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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Could the personal feud that sparked South Sudan's civil war also be the key to peace?

History is littered with deadly rivalries, but the world's youngest country must find a peaceful end to a long and brutal conflict

Former child soldiers wait in line in the war-torn region of Yambio, South Sudan, during a graduation ceremony from a programme that aims to help them reintegrate into society. AFP / Stefanie Glinski
Former child soldiers wait in line in the war-torn region of Yambio, South Sudan, during a graduation ceremony from a programme that aims to help them reintegrate into society. AFP / Stefanie Glinski

An adolescent girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in childbirth than she is to finish primary school. That is just one tragic reality in a country broken by a civil war that turned five years old this week.

South Sudan’s descent into conflict was quick and vicious. The nation had existed for just two years when president Salva Kiir sacked his deputy, Riek Machar, accusing him of plotting a coup. Soon violence erupted, at first between government troops and Mr Machar’s rebel army, then across a patchwork of militias vying for supremacy and territory. Throughout the conflict, rape and sexual violence have consistently been deployed as weapons of war by all sides.

To date, some 400,000 people have died, four million have been displaced, six million face severe hunger and thousands of children are missing – many of them separated from their families and vulnerable to abuse and violence. According to Unicef, 9,000 have been recruited as child soldiers. South Sudan is high in the running for the title of world’s most dysfunctional state.

At its heart, the civil war is based on a personal feud between two men. This might seem to imply that it can be brought to an end if Mr Kiir and Mr Machar just put aside their differences, but that argument is far too simplistic. Once a war is under way, and multiple parties become involved, the initial spark loses significance. It becomes its own beast and is hard for anyone to tame.

But hope still rests on Mr Kiir and Mr Machar. In October, they met in Addis Ababa, under the stewardship of Ethiopia’s dynamic new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. Amid growing international pressure and targeted US sanctions, a peace deal was signed, implementing a ceasefire and paving the way for a transitional government, in which Mr Machar returns as Mr Kiir’s vice president next year.

In the days and weeks following the accord, sporadic gunfire broke out in the north between government forces and the primary pro-Machar militia. This sparked fears that peace efforts could collapse, as a similar 2015 agreement had. With the transitional government scheduled to come into effect in May 2019, a tense five months lie ahead.

There are reasons for cautious optimism. The negotiations that produced the accord involved governments from neighbouring Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda. Onlookers hope that the agreement – like Gambia’s surprisingly peaceful and swift transition to democracy in December 2016 – will fulfil a notion widely endorsed by those with an interest in the continent: African solutions to African problems.

Keen to see peace and prosperity re-emerge to its south, Sudan has offered to rehabilitate its neighbour’s oil fields, which could save the country’s battle-scarred economy.

But with so much resting on a handshake, some are sceptical. On Thursday, the US national security adviser, John Bolton, threatened to pull all US aid from South Sudan. “We will not provide loans or more American resources to a South Sudanese government led by the same morally bankrupt leaders to perpetrate horrific violence,” he said.

History is filled with personal rivalries of colossal – and often deadly – import. For instance, had Leon Trotsky beaten Joseph Stalin to lead the Soviet Union after Lenin’s death in 1924, millions of people might not have been killed.

As South Sudan so painfully illustrates, the sudden creation of a nation state frequently produces internal power struggles. The hurried departure of colonial powers from Africa left myriad ethnic groups, tribes and religious communities forced together within arbitrary boundaries drawn in European capitals. As a result, a generation of rebel commanders turned communities across the continent into armies.

In the early 1990s, western governments rolled out the red carpet for Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afwerki, the leader of neighbouring Eritrea.

Both former rebel commanders, their forces had co-operated to topple the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose Communist military junta, the Derg, took power in 1974, following the overthrow of emperor Haile Selassie. When the dust settled, Ethiopia recognised Eritrea’s demands for a 1993 referendum on independence, which passed with more than 99 per cent of the vote.

But soon a personal feud developed between Mr Isaias and Mr Meles. In 1996, Mr Meles offered Mr Isaias one of his aircraft to fly to Eritrea, following a holiday in Kenya. En route, the plane caught fire, carrying out an emergency landing in Addis Ababa. A leaked US cable reveals that Mr Isaias accused Mr Meles of trying to kill him and his family. Thereafter, mistrust festered between the two.

The small town of Badme sits on a stretch of the Eritrea-Ethiopia border, which was created by Italy in 1902. With both countries claiming the town, low-level fighting killed several Eritrean officials nearby in 1998. As Eritrean troops rushed to the border, Ethiopia’s air force bombed Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. The Eritreans hit Mekelle in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and Ethiopia retaliated by flattening the Eritrean Red Sea port of Massawa. The Ethiopia-Eritrea war killed as many as 100,000 people between 1998 and 2000, and rumbled on until July this year, when a landmark peace deal was signed.

But while distrust and animosity between warring individuals can be a major obstacle to peace, there are also instances where personal relationships have expedited the process.

This was certainly the case in Suriname, a tiny South American nation, sandwiched between Guyana, French Guiana and Brazil. In 1986, a personal disagreement between the country’s de facto head of state, Desi Bouterse, and his former bodyguard, Ronnie Brunswijk, started a civil war. The Surinamese army razed Mr Brunswijk’s village, killing 39 villagers and burning down his house. The Jungle Commando – a guerrilla group founded by Mr Brunswijk to secure equal rights for the country’s Maroon ethnic minority – fought back.

The eventual agreement, reached in 1991, after hundreds of civilian deaths, involved much compromise from the two old adversaries. The Suriname government ended up promising jobs to the Maroons and integrating Jungle Commando into the national army. Mr Brunswijk, the former guerrilla commander, now sits in the nation’s parliament.

Five years into South Sudan’s war, its people desperately need a similar end to the bloodshed. For now, the country’s fragile peace appears to be holding. Again, the eyes of the world have turned to Mr Kiir and Mr Machar. Some nervously anticipate a further disagreement that could propel the world’s youngest country back into all-out war. Others remain cautiously optimistic that they can reach a rapprochement. Their personal relationship is both the greatest threat and the most promising element of this miserable and punishing conflict.

Updated: December 17, 2018 07:27 PM

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