What ails South Sudan

Breaking out of the "coup-civil war trap" is hard

South Sudan refugee
(Image credit: AP Photo/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin)

What sadness.

A decade ago now, the world, including George W. Bush and George Clooney (remember them?), mobilized to stop a genocide in Sudan. The long and tortuous process eventually led to an independence referendum whereby South Sudan became the world's newest state, escaping the atrocious clutches of Sudan's International Criminal Court-indicted dictator Omar al-Bashir.

Sadly, and all-too predictably, violence against ordinary Sudanese did not end. Instead South Sudan quickly imploded into ethnically driven civil war.

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The political scientist Philip Roessler fingers the problem nicely: the "coup-civil war trap."

The coup-civil war trap arises when political institutions are weak and ethnic groups are strong. Violence is dispersed among powerful Big Men who are embedded in and supported by different ethnic groups. And economic benefits are primarily derived from controlling the central government. Under such conditions, peace is often contingent upon power-sharing, in which the ruler strikes alliances with rival Big Men. These alliances allow the ruler to mobilize support and collect information from outside his own ethnic group, which in turn helps to secure peace and prevent civil war.But the potential danger is that in sharing real power with ethnic rivals, the ruler leaves himself vulnerable to a coup d’état. [The Washington Post]

Typically, the ruler then tries to safeguard his position against a coup by consolidating power. But this makes his partners only afraid that he is gearing up to purge them. Each, fearing that the other will move, has a great incentive to preemptively strike. And off to the races we go.

This is roughly what happened between South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (he of the iconic hat) and former vice president, now rebel, Rick Machar. Predictably, the war is drawn along ethnic lines, among Kiir's Dinka and Machar's Nuer.

Peace talks begun early this year have, if not collapsed, exactly, then ground to a halt, as the conflict grinds on, leaving many South Sudanese displaced.

The country, one of the very poorest in the world, simply does not need that. South Sudan could have proved a beacon of hope for the world; instead it seems intent in proving every negative stereotype about Africa (which this columnist enjoys spending time combating).

What is the solution?

One possibility favored by political scientists is the strengthening of institutions, especially political parties, so that conflict is played within the constraints of democracy. Another important step would be to professionalize the military, so that rebel groups are integrated into it and that military promotion is according to merit, not ethnicity or patronage. Those things are necessary, but also easier said than done.

There is no magic formula, but two stakeholders — one earthly, one spiritual — could be enlisted.

The first is the U.S. South Sudan is a poor country with few sources of income. One of them is oil. The other is the U.S.

South Sudan is dependent on foreign aid, particularly from the U.S., a legacy of American involvement in stopping the genocide. So the U.S. could play a key role in brokering a peace deal if it upped the pressure on the stick side, and perhaps offered a sweetener on the carrot side, particularly if it demanded an oil-sharing agreement between different factions along with increased foreign aid.

The other broker could be the Catholic Church.

The statistics are murky — as most are in the region — but by all accounts, South Sudan is majority Christian and animist (an indigenous religion). The Catholic Church, in particular, is especially strong in South Sudan, as it often is in countries bereft of governance, where it can be the only reliable institution.

Kiir pretends to be a devout Catholic, but perhaps in his heart there is still some fear of God left. The Catholic Church used to make and break monarchs. Perhaps even with an assist from Pope Francis, it could take the lead in pushing the parties to an agreement. By using the threat of excommunication, by building popular movements for peace, and by being one of the few remaining trusted honest brokers in the country, the Church could play a key role in hammering out a deal and bringing the parties together.

It might not be enough, but it's a start.

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