Last month the UN Security Council went on a three-day visit to South Sudan. Five years after a referendum gave birth to the East African country, the delegation was in no mood to celebrate.
Fierce fighting between the army commanded by the president, Salva Kiir, and troops loyal to vice-president, Riek Machar, had left at least 300 dead over several days in July; local sources say the toll is vastly underestimated.
A UN base was attacked; foreign aid workers were beaten and raped when troops stormed a hotel compound. Mr Machar has since fled the capital, and machineguns have gone silent in Juba. But the calm may not last for long. The Security Council is pushing for the deployment of a 4,000-strong regional protection force—adding to what is already the UN’s third-largest peacekeeping mission, with 12,000 troops. Why does peace remain so elusive for the world’s newest nation?
The conflict has ethnic undertones. Dinka tribesmen make up most of Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), while Mr Machar’s SPLA-in-Opposition is primarily Nuer. Hate speech, ubiquitous on the radio and social media, is fanning the flames. But it is the country’s cynical elite that has allowed tribal tensions to fester. During the period that preceded the referendum, from 2005 to 2011, SPLA leaders made little effort to promote reconciliation within what was then the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region, where competition for recruits during the 22-year war for independence had left deep scars. Instead the overriding ideology was to secure support for self-determination, with the Sudanese regime in Khartoum blamed for every failing in its dirt-poor new neighbour to the south. That provided a cover for those in power, unchecked by Juba’s fledging institutions, to pilfer public coffers. South Sudan was born with very weak foundations on which to build a nation.
Post-independence leaders soon proved uninterested in achieving this anyway—something the country’s donors long failed to recognise. Created at a time when Iraq and Afghanistan dominated America’s agenda, South Sudan appeared to be the poster-child for Western conflict resolution. Accordingly, the child got spoiled: about $1.4 billion of international aid was allocated to the country for its first year after independence; hundreds of consultants were dispatched to the civil service, schools and hospitals. But it was all carrot and no stick. With no conditions attached, the money rarely found its way to infrastructure projects and public services. The consultants’ advice, especially when it was about boosting governance and reforming the army, was ignored. Chiefly focused on state-building, Western aid also failed to bring together estranged communities. All this left plenty of leeway for factional chiefs to whip up tensions and consolidate power, their rivalries culminating in a full-blown civil war in 2013.
Despite a peace agreement in August 2015, the strife was never really extinguished. A government of national unity took months to form; the demilitarisation of Juba, called for by the accord, did not happen. With his arch-rival in hiding since this summer’s clashes, Mr Kiir is now starting to make the right noises again. But his commitment to peace remains questionable. A leaked UN report alleges that government forces recently procured lorries loaded with fresh weapons, and two fighter-jets. America’s hardening stance is met with growing irritation: Americans were the first targets when soldiers ransacked the hotel compound in July—an attack that underlined the UN’s impotence. The opposition could remobilise too. Taban Deng Gai, the new vice-president, is seen as a ruthless politician. But his ability to rein in troops remains unproven.