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SMITH: Threats to South Sudan’s fragile peace

Africa’s newest nation is still in turmoil

- - Monday, January 13, 2014

When an overwhelming majority of people in the then-autonomous region of South Sudan voted for independence two years ago, the world applauded, and the United States extended its hand in friendship and support.

South Sudan's vote to become the world's newest independent nation came after a long civil war with northern Sudan that was marked by the enslavement of African southerners by Arab raiders and a series of disputes with the north over borders and oil reserves.

Now, however, our investments of time and money (not to mention our best hopes for the new nation) appear threatened by what many already consider a civil war.

In recent weeks, oil fields have been seized and thousands have lost their lives in allegedly targeted ethnic killings throughout the new nation.

The oil field seizures have elevated a tragic internal dispute into a matter of serious international concern and have caused the government of Sudan to assist its southern neighbor in securing the oil that both nations need for their economic survival.

South Sudan produced 450,000 barrels of oil each day until last year, when an earlier nine-month dispute with Sudan reduced output to a mere trickle. Before the current crisis, it was thought production would not return to preconflict levels until sometime in 2017, but even that timetable will now be further delayed by the latest round of fighting.

Of even greater geopolitical concern, South Sudan is located in the middle of a regional tinderbox, surrounded not only by Sudan, but also by other conflict-ridden countries, including the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Lord's Resistance Army, infamous for kidnapping young children to serve as soldiers, still operates throughout the region and reportedly is already operating in Sudan's western Darfur region. Renewed instability in South Sudan will provide the terrorist group an inviting prospect for a new base of operations.

Islamic radicals have likewise infiltrated the area, most notably in Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. The recent developments in South Sudan provide just the kind of chaos in which these groups thrive.

South Sudan now faces critical choices. How it handles the world's appeals for reconciliation will determine bilateral relations, foreign assistance and investment for years to come.

Long-standing ethnic conflicts have obviously never been resolved, but must now be addressed if a lasting peace is to be established. Ignoring the rising climate of tension in South Sudan has only allowed interethnic disputes to become the basis for heightened conflict that already engulfs wide masses of the people — even a younger generation that would presumably be less invested in ancient ethnic animosities.

While a slight glimmer of hope emerged when the eight-nation East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development established face-to-face talks in Ethiopia, the prospects for success are not good.

Twenty-eight of every 100 civilians in South Sudan possess weapons, and the military — which might be expected to keep the peace — has been racked by waves of pay riots and desertions owing to the government's frequent inability to meet army payrolls.

In a majority-Christian country whose religious communities run most schools and health care facilities, church leaders such as Catholic Bishop Eduardo Kussala might fulfill the role of honest broker for long-term reconciliation efforts. What's more, the churches offer a promising channel to reach the people of South Sudan over a sustained period.

This current Sudanese crisis provides yet another challenge to the international community, whose influence and staying power now must be leveraged to support a fragile new nation in its development of a rule of law, a democratic political system and a process that will allow antagonistic ethnic groups to form a common identity.

Two years is not a long time to create a political system that effectively guarantees the rights of all citizens, but the South Sudanese have little choice in the matter. Geography, history and ethnic divisions have joined forces to impose just such a time frame upon them.

The world's newest country now needs all the help we can give.

Rep Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of its Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations subcommittee.