President Uhuru Kenyatta on 26th December led a special EAC contingent into talks with President Salva Kiir of South Sudan 11 days after fighting broke out in the youngest African nation, leading to thousands being killed and hundreds of thousands being displaced.
In the most vicious conflict in Eastern Africa since the 21 year war that led to the formation of South Sudan, President Kiir is pitted against his own deputy president in what he called an attempted coup. With the spread of the violence it emerges that it is the President’s tribe the Dinka who are at loggerheads with the Nuer tribe of Deputy Riek Machar.
What is shocking about the conflict is the escalation of violence, with reports of Sudanese killing Sudanese in horrific manner; using knives and stones and amputating limbs of victims. United Nation officials believe thousands have been killed since violence erupted at a SPLM meeting, when President Kiir accused his deputy Machar of plotting a coup. Violence has since spread to half of the country’s 10 states.
The speed at which the situation has deteriorated has given rise to fears of a civil war and the thousands of deaths thus far warn of an impending genocide. It is for these reasons that President Kenyatta’s drive to negotiate between the warring factions is timely.
This being the first international crisis of its kind that President Kenyatta is handling as the leader of the East African Community, as a nation we are keen to see him emerge successful from the talks. Barely 11 days ago, President Salvar Kiir had full control of his country, a matter that has since become contentious, with rebel forces at first seizing control of key towns of Bor the capital of Jonglei State and Bentiu the main town of the oil producing state of Unity. Since then, the government troops have retaken Bor and are attempting to regain control of Bentiu.
The struggle to stabilize as a nation is one that South Sudan has had since the referendum forming the state in 2011, the country is divided ethnically and politically and there are still several armed groups still active.
The genesis of the situation in South Sudan speaks volumes of the casual manner in which we as African nations dealt with the young state. Even as they struggled to unify under one flag, the African Union stoically ignored the simmering tensions and flare ups in the country. Never once during its short national history has South Sudan fully experience national peace and security. Sporadic fighting continuously interrupted the fragile fabric of the nation, and an ongoing tense relationship with the Khartoum government of Sudan would from time to time contribute to the insecurity in the region.
It is imperative that this time round, not only the East African Community but the African Union as well step in to seek long term resolutions to the conflict in South Sudan. At the rate of the violence going on, it is only a matter of days before a full on civil war erupts in the country, and this would dramatically affect the region.
Unlike the past 21 year war that the South has endured, this time, both parties to the conflict are well armed and well trained. Indeed from the reports of the violence, deaths and displaced people, the propensity for a civil war in South Sudan becoming a terrifying and devastating conflict the likes of Syria is quite high.
As a continent, we have the nasty habit of ignoring conflicts within to our own detriment, always waiting for the UN or Western nations to intervene. Even in the case of Libya, the African Union merely made a few rather toothless resolutions far too late in the day when the country was far gone.
Seeing as the conflict in South Sudan is only 11 days old, the intervention of the EAC led by President Kenyatta is applause worthy. However, with an estimated 81,000 people already displaced and a death toll of nearly 3000 people in just 11 days, this situation has escalated far too rapidly for it not to have deeply rooted precedents that the EAC must have known about and did not respond to. It certainly is no secret that there was indeed a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his Deputy Riek Machar.
Even as we hope for a positive outcome from the talks and hopefully an end to the conflict, we need to acknowledge that our response to simmering tensions in neighboring countries like South Sudan and the Central African Republic is lackluster. It’s time the leaders of the African Union as a collective stop spewing rhetoric about African solutions and actually forge towards realistic and sustainable measures.