Secretary of State John Kerry met with his African counterparts in Kenya on August 22 to discuss the tragic crisis in South Sudan. If this latest effort to salvage peace in the world’s newest state fails, then it’s time for new thinking.
A little background should help us see what that new thinking might look like. While Sudan was still one country (until 2011), it was geographically the largest state in Africa and one of many multiethnic ones on the continent. All else equal, large and heterogeneous states are harder to govern than small, more homogeneous ones; most of Africa’s larger ones (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Ethiopia) are not in great shape. While that is not necessarily a good argument for breaking them up, it’s what African and Western leaders, led by Washington, achieved with the diplomacy that produced the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 and the independence of South Sudan in 2011. We did this for reasons that seemed unchallengeable at the time.
Between 1956, when Sudan gained independence, and the 2005 agreement, Sudan was caught up in violent conflict most of the time. Poor leadership and an exclusionary ideology were at the core of the problem. The situation came to head in 1989 with the arrival of an Islamist regime in Khartoum that indulged in such butchery toward the south and western Darfur that Sudan lost nearly all external support and control of its southern provinces. Southern leaders—with significant outside help—took up arms to end northern oppression, working with Western and African diplomacy to produce the CPA, which was to have ushered in a transition to either self-rule or independence for the south. In 2011, the Nuer, Dinka, and scores of other smaller groups opted overwhelmingly for the latter choice.
The CPA might have worked better had South Sudan’s founding nationalist, John Garang, not died at the very start of the transition in mid-2005. Nevertheless breaking up a giant but fragile state out of sympathy for the oppressed, and on the strength of one visionary leader’s promise, was a dubious choice by southerners and their champions abroad.
Sadly, as events since the December 2013 outbreak of bloody civil war make clear, the leaders of independent South Sudan have proven themselves unworthy successors to Garang. In a well-governed country, they would be serving time for their corrupt, vicious, and predatory behavior toward each other and their own civilian population. Neighboring states, the African Union, the United Nations, and Western nations have repeatedly tried to get them to return to negotiations in order to restore some form of inter-ethnic power sharing.
Since the latest fragile peace broke down in July, outsiders have once again been trying to help, proposing similar ideas and authorizing additional, more robust UN troop contingents in hopes of protecting civilians, as well as the UN’s other, less robust contingents. Their efforts are unlikely to succeed for long, if at all. Civilians—along with oil and guns—are the stakes in this leader-driven, ethnic bloodletting that expresses itself mainly in Nuer-Dinka antipathy.
There are three options. We can continue writing checks and beating our diplomatic heads against the wall. We can avert our eyes from South Sudan’s trauma and let nature take its course, as the jackals and hyenas circle around. Or we can try to mobilize broad global and African support for a temporary suspension of South Sudan’s sovereign license to destroy itself.
This would mean devising and operationalizing a plan for the international administration of the country for a transitional period. It’s been done before: for example, in Timor l’Este during the Australian-led, UN-authorized stability operation (INTERFET), followed shortly thereafter by the creation in 1999 of a UN transitional administration (UNTAET), which succeeded Indonesian control of the territory and led it to independence in 2002. Other examples of temporary, full, or partial international control include Liberia and Kosovo. But lest such a plan be tagged as a re-importation of Western imperialism, this time the plan would have to wait for unanimous support among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. That, in turn, must be preceded by a clear supporting action in the African Union.
This is no time for Monday-morning quarterbacking over the consequences of breaking up Sudan. No one can put Humpty Dumpty back together. The only way to a solution is to think forward, and a transitional international administration will at best buy some time to work toward some kind of sustainable political and constitutional order. It will not be easy to achieve such an agreed transition.
U.S. policy must strike a delicate balance going forward. The U.S. government along with its Western partners, must play a supportive role, but it cannot play the lead role. China has a potentially critical role to play given its oil interests in the Sudans and the presence of its peacekeepers in the current UN operations in both South Sudan (UNMISS) and Darfur (UNAMID). However, only African states and their leaders can take up this diplomatic burden, and only they can legitimize it. It is their interests that are most directly affected. It is as much fear for the region’s future as hope for South Sudan that should impel the members of the African Union to act. By acting to help the people of South Sudan, they will also be helping themselves to build a sounder regional security system.