South Sudan: Coming Apart at the Seams

By Eileen Shields-West
A South Sudan army soldier in Malakal, following clashes with troops aligned with Riek Machar. Reuters Photo/James Akena

This post originally appeared at Politix.

It was unbelievably festive on the day, July 9, 2011, that South Sudan became the world's newest independent country. From the United States, President Barack Obama sent a message that "the map of the world has been redrawn," and South Sudan's popularly-elected leader, Salva Kiir, declared that "the eyes of the world are on us now."

Two-and-a-half years later, South Sudan's President Kiir is right, again. This time, though, the world is looking with eyes wide open at a country that is tearing itself apart, and wondering if this new nation, born in celebration, after 50 years of civil war with the North, can manage to survive.

The latest fighting brings back memories of the country's darkest days. In just the past three weeks, an estimated 1,000 civilians have been killed and almost 200,000 displaced. Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, has seen the brunt of it. Rebels claim to hold it now, and say they are marching on toward Juba, South Sudan's capital. No one knows for sure. What is being reported is that those fleeing the fighting have overwhelmed United Nations bases, that thousands are hiding in the bush with little food or water, and that families are being forced to divide up, often sending children alone across the White Nile to safety, while parents stay behind, unable to afford the $30-a-person fee for the trip.

Ironically, it is not the North (or the separate country of Sudan) that is the main culprit this time, but South Sudan's own internal schisms caused by political jockeying, economic inequities and, most difficult of all, tribal rivalries. The two key players in the conflict are Kiir, who is a member of the Dinkas, the largest ethnic tribe - about 15% of the population - in South Sudan, and Kiir's former vice president, Riek Machar, a member of the Neur tribe, the second largest - about 10% - ethnic community.

Both men are charismatic, flamboyant (Kiir's trademark black cowboy hat; Machar's easy smile with the gap between his teeth), and played a vital part in fighting for independence for South Sudan. But the real mastermind of the peace accord with neighboring Sudan in 2005 - and the most natural leader - was John Garang, sometimes called the Sudanese George Washington. He died in a helicopter crash soon after the accord was signed and Kiir and Machar have rivaled for power ever since.

Kiir went so far as to dismiss his whole cabinet, including Vice President Machar, last July. And in mid-December he accused Machar of organizing a coup against him. That set the latest internecine warfare in motion. Now it seems out of control, even though, at the same time, there are supposedly peace talks taking place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Yet the fighting continues.

Secretary of State John Kerry has weighed in, saying the talks should not be a "gimmick" to buy time on the ground at the expense of civilians.

The question is whether South Sudan can stop tearing itself apart; or, will it become another failed state on the African continent where there are one too many already.