NAIROBI, Kenya (The New York Times) — Tens of thousands of civilians dead, countless children on the verge of starvation
, millions of dollars stolen by officials, oil wells blown up, food aid hijacked and as many as 70 percent of women sheltering in camps raped — mostly by the nation’s soldiers and police officers.
Just a few years ago, South Sudan accomplished what seemed impossible: independence. Of all the quixotic rebel armies fighting for freedom in Africa, the South Sudanese actually won. Global powers, including the United States, rallied to their side, helping to create the world’s newest country in 2011, a supposed solution to decades of conflict and suffering.
Now, with millions of its people hungry or displaced by civil war, a radical question has emerged: Should South Sudan lose its independence?
As international frustrations and worries grow, some momentum is growing for a proposal for outside powers to take over South Sudan and run it as a trusteeship until things calm down.
Several academics and prominent opposition figures support the idea, citing East Timor, Kosovo and Bosnia as places where, they say, it has worked, though of course there are plenty of cautionary tales where outside intervention failed, like Somalia and Iraq.
The Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani recently floated a plan in which the African Union would take the lead in setting up a transitional government for South Sudan. Ideally, Mr. Mamdani said, none of the current South Sudanese politicians who have helped drag their nation into civil war would be able to participate, and the trusteeship would last around six years, requiring United Nations support.
“The response to the crisis will need to be as extraordinary as the crisis,” he said.
But there is one not-so-little problem. Many South Sudanese might not go for it.
According to James Solomon Padiet, a lecturer at Juba University, most members of the nation’s largest ethnic group — the Dinka, who include South Sudan’s embattled president, Salva Kiir — are adamantly set against an international takeover. While smaller ethnic groups would welcome it, he said, the powerful Dinka see it as an affront to their sovereignty.
For that matter, so does Mr. Padiet, a soft-spoken scholar who is not a Dinka. He called trusteeship “offensive” because South Sudan has a potential crop of good leaders waiting in the wings who haven’t had a chance to rule. Still, Mr. Padiet conceded, the country desperately needs help.
“As we speak now,” he said, “South Sudan is at crossroads of disintegration or total fragility.”
Clashes have spread to new areas of the country, and ethnic-based militias are mobilizing in the bush. It’s all a staggering plunge from the country’s birth. I, along with hundreds of other journalists, was standing in a crowd that felt like a million people on July 9, 2011, the insanely hot day when South Sudan broke off from Sudan. The sense of pride, sacrifice, hope and jubilation will be hard to forget.
For decades, South Sudanese rebels had battled the better-armed, Arab-dominated central government of Sudan. They fought in malarial swamps and on sweltering savannas, incredibly hostile environments where it’s hard to survive, let alone wage a guerrilla war on a shoestring.
The South Sudanese had absorbed bombings and massacres. The Arabs stole their children and turned them into slaves. As a result, many South Sudanese were scattered across the four corners of the earth — the famous Lost Boys, but also many Lost Girls, ripped from their families and forced to flee to cold foreign places that they had never envisioned.
On independence day, South Sudan’s capital, Juba, partied until dawn. Lost Boys swigged White Bull (the local beer) next to hardened guerrillas bobbing their heads to reggae rap. All around us, there seemed to be a real appreciation of what had been achieved and what lay ahead. Most important, there was unity.
That crumbled quickly, undermined by old political rivalries, ethnic tension and a greed for South Sudan’s one main export: oil. The fault line was the most predictable one, the Dinka versus the Nuer. The two biggest ethnic groups had alternated between allies and enemies throughout South Sudan’s liberation wars.
Starting in December 2013, after a breakdown between their political leaders, who not so long ago had been hailed as heroes, Nuer and Dinka militias began killing each other and civilians across the country, especially in ethnically mixed areas.
Women were raped. Children were burned to death. Some people were even forced at gunpoint to eat the flesh of their dead relatives. The horror has been meticulously documented. Still, it goes on.
For years, the United Nations has stationed thousands of peacekeepers in the country, but often they have not intervened. In 2012, shortly after independence, I rushed to a remote town, Pibor, where hundreds had just been massacred by an ethnic militia.
I saw one woman who was literally holding her arm together — she had been blasted by a Kalashnikov — as she sat in a medical tent that smelled of decaying flesh. She stared at the wall, not making a murmur. I interviewed peacekeepers who told me how they had watched civilians get shot right in front of them, yet the peacekeepers felt too scared to raise their rifles.
United Nations officials in Juba have been excoriated for failing to spring into action and effectively step between Mr. Kiir and Riek Machar, the former vice president and the most influential Nuer, as their rivalry intensified and grew into nationwide bloodshed. This is a big reason some people think an international trusteeship will never work.
“Having completely failed in the international state-building project, now we’re going to move to an international takeover? With what army?” asked John Prendergast, who has been working on South Sudan for 30 years and co-founded the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group.
“Would the same international bureaucrats that undertook massive state-building experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan come to Juba to lead another failed political intervention?” he added. “It all seems fantastical, doomed and extremely unlikely.”
Other scholars take a middle view. Amir Idris, chairman of Fordham’s African and African-American studies department and a frequent writer on South Sudan, said an international trusteeship should be considered — but only as a last resort.
He says the most important issue is that a new government be built with new people, including academics and technocrats.
“South Sudan has no chance of transitioning itself to a functioning state unless the edifice of the current leadership is brought down,” he said.
Bronwyn Bruton, the deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, called South Sudan’s leaders “such a disaster.” She said Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar were “corrupt,” “self-interested” and “willing to stoke ethnic conflict and commit horrible violence in pursuit of power.”
“Genocide is beginning to look inevitable,” she said. “The situation could hardly be more hopeless.”
But she worries that no country has the appetite to spearhead a meaningful intervention. The Obama administration considered several ways to help usher in a political transition, a former administration official said, but eventually concluded it was not feasible.
It’s not as if Mr. Kiir or Mr. Machar or their inner circles, who are widely believed to continue to profit from oil and conflict, are going to volunteer to step aside. Thousands of armed men are intensely loyal to them, and even a few friends left in Western capitals make the case that the South Sudanese government has stabilized Juba in recent months, has become more inclusive and should be allowed to stay.
One glimmer of hope comes from across the continent. In the last few days, troops from several West African countries banded together to eject Gambia’s president, who tried to stay in power illegally.
If such resolve was demonstrated in this part of Africa, then maybe, the interventionists argue, South Sudan’s leaders could be pushed aside and the country would be allowed to breathe.