South Sudan at Six

July 9th marked South Sudan’s sixth year as an independent country, but instead of celebrating, the people are mourning.

Just two short years into the country’s existence, a brutal civil war broke out at the end of 2013. Since then, the violence has created the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world with almost four million displaced — about half of whom are internally displaced and the other half refugees in neighboring countries.

This time last year, South Sudan was supposed to be on a path towards peace. The peace agreement brokered in 2015, the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS), was on its way to finally being implemented with the creation of a transitional government of national unity (TGNU). However, before the transitional government had a chance to fully form, violence broke out once again.

The world watched in horror as the last major attempt at a brokered peace in South Sudan crashed and burned in a major firefight outside of the Presidential compound. With about as much confusion surrounding the events as the original spark of the conflict in 2013, the renewed violence sent South Sudan into a downward spiral of chaos.

Riek Machar, who rejoined the government as First Vice President as a part of the TGNU, was run out of the country, and has been unable to return since. Horrific violence and mass atrocities spread to the previously “calm” Equatorias, with the UN warning of genocide in the region. More than six million South Sudanese — more than half the pre-war population — are facing severe food insecurity. And an entire conflict-affected generation is now plagued with trauma that will not be easy to recover from.

Now, one year after the July 2016 fighting, the international community has effectively given up trying to resolve the conflict, because they are out of ideas.

President Salva Kiir (left) — SPLM-IO leader and former Vice President Riek Machar (right)

For some reason, the only plan put forth to resolve the conflict, was to force President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar back together to lead the nation after spending the prior two years fighting an extremely violent war for power against each other. Brilliant right?

Why anyone thought the ARCSS would succeed in resolving the conflict is beyond me, but when it failed, after the July 2016 violence, it was almost as if the international community was willing to do anything to try and make it work. Their last grand idea was too big to fail. IGAD, the African Union, the United Nations, and the Troika were unwilling to accept defeat when it came to their horrifically designed peace strategy. So they forged ahead, making poor decisions backed by a false narrative that the ARCSS was still alive and being implemented; when in reality the ARCSS wasn’t even dead on arrival, it was never alive to begin with.

This brings us to the key issues standing in the way of resolving the crisis in South Sudan: the unwillingness to accept the fact that peace cannot be achieved in with either Kiir or Machar in power.

So far, all major intervention strategies have been built around the reality that Kiir is President. It is time to change that reality. Once it is widely accepted that neither Kiir nor Machar can be in power, new solutions to the crisis will emerge.

Peace is achievable, but only if bold action is taken to stop the fighting and install a temporary governing authority. This body would help stabilize the country, provide security and basic services, demobilize armed groups, return civilians to their homes, launch a national justice and reconciliation program, and pave the way for elections to be held.

New ideas and stronger coercive measures are needed to resolve this crisis. Regional governments must be willing to step up, step in, and bring an end to the violence, and the wider international community must support decisive action. The continued attempt to plug holes and address the symptoms of the conflict (famine, displacement, death, disease, and trauma) is unsustainable, especially as aid budgets continue to get cut as the demand continues to rise. The violence must end, and in order for that to happen, South Sudan’s leadership must change.

Today, South Sudan marks its Independence Day, but the people are by no means free. Their oppressors have just moved from Khartoum to Juba. It is the world’s responsibility to assist the South Sudanese people in bringing peace to their nation so that next year, South Sudan can celebrate its Independence Day free from war.