This op-ed, authored by board member John Prendergast, originally appeared on The Daily Beast.
Just a day after South Sudan marked its fifth anniversary as the world's newest independent country, fierce fighting between rival factions has resumed, putting the already tenuous August 2015 peace deal in jeopardy. Hundreds are alleged to have been killed in the last few days, and thousands displaced. Command and control on both sides of the fighting appears to have broken down. Nothing seems safe as UN buildings and personnel have been attacked and U.S. diplomatic vehicles have come under fire. Helicopter gunships and tanks have been deployed along with other heavy artillery. Regional leaders are actively promoting a ceasefire, but as someone from that region once told me, "The guns talk louder than the voice."
During the last half century, one African country after another has faced momentous and extreme forks in the road in which leaders’ decisions had profound, legacy-altering consequences. In South Africa, for example, President Nelson Mandela chose an inclusive, non-punitive path out of the racist apartheid era and prevented a full-scale war and economic breakdown. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), President Mobutu Sese Seko chose a divisive, violent path when confronted with political opposition internally and instability on his eastern borders, leading to a series of wars that have generated more deaths than any conflict globally since World War II.
South Sudan, Africa’s newest country, is also facing one of those consequential moments that will impact millions of lives. The onus of responsibility for deciding which fork to take rests squarely on the shoulders of South Sudan’s President Kiir, and First Vice President Machar. These are two of South Sudan’s founding father, but after leading the two primary rebel factions which fought each other in the 1990s, then unified to win the right to an independence referendum in 2011, they fell out again in 2013.
Their latest dispute led to a brutal new war that has driven two and a half million people from their homes and left nearly five million of their citizens “severely food insecure,” i.e. without enough to eat. Their actions and choices in the coming couple of months will dictate whether a three-headed dog from hell—famine, economic collapse, and inter-ethnic war—will be unleashed.
These three threats are grave and immediate.