Three years ago this week, outside a makeshift polling station in Bentiu, South Sudan, I interviewed Riek Machar, vice president of the then semi-autonomous region. Machar had just cast his vote for South Sudan’s independence; I asked him what he would say to those who doubted that South Sudan, desperately underdeveloped and with experience of ethnic strife, could be a viable nation. “We will show them” he said, with a confident gap-toothed smile.
Today, doubters must feel vindicated. A power struggle between Machar and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir became public when Kiir fired Machar from the vice presidency in July. That political dispute has since metastasized into a bloody conflict with ethnic overtones. In a land where unchecked weaponry is ubiquitous, youth unemployment overwhelming, and military discipline fractured, this crisis has the potential to tear the fledgling nation apart.
Machar denies Kiir’s allegation of an attempted coup on Dec. 15, but acknowledges leading rebels opposed to the government. The United Nations now estimates that at least 1,000 people have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced.
The prospect of South Sudan descending into civil war has sent supporters of its succession scrambling. The U.N. authorized a significant increase in peacekeeping troops, the U.S. dispatched its envoy, Donald Booth, and the East African IGAD bloc is sponsoring negotiations in Ethiopia this week.
These initiatives seek to stop the violence — a crucial first step. And if the international community is satisfied with merely enabling diplomats to move on to the next crisis, this approach may be sufficient. But if the goal is to prevent this crisis from recurring in another six or twelve months, those with leverage over South Sudan, including both China and longtime U.S. supporters, such as Susan Rice, face a much larger challenge. They must convince South Sudan’s leaders to reform their entire structure of governance, and take seriously the task of ethnic reconciliation.