity-based violence and famine have been prevalent. This has sparked an unprecedented refugee crisis, also called an internally displaced peoples (IDPs) crisis, affecting 1.6 million South Sudanese trying to escape starvation and violence. Many are fleeing into neighbouring countries in the central sub-Saharan African region, already overwhelmed with conflict, IDPs, and refugees from other conflicts.

The 2016 Fragile States Index names five of Africa’s central sub-Saharan states, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as ‘very high alert’ states, which are particularly at risk for instability and violence. A state’s status is measured by an aggregate of social indicators such as demographic pressure and human flight (the ‘brain drain’), economic indicators such as poverty and inequality, and political and military indicators such as state legitimacy and factionalized elites. It has been argued that these countries are caught in a regional ‘conflict trap’, where conflict in fragile states of one region bleed into another. This effect has to do as much with norms and sentiments — the spread of a sense of ‘chaos’, war crimes like genocide becoming more acceptable, leaders’ sense of fear leading to increased government repression — as with practical matters of proximity, such as the movement of arms, crime, and massive groups of refugees from one state to another. All of these regional factors are exacerbated by porous borders, corrupt politicians, rampant crime, and transnational terrorist groups, all of which characterise conflicts and instability in this African region.

The international and pan-African communities, desperate for robust states to stabilise the central sub-Saharan region, have taken shaky steps towards peace in South Sudan, seeking a regional stabilizer. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) declared an international transitional administration ‘the only remaining path’ for the re-establishment of a territorially sound, democratic, and secure South Sudanese state. The CFR report urges a joint UN-AU transitional government to make a ‘clean break’ from the politicians and political structures that plunged the nation into war in 2013. It also recommends that the United States adopt a major role in the new government, which should be in place for ten to fifteen years, through funding, diplomacy, and implementation.

The ‘conflict trap’ of failed and fragile states in sub-Saharan central Africa is a regional problem that will not be solved by the robust statehood of just one regional power. Although achieving relative stability in South Sudan might solve the immediate crisis, similar pan-African and international interventions must be made into the ailing governments and violent conflicts of the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, and Sudan. International efforts must also be made to curtail transnational terrorist groups that spread unprecedented and horrifying violence across these nations’ borders. Only through a combination of international, continent-wide, and regional cooperation can peace be restored to these nations at the center of a long cycle of violence.

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