South Sudan Faces Uphill Struggle for a Longer-Term Peace

With a fragile cease fire in place, South Sudanese look at how to salvage their delicate democracy

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Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / REUTERS

South Sudanese refugees walk at a border gate in Joda, in the Jableen locality in Sudan's White Nile State, after arriving from the South Sudanese war zones of Malakal and al-Rank, January 16, 2014.

The temporary truce signed on Thursday by South Sudanese politicians may have halted hostilities that, according to United Nations and humanitarian estimates, have resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 people – and displaced half a million more –since fighting began in December, but a sustainable peace remains far off, diplomats and experts say. “The country can fall apart; it’s sort of half unglued now. Even if there’s a ceasefire, who knows if that’s going to stick as it doesn’t resolve any the underlining problems,” said Tom McDonald, who worked on Sudan issues as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe during the Clinton presidency. “A lot is at stake because we have invested time and diplomatic capital and lots of money there to stand up this country.”

Two and a half years ago, the world celebrated the birth of the new nation in the hope that dividing Sudan would end the violence in the war-torn country. The U.S. poured billions of dollars into helping build South Sudan’s government and ministries. So how, in such a short amount of time and with so much support from the international community, could things fall apart?

Some, like Eric Reeves, a professor of English at Smith College, and an expert on Sudan and South Sudan, say the U.S. and the West expected too much too quickly from the South Sudanese and that the UN should have overseen a period of transition while a constitution was written. John Prendergast of the Enough Project, a nonprofit anti-genocide organization that works in South Sudan, lays the blame more squarely on the Obama Administration. “There was a gulf from the last special envoy last spring until the new special envoy [was appointed] in the fall,” Prendergast says. “During that period, already existing problems were incubating and exploding to the surface. The U.S. didn’t have that envoy and team to work that issue as diligently as needed.”

The last U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, stepped down on March 22, 2013, and his replacement, Donald Booth, wasn’t named until August 28. During that five-month lag, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir made what his opponents call an authoritarian power grab, firing and imprisoning 11 members of his cabinet. Kiir accused them of attempting to orchestrate a coup with his then Vice President Riek Machar, who escaped arrest in July.

National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden disputes both Reeve’s and Prendergast’s assessments, arguing that the U.S. is by far the biggest presence and donor in South Sudan. “The U.S. Government, up to and including President Obama, has remained deeply engaged throughout 2013, even as we worked to identify a new special envoy,” Hayden said. President Obama sent Kiir a letter of concern in March, and senior U.S. officials met with their South Sudanese counterparts in April and May in Washington and in the South Sudanese capitol of Juba. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kiir in Ethiopia in May and spoke with him by phone in July.

Moreover, while the country is young, it has ancient prejudices that burst to the surface at every turn. Although only two of the 11 cabinet detainees were ethnically Nuer, Machar’s Nuer tribe rallied against Kiir’s Dinka tribe in response to the arrests. Some Dinka soldiers killed civilians who couldn’t identify themselves in the Dinka language, according to U.N. reports. Nuer rebels killed two U.N. peacekeepers who were protecting Dinka refugees. That prompted the U.N. Security Council to send in an additional 5,500 peacekeepers, bringing its total force in South Sudan to 12,500, the largest in the world after the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “This began as a political struggle, but it became ethnic within the first day or two,” Reeves says. “After decades of war [with Sudan], there is a simmering tribalism that bursts through for almost any reason.”

For the past month, Machar has resisted reconciliation, insisting that Kiir first release his cabinet allies. The ceasefire doesn’t determine what will happen with the detainees, though the South Sudanese government says it envisions amnesty for them after they go through trials. “Our position is there should be no preconditions to cessation of hostilities,” a State Department official told TIME, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But at the same time Machar has a point that any long-term agreement relies on a meaningful political dialogue and they can’t have that unless those detainees are at the table.”

Reeves says that with so much mistrust between Machar, Kiir and the rest of the cabinet, reforming the government and writing a constitution protecting minorities is going to be a challenge. “The question is if we’re seeing a crescendo or descendo,” Reeves says. The rebels “are people with a lot of grievances with the government. They are not looking to Machar for leadership. I doubt he can control even a third of the rebels. This is the beginning of the really hard part and that is to get a wider military stand-down by all groups.”

The longer this takes, the harder it will be not just for South Sudan but Sudan as well. Sudan refines and exports the oil produced in South Sudan. With most of the foreign workers evacuated due to the violence, oil production has come to a virtual halt, further straining Sudan’s already feeble economy. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir “is in a very tough position. The Sudanese economy is imploding much more rapidly than news would suggest,” Reeves says, pointing to shortages of cooking fuel, bread and gas. “If [oil production] doesn’t come back online, a budget that already had huge gaps, to put it mildly, will be stretched to the breaking point.” The worry, say diplomats, is that Bashir will decide to invade the oil-producing parts of South Sudan to protect Sudan’s economy and his own position as president. And that could lead to a war between the two countries that might be far deadlier the current conflict in South Sudan.