South Sudan: Will It Turn Into Another Somalia?

Two and a half million people died before South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, became independent in July 2011. But in just one week, fighting spread among former liberation leaders, thrusting the country into the cusp of a civil war.

President Salva Kiir, from South Sudan's Dinka ethnic group, the largest, has accused former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer and a long-time political rival, whom he dismissed in July, of trying to launch a coup. Presidential guards loyal to Machar clashed with a group loyal to Kiir last week and the conflict spread quickly.

No one is sure how many hundreds have died but the United Nations reported that 100,000 people fled their homes with 45,000 of them seeking refuge at UN bases around the country. The fighting, the worst in a decade, began as a power struggle but then sunk into ethnic cleansing.

The two rival groups had fought each other in the 1990s as part of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) and then combined forces in 2002. But Machar, articulate and highly educated, had blotted his reputation by siding with the Khartoum government for several of the war years.

In 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, with the help of the United States, the African Union and others, formally ended decades of civil war between the largely Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. The dead numbered 2.5 million. More than 4 million southerners were forced to leave their homes, many captured as slaves.

"The United Nations stood with you on your road to independence. We will stay with you now," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a news conference where he announced a substantial increase in peacekeepers.

From 7,000 to 12,000

Currently there are 7,000 UN peacekeepers and police, spread thinly around the country of 239,000 square miles, about the size of France. In a letter to the Security Council, obtained by this reporter, Ban proposed another 5,500 troops and 423 police.

The contingents are to be sent to South Sudan from existing UN missions: from the Darfur region of Sudan, from the Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia and the disputed region of Abyei on the Sudan-South Sudan border. They are to bring three attack helicopters, three utility helicopters and a C-130 military transport plane.

No time as been set for their arrival as troop contributing countries first have to give permission.

Rebels have moved close to Bor, the capital of the relatively large Jonglei state. Bor, site of a UN base, is where three U.S. aircraft flying into South Sudan to evacuate American citizens were attacked on Saturday and forced back. Four servicemen were wounded, one seriously. Kiir has told parliament government troops were ready to attack Bor.

Elsewhere in Jonglei, youthful attackers loyal to Machar pursued Dinka civilians who had taken refuge at Akobo, site of another UN base. Two peacekeepers from India and 11 Dinka civilians were killed, UN spokesmen said.

Emergency meeting

Ambassador Gerard Araud of France, this month's Security Council president, called an emergency meeting Monday and said the 15-member body would approve Ban's peacekeeping proposals Tuesday.

But troops can't solve the politics or punish torturers -- with reports of rapes and wanton shootings by government soldiers and executions on all sides. Secretary-General Ban said that efforts towards a political solution were ongoing "but have yet to gain traction."

Kiir, in his Twitter messages said he was ready to speak to "Dr Rieck Machar" without preconditions. Machar in turn told Reuters in a telephone interview that his imprisoned colleagues had to be released first.

The U.S. special envoy for the Sudan region, Donald Booth, visited 11 jailed opposition leaders "and he found them to be secure and well, and very open to ending the crisis through dialogue and reconciliation," said U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, who drafted the Security Council resolution.

But she told reporters that "as long as these two individuals are at loggerheads, refusing to sit down with one another, innocent people are being killed on nothing other than ethnic grounds."

And then there is oil

South Sudan, albeit impoverished, sits on three-quarters of all of Sudan's oil reserves. Compared to desert lands in the North, the South also has an abundance of fertile land and timber. But much of the wealth has been squandered on weapons.

Kiir, on his Twitter account, said Bentiu, where the oil reserves are located on the border with the Republic of Sudan "is in the hands of a commander who has declared support for Machar." Others dispute this but if oil is cut off, Khartoum could enter the fray on one side or the other, repeating its civil war divide and conquer policies.

Louise Arbour, president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, wrote at the time of independence that "southern leaders have to switch gears from the solidarity of the liberation struggle to the more mundane, though more divisive, tasks of running a democratic country. The signs are not encouraging. "

This week, her research and monitoring group warned that the fighting could reverse all the gains made in South Sudan.

"Too much has been invested in South Sudan since its independence in July 2011 for it to fail so soon, and with the potential for such grievous violence. Even if a cessation of violence can be achieved and political dialogue established, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army's re-opened wounds will be difficult to heal: if the fighting continues, that split will widen and engulf the entire country in a renewed war."

Like Somalia?

Civilians seek refuge at UN base in Bor, South Sudan
UN photo