Crisis in South Sudan

The world has a chance to show that the mistakes of the 1990s in ignoring genocide in Africa will not be repeated.

Tank in South Sudan Juba 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Hakim George)
Tank in South Sudan Juba 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Hakim George)
On Tuesday, UN officials announced that a mass grave containing 34 bodies had been found in the town of Bentui in South Sudan. On Wednesday, Washington announced that US Marines were being flown to Uganda to aid in the evacuation of American citizens and to carry out other missions as needed. These developments paint a picture of an escalating crises, even as rebel leader Riek Machar says he is ready for talks with the government.
Fears of civil war and ethnic conflict mounted last week in South Sudan when President Salva Kiir accused Machar, a former vice president, of plotting a coup. Kiir is a member of the Dinka tribe, South Sudan’s largest, while Machar is a Nuer, which is the second-largest tribe in the country. The ethnic-political split has stoked fears of vicious conflict, similar to that which marred Kenya’s 2008 election campaign, when thousands died.
South Sudan is one of the most diverse places in Africa, with more than 60 ethnic groups among almost 10 million people. The Dinka number about 1.5 million and the Neur around 800,000. These two groups have often dominated South Sudan. In the early 20th century, they fought several wars with each other. It was Dinka and Neur who dominated the rebel leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. John Garang (1945-2005), the driving force behind South Sudan’s struggle for independence from the genocidal Islamists in north Sudan, was a Dinka.
When South Sudan became independent in 2011, it crowned years of struggle. Aid workers and investment poured into the country. But the tragic breakdown last week taints the fight for independence. South Sudan faces terrible problems; it is desperately poor and is trying to improve its oil export infrastructure. It still faces intractable conflict with the north over several key oil fields. The last thing it needs is a simmering civil war that would transform it into a lawless region like Somalia or Syria.
Commentators have noted that the decline into tribal violence in South Sudan is part of an overall process in the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa, where tribal-religious violence is becoming ever-present. It is precisely for this reason that the international community must help to restore order in South Sudan. So far the international community has reacted by pulling out foreigners from the area, airlifting thousands of Americans and EU nationals on UN flights.
This is reminiscent of the failed UN mission in Rwanda two decades ago, where protecting foreign nationals was seen as more important than averting genocide.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, however, seems now to be showing commitment to the country. He has dispatched an additional 5,000 troops to the area and declared, “The United Nations will stay with you. We will do our utmost to protect you, to provide the humanitarian assistance you need, and most of all to help the country regain the path to peace.”
Supposedly, 11 senior South Sudanese politicians, some of them government ministers, detained by Kiir’s forces during the coup attempt have called for an end to violence.
African states such as Uganda have dispatched mediators to try to talk Kiir down from further action and find a solution. “We don’t want another Rwanda here,” one said.
Israel has been a supporter of the South Sudanese since before independence and has been keen to develop relations with the country. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman illustrated that with a phone call to South Sudan Foreign Minister Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin on Tuesday, saying he hoped the conflict would end soon and that Israel was prepared to send humanitarian assistance.
American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris has expressed support for the UN’s robust response.
“The US and international community were essential to creating the conditions for South Sudan’s independence, and now will be critical to ending the bloodshed, and to stabilizing the country and setting it on a hopeful course,” said Harris. These responses by Israel and by Jewish leaders are a step in the right direction. It is essential that US President Barack Obama and other world leaders speak out about this issue. The world has a chance to show that the mistakes of the 1990s in ignoring genocide in Africa will not be repeated.