In South Sudan, the only thing worse than a warlord in government is a warlord out of government. This week, the political party of the Nuer, the country’s second-largest ethnic group, just ditched its longtime leader and wartime military commander, Riek Machar, for Taban Deng. Deng, a relatively obscure figure best known for serving as the Nuer rebels’ lead negotiator in South Sudan’s 2013-2015 civil war, was sworn in today as Machar’s replacement in the vice presidential office.
— Eye Radio Juba (@EyeRadioJuba) July 26, 2016
Some South Sudanese observers seem to think that the leadership shakeup marks a “sea change” in the country’s history.
— Mading Ngor (@madingngor) July 25, 2016
But there’s good reason to be skeptical of rosy reports out of Juba these days.
For one, Machar was not present for the pro-Deng vote or for his successor’s swearing in. The ousted VP and longtime rebel commander has been in hiding for the last two weeks, ever since devastating attacks by Dinka militias left many of his bodyguards dead over South Sudan’s Independence Day weekend (Machar’s residence was also bombed in the attacks).
As you might expect, Machar doesn’t like that he’s been replaced. He further suspects that President Salva Kiir has welcomed Deng’s rise—there’s speculation that the whole thing is a palace coup engineered to elevate a Nuer leader more amenable to the Dinka president’s agenda. The WSJ:
Nyarji Roman, a Machar spokesman who is also in hiding, said the replacement of Mr. Machar is a conspiracy to overthrow him and that Mr. Machar fired Mr. Deng on Friday for holding unilateral negotiations with Mr. Kiir.
It’s hard to imagine that Machar’s the kind of commander who will just go and rest under his vine and fig tree now that some of his old supporters don’t want him in charge anymore. Conflict entrepreneurship is how Machar makes his living. He’s been leading militias in the region since the 1980s.
What’s more likely to come next is this: Deng and Kiir agree to deescalate the tensions between their Nuer and Dinka militias, while Machar leads a rump faction of the Nuer in open rebellion. In other words, an immediate return to civil war is looking more likely than it was a few weeks ago.
And is the world prepared to respond to another round of civil war in South Sudan?
Not at all. We saw a test run of how the AU, UN, and US would respond to another outbreak of hostilities in South Sudan when the gruesome clashes broke out two weeks ago—and it’s clear none of those actors are prepared to bolster the tenuous UN peacekeeping operation, let alone mount some kind of intervention. The BBC:
When the fighting started, UN peacekeepers were blocked from getting more than 500m from their bases by government checkpoints.
Thousands of people rushed into the already crowded protection of civilian camp known as UN House in Juba.
Its numbers swelled to more than 35,000 as heavy fighting took place nearby.
Water trucks were not able to deliver the 150 loads required every day, and a shell hit an armoured UN vehicle inside the base. Two peacekeepers were killed and others injured.
Close by to UN House, international aid workers were attacked by soldiers – some were raped and badly beaten. The UN was unable to reach them to help.
A World Food Programme warehouse containing enough food for 220,000 people for a month was completely looted – even the fabric of the building was taken.
A week ago, the African Union pledged to send troops to bolster the peacekeeping mission, but President Kiir’s supporters vehemently oppose any intervention (presumably because their group, the Dinka, is presently in power and they haven’t been the victims of recent clashes).
— Mading Ngor (@madingngor) July 21, 2016
In rebuking a potential AU force, Kiir is taking a leaf out of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s book. Earlier this year, Nukurunziza demonstrated a simple lesson: When the president of an African state does not want AU troops to be deployed in his country, all he has to do is threaten to shoot at them and they won’t be deployed.
The conditions are mounting for a return to civil war in South Sudan. A palace coup has strengthened the position of the country’s president, while simultaneously freeing up his rival and onetime VP to go back to his familiar shtick of rallying militias against the central government. Meanwhile, the international response has been tested—and found wanting. If there’s a civil war to be had in South Sudan, no one’s going to stop it.