The South Sudan crisis becomes more difficult to solve by the hour. The window of opportunity to avoid a full scale civil war is rapidly closing. But, finding a viable solution is dependent on a precise diagnosis of core issues involved.
The crisis was triggered by what seems to be an uncontrolled escalation of the power struggle within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). During last weekend the unresolved leadership crisis created high tensions in Juba; a spark was sufficient to set off the powder keg. Despite some claims to the opposite, it appears that no one had planned any ethnic cleansing or coup on beforehand. The crisis does however seem to morph into a full-scale rebellion with ethnic undercurrents.
The combination of a weak South Sudanese state and a highly militarised population is the fundamental reason for the escalation of the crisis. Most of South Sudan has been neglected and virtually autonomous; the rural areas are only covered by a thin membrane of central governance. Civilian police has had limited reach outside towns. Thousands of murders have taken place every year. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army – counting more than 100 000 soldiers – continues to be a quilt of militias and military units loyal to one commander. Under the guise of contested leadership at the central level, units – even whole divisions – may break away, either to join other groups or to pursue their own grievances and interests.
The state of general insecurity and violence has made it difficult for people to return to a peaceful, civilian life. Many possess both firearms and military skills. Systems of local mobilisation for protection and revenge are common. The current crisis has already triggered local violence and will certainly make it more likely that the state of insecurity will intensify. Political leaders might even want to encourage these civilian groups and exploit the potential power imbued in them, but the politicians might easily lose control.
Time is almost up for finding an acceptable negotiated solution where both sides can appear as winners and the central government may still regain control of the new-born nation. The more killings and destruction condoned or order by the main political proponents, and the more hate propaganda they allow being circulated; the larger the political chasm will become and the more difficult it will become to find a solution. Meanwhile, what for a while appeared to be a country might rapidly fall into pieces.