Three days after its fifth Independence Day, bombs are bursting in air over South Sudan. And they’re not fireworks. Hundreds are reported killed following clashes by rival ethnic militias in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, this weekend. The AP:
Explosions and heavy weapons gunfire are shaking South Sudan’s capital Juba Monday in the fifth day of clashes between government and opposition forces, raising the specter of a return to civil war. […]
Considerable fighting has centered around the U.N. base in the Jebel area, where some 30,000 civilians have taken refuge. The opposition also has a base near Jebel and their leader [Riek Machar] also has his home there.
Two government helicopters have been bombing areas near the base while ground forces shell the base, including a camp of tens of thousands of displaced civilians, according to a source within the U.N. compound, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. The displaced civilians are mostly of the Nuer ethnicity and sought protection from the U.N. after a series of government-led killings of Nuer in Juba in 2013 which sparked the civil war, according to an African Union commission of inquiry. […]
U.N. peacekeepers have not fired at the troops shelling the base, said the source in the base, who accused the soldiers with U.N. blue helmets of abandoning their positions.
“U.N. peacekeepers, they even run away,” he said. “They are not stopping it.” U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan are mandated to use lethal force to protect civilians under imminent threat in South Sudan.
Unless U.N. blue helmets hold steady and are willing to use force, Juba could be another Srebrenica. Ethnic enclaves, civil wars, and U.N. peacekeepers are an unstable mix. It’s certainly a scene to monitor as this situation develops.
The bigger picture out of South Sudan is what we could call the post-Independence Day phenomenon. Just as the normally quarreling countries of the world come together in the spirit of humanity to face an alien foe in the movie Independence Day, the various ethnic groups of South Sudan fought together mostly under a single banner in the independence struggle against the distant North. Now that independence has been secured and the common enemy has withdrawn, it’s back to business as usual. In this anarchic setting, with no strong political institutions to resolve disputes among groups, the South’s many factions have splintered and the stronger groups tend to prey upon the weaker, who in turn must arm themselves.
There is so little trust among groups in South Sudan that even when their leaders reach an entente, it may not mean much to the rank and file. It’s unclear at the moment whether President Salva Kiir is fully in charge of the military, which draws mainly from his Dinka ethnic group, or whether Vice President Riek Machar has total loyalty of the Nuer militias. Earlier this weekend, they held a joint press conference to disavow the violence and call for peace. Either they’re not fully in control, or at least one of them is saying one thing to the public and another thing entirely to his troops.
As South Sudan’s power-sharing agreement falls apart, someone in South Sudan is channeling Caesar’s ghost to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. As for the domestic fury and civil strife ahead, the omens are legion. From thousands of miles away, the easiest ones to interpret are the comments on the U.S. Embassy in Juba’s Facebook page: