Analysis: Fighting In South Sudan May Be Difficult To End

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Written by Andrew Friedman

On Tuesday, January 7, delegations representing the warring sides in the fighting in South Sudan met face to face for the first time in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The meetings formally began the previous Saturday, but discussions were delayed due to disagreements on the status of government-held prisoners.

Rebel forces aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar are demanding the release of 11 rebels implicated in the alleged coup attempt. President Salva Kiir and his Government forces have refused to release the rebels but have promise that all charges would be investigated and the detainees would be subject to the full due process of law, with those found not criminally culpable being released.

After an outright rejection of this possibility by Machar’s rebels, Kiir’s government came back with another offer. Under this proposal the negotiations would be moved from the Ethiopian capital to the United Nations compound in Juba, allowing the 11 detained individuals to attend negotiations during the day and return to government custody at night.

The rebels seem to have rejected this offer as well, but negotiations aimed at stemming the ongoing violence and pulling the country back from the brink of civil war are now taking place in Gaslight, an Addis Ababa nightclub. The new venue has the parties complaining of poor lighting and excessive noise.

As divisive as the pre-conditions and other negotiation issues appear to be, it is nowhere near the only factor that seems to lend itself to the belief that the county’s instability will not end soon.

War is easier than Politics

Cameron Hudson, a former advisor to a number of State Department envoys to the fledgling state, recalls a story where Machar shared with him a number of issues with the power sharing agreement.

The former rebel fighter, who had spent so much of his life battling for independence from the regime in Khartoum, found himself struggling with the intricacies of politics. Additionally, Machar explained that “…war was easier than politics because in war you knew who was shooting at you…”

This is a common problem amongst post-colonial states and new democracies that went to war for their independence. Often it is immensely difficult for former rebel fighters, used to a certain lifestyle and accustomed to a certain life-saving paranoia, to transition to politics.

The new battlefield is bereft of guns, disease and many of the horrible tragedies of war, but the stakes are the same. The fate of a new nation rests on the decisions these former rebel commanders make but their hard-earned skills do not always translate to the new arena.

This subject was recently explored by a group of UN experts in the context of post-war Liberia. Among the problems put forth by the Panel is the ability of former rebel generals, regardless of their political station in the new state, to mobilize and command vast groups of soldiers that were formerly under their control.

This creates what researcher Ilmari Käihkö refers to as “…semi-autonomous groups outside of any state authority…”

The parallels between the Panel’s conclusions and the situation in South Sudan are troublingly evident.

“White Army”

Without regard to the actual (rather than alleged by either side) timeline of events, it is simply remarkable how quickly Machar was able to mobilize the feared “White Army”, a “… loose grouping of armed youth from the Nuer ethnic group [that] was at least partly responsible for the 1991 Bor massacre, in which at least 2,000 people were killed,” after being accused in an alleged coup plot.

The political realities of a power-sharing government, without the common enemy in Khartoum to bind, created immense tensions that bubbled under the surface. It took only a few events for the political leaders to fall back into the role of rebel military commanders.

The ease with which this transition took place is troubling for the future of the world’s newest state.

Since fighting broke out there has been a tendency for analysts to attempt to categorize the conflict as either ethnic or political. In one narrative the sacking of the government by Kiir was an attempt to cleanse the government of the overly ambitious Machar and Machar went to war in an attempt to gain political power he was unable to win at the ballot box.

In the other predominant narrative there has been an underlying tension between the Dinka and the Nuer going back to the early 1990’s that took only a small event to set off.

In reality, evidence amongst scholars of civil conflict suggests that most, if not all, civil conflicts are set off on multiple cleavages. Both narratives contain elements of truth and neither explains everything.

The multiple elements of the conflict, the ease in which the former rebel leaders fell back into their role as military commanders and the seemingly dug-in stance of the rebels make it difficult to imagine a smooth and quick resolution.

One can only hope that the negotiating teams remember that as they sit at the table people are dying and being displaced and a resolution should be found.