Those who want peace in South Sudan should give war a chance

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The cost will be high and people will die, mostly civilians, but through the fog of war will come clarity and one of two possible outcomes: a clear winner capable of shaping


By Daniel K. Kalinaki
A week ago, South Sudan, never shy to scrape the bottom of the barrel of suffering, dived back into the festering swamp of internecine violence. At least 300 people were reportedly killed in the fighting, with many more injured and at least 10,000 displaced from their homes.

One must feel for the people of South Sudan. This is not the independence they fought for. It is thus tempting, as many have done, to call for some kind of quick intervention, similar to that the UPDF did when fighting first broke out in December 2013. In fact, at the time of writing, it was clear that our troops would have to be reinserted, at least to guarantee safe passage for Ugandans and other foreigners fleeing from the danger.

Yet in trying to help our neighbours, we should be careful not to prescribe the wrong medicine. External military intervention is unlikely to be the solution to what is primarily an internal political contest played out violently.

Theory and practice are instructive here. Empirical evidence suggests that external intervention sometimes escalates armed conflicts, as happened in DR Congo, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, or postpones their inevitable recurrence, as seems to have happened in South Sudan and could well happen in Korea and elsewhere.

One of two conditions is necessary for armed conflicts to end with some form of permanence: the total destruction of one warring party by the other, as happened with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, or where both sides to the conflict see no possibility of a military victory, as played out in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.

Applying this theory to practice in South Sudan is illustrative. The most recent round of fighting was an accident waiting to happen since Vice President Riek Machar was allowed back into government and into Juba with 1,410 bodyguards bearing relatively light arms.

The incident that triggered the fighting – a confrontation at a roadblock that left five government soldiers dead—is neither here nor there; forces loyal to President Salva Kiir believe that they won the first round of the fighting (with the support of Ugandan troops) and do not see why they should share power and space with forces loyal to Machar. The latter believe they won the moral victory (and that they would have driven the former out of town if the UPDF had not been in the picture) and are similarly reluctant brides in this marriage of convenience.

Neither party was able to attain a complete military victory, and yet both still believe, incredulously, they can defeat the other in war. Our intervention postponed the problem but did not resolve it.

These are perfect conditions in which to give war a chance. The cost will be high and people will die, mostly civilians, but through the fog of war will come clarity and one of two possible outcomes: a clear winner capable of shaping the resulting political landscape as they wish; or the realisation that neither side can achieve complete military victory, leading to a genuine negotiated settlement in which new leaders emerge to de-escalate the contest between Kiir and Machar or even shift one or both of them outside the circle of influence.

There are things the world can do to help, of course. The UN and its agencies can continue to provide shelter and humanitarian assistance to those in need. The UN Security Council can and should impose an arms embargo to stop one or both parties leveraging external allies to gain an advantage, and cause an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity. Regional actors, including Uganda, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia can be compelled to stay out of the conflict or remain neutral.

But for South Sudan to achieve long-term peace and stability, the contest between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar and their respective constituencies must be allowed to play out once-and-for-all. Throughout classical history, it was clear that those who wished for peace had to prepare for war. Those who want lasting peace in South Sudan should give war a chance.

Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi.
Twitter: @Kalinaki

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