Whenever blood has been spilt in a conflict that involves tribal or ethnic elements, the way ahead always becomes far more fraught. This is exactly the scenario in which South Sudan finds itself after its sudden descent into violence in the last week – and yet the only way out of this situation for the world’s newest nation is for each faction to suspend the retaliatory attacks, put down their weapons and begin the process of dialogue to find a way forward.
A week ago, there was cause for cautious optimism that calm heads would prevail in the fledgling nation that many had mistakenly predicted would implode soon after its separation from its northern neighbour. Recent reports that at least three mass graves have been discovered – one in Bentiu, controlled by the Nuer tribe of sacked vice president Riek Machar, and two in the capital, Juba, which is held by troops still loyal to South Sudan president, Salva Kiir, of the Dinka tribe – bode ill for the prospects of finding a way forward that does not involve yet more bloodshed involving non-combatants who are targeted purely because of their ethnicity.
The familiar scenario of this conflict in South Sudan is one that has been replayed time and again in the developing world: the leaders of the rival factions act as if they are in a zero-sum game in which for one side to win, the other has to lose. The result is usually a series of escalating retaliatory raids that instead of producing a winner, merely ensures that both sides lose heavily.
One reason for the optimism about South Sudan’s prospects, despite the considerable difficulties of being a desperately poor nation recovering from the decades-long civil war that led to it splitting from Sudan in 2011, is that the zero-sum game had largely been absent. The nation’s presidential guard had until recently been a source of pride because it involved representation from the Dinka and Nuer tribes, the nation’s two most populous ethnic groups. But the violence that began 10 days ago was said to be initiated within the presidential guard and has since spread to civilians.
Commendably, both sides have expressed an intent to negotiate a resolution, and the international community quickly offered to mediate. The way forward from here is far from easy, but dialogue is the only alternative to more bloodshed and an escalating cycle of violence.