South Sudan’s Road to Peace

If South Africa's political factions could reconcile, so can South Sudan's warring parties.


With the world’s media squarely focused on conflict in the Holy Land and the upheaval in Ukraine, the ghastly suffering of the people of South Sudan goes virtually unreported: 10,000 people have been killed there over the past 7 months. One-and-a-half million have been forced to flee their homes. The country is on the brink of famine.

This week, the people of South Sudan will wait for a conversation to begin again, one that could lead their country out of months of extreme suffering — or could fail to bring them any resolution.

Peace talks between South Sudan’s two warring factions are set to resume on Aug. 10 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, hosted by the East Africa regional body, the International Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

Despite a ceasefire agreement, President Salva Kiir and his former vice president and rival Riek Machar have kept silent for weeks while conflict has continued to rage. The leaders of the warring factions are now left with just days to formulate a plan for a transitional government of national unity before IGAD’s next deadline on August 10 — just days to pave a way out of suffering and misery for their people.

Seven months ago, following a political fallout between Kiir and Machar, violence engulfed the newly independent country. The consequences have been profoundly brutal. Ethnicity has been mobilized for political and military purposes, pitting communities against each other and tearing apart the country’s social fabric.

Communities across South Sudan have been so consumed by the conflict that they have been unable to plant food. Markets where trade recently thrived have been laid to ruin. The United Nations describes the situation as the worst food crisis in the world. It is a crisis that may be officially declared a famine unless immediate action is taken by Kiir and Machar to find a way to work with each other — for all the people of South Sudan.

If these two politicians think working together is impossible, they need only consider the recent history of my own country, South Africa, where bitter enemies established a government of national unity and jointly laid apartheid to waste.

It was possible in South Africa because of the caliber of an extraordinary cadre of leaders, epitomized by Nelson Mandela. Mandela understood that magnanimity, grace, and leadership were inextricably intertwined. In former President F.W. de Klerk, he found a willing negotiating partner. They had little in common. They did not always agree — and neither did their supporters — but they rose above themselves and narrow party political positions. Together, they received Nobel Peace Prizes in 1993. South Africa held its first democratic election, peacefully. Some called it "miraculous."

If it was possible in South Africa, it is possible in South Sudan. If it was possible for Mandela and de Klerk, it is possible for Kiir and Machar.

Of course, South Africa did not achieve its peaceful transition on its own. Sustained political, moral, and economic pressure from the international community contributed enormously to getting the negotiations going.

The situation in South Sudan is crying out to the international community for help. For support for the talks, for assistance in averting a growing humanitarian crisis, and for guidance in ensuring that the peace process achieves the right outcomes for the people of South Sudan.

Nearby countries can anticipate receiving increasing numbers of South Sudanese refugees, which is why neighboring governments should put aside their differences to support a peaceful settlement for South Sudan’s crisis.

I remember well the joy that came with South Sudan’s independence just a few years ago, a powerful moment brimming with the hopes and dreams of a prosperous and peaceful nation. I visited South Sudan as it celebrated its first year of independence. The people I met were hopeful that the long and hard-fought road to peace would now lead to schools, roads, hospitals, and a healthy and prosperous future.

That dream is still within reach, but both sides need to approach these talks with the honesty and earnestness that are essential to lay the groundwork for success.

A commitment to discussion can always overcome strife and struggle, no matter how great. Reconciliation is the fruit of dialogue and forgiveness, and will lead to healing and moving on from the past. It is a conversation that begins with Kiir and Machar and should go on to embrace all of South Sudan’s people.

The humanitarian needs are almost overwhelming. Of the 1.5 million people forced from their homes, 100,000 still seek protection in U.N. bases and many more lack adequate protection from violence and access to food, sanitation, and water.

If South Sudan’s leaders fail to reach out to each other and restore peace, if they fail to comprehend that our shared humanity is our greatest gift, they will forever bear the burden of this growing human disaster.

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