The Security Council has authorized almost doubling the United Nations peacekeeping force in strife-torn South Sudan to nearly 14,000 in the face of a rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian crisis that has left hundreds of civilians dead and tens of thousands of others driven from their homes.
As requested by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Council unanimously approved a temporary increase in the strength of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to up to 12,500 military and 1,323 police from a current combined strength of some 7,000, through the transfer of units if necessary from other UN forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Darfur, Abyei, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, UN News reported.
In a resolution passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which authorizes the use of force, the 15-member Council demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities and the immediate opening of a dialogue between the rival factions, and condemned the fighting and violence targeted against civilians and specific ethnic and other communities as well as attacks and threats against UNMISS.
Tensions within South Sudan, the world’s youngest country which only gained independence in 2011 after seceding from Sudan, burst out into open conflict on 15 December when President Salva Kiir’s Government said soldiers loyal to former deputy president Riek Machar, dismissed in July, launched an attempted coup. Mr. Kiir belongs to the Dinka ethnic group and Mr. Machar to the Lou Nuer. Last week, 2,000 heavily armed assailants stormed an UNMISS base in Akobo, in restive Jonglei state, in a brazen attack that left some 20 Dinka civilians dead as well as two UN peacekeepers, with a third wounded, and which today’s resolution condemned in the strongest terms.
“I have consistently called on President Salva Kiir and opposition political leaders to come to the table and find a political way out of this crisis,” Mr. Ban told the Council at its meeting, citing reports of ethnically targeted violence, other extra-judicial killings and mass graves. “Whatever the differences, nothing can justify the violence that has engulfed their young nation.”
The Council resolution demanded that all parties cooperate fully with UNMISS as it implements its mandate, in particular the protection of civilians, and stressed that efforts to undermine the mission’s ability to implement its mandate and attacks on UN personnel will not be tolerated.
The ongoing political violence could have been prevented if the current political leadership, in particular President Salva Kiir heeded to the call for dialogue with his critics lead by Dr. Riek Machar, the former Vice President. The root causes of the crisis are political. The failure of reaching a consensus on contentious issues of democratization of the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) Party, the inclusivity of the government, and the implementation of the constitution and democratic principles are at the core of the political crisis. The future of the state of South Sudan relies on its ability to address these core questions through national democratic dialogue that respects the diversity of political views and their constituencies.
History has taught us that political violence is not preordained. Rather, it can be avoided if the underlying causes are understood by the political leaders of the polity. Political violence always has its history and politics. The ongoing political violence in South Sudan has a distant and a recent past. The distant past is the history and legacy of colonialism; the recent past is the absence of democratic governance. British colonialism institutionalized ethnic identities through the policy of indirect rule. Political and judicial powers were given to traditional leaders to administer their territories which are considered ‘homes’ of specific ethnic groups. This policy transformed flexible cultural communities into conflicting political communities. Conflicts replaced coexistence. Politics became ethnicized. Political disagreement turned into ethnic hostility and conflict. Hence, political demands were made in ethnic terms without regard to the national interests of the country.
When South Sudan gained its political independence in July 2011, sadly, the new state has not been able thus far to devise a workable vision to address these pivotal historical challenges and in turn has been unable to realize the political and economic aspirations of its citizens. Instead, corruption, nepotism, mismanagement of public resources, and the absence of law and order as well as the growing tendency of undemocratic practices has become the dominant characteristics of the national and state governments. Against this backdrop, the recent leadership crisis within the SPLM and the subsequent ethnically driven violence should be understood. It’s the failure of the state and its leadership in governing democratically and inclusively.
The painful lesson that all we can learn from the ongoing deadly violence is that the existing government has utterly failed to provide creative and imaginative responses that could have saved the country from descending into violence. The current state of affairs cannot stand; the first phase of the post-independence state is crumbling and cannot be held without major transformations at the political and economic levels. However, for the next phase to succeed, concerted efforts have to be made by whoever assumes the leadership of its government to seek creative political strategies to lessen the ethnicization of politics and institutionalize democracy as a system of governance. If they do so, South Sudan would embark on an inclusive journey similar to South Africa marked by the spirit of reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.
Amir Idris is Professor and Chair of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York City, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.