Over the last few weeks, the international community has turned its attention to the ongoing crisis in South Sudan, one that began almost exactly three years after the country held its first-ever elections after seceding from Sudan. The United States, United Nations, and African Union have all contributed to efforts to encourage peace, and observers have already begun discussing how South Sudan will rebuild after the conflict is over.
The conflict began in mid-Decemberwith fighting in a military barracks in Juba, the capital, which President Salva Kiir labeled an attempted coup by his former Vice-President, Riek Machar. Kiir had fired Machar in July. Fighting quickly spread throughout the country, and the availability of arms allowed many civilians to become involved. Violence between the Dinka and the Nuer, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, led to abandoned neighborhoods in The International Crisis Group estimates that there have been close to 10,000 casualties in South Sudan, and hundreds of thousands of people are displaced.
A New York Times Room for Debate column along with articles on The Atlantic’s website and the blog African Arguments have considered the role of the international community—particularly the U.S. and other Western powers—in a post-conflict South Sudan. Hank Cohen, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, noted that South Sudan started with very little in the way of infrastructure—only 35 miles of paved roads, little access to electricity or running water, and few schools. In supporting a UN trusteeship for South Sudan, Cohen argued that, unlike African countries that gained their independence in the 50s and 60s, South Sudan had little support for its governance—practical help with the challenge of governing a new nation. G. Pascal Zachary, for The Atlantic, also supported trusteeship for South Sudan, and the article’s headline, “Post-Colonialism,” anticipated the numerous criticisms of neocolonialism.
South Sudan will likely need some form international support—the AU hosted peace talks, the UN and NGOs are providing aid—but the extent of what that can and should look like is unclear. The US was instrumental in helping South Sudan gain its independence, and so some have claimed that we have a unique responsibility—and opportunity—to help South Sudan recover. And the pieces calling for foreign governance are correct in identifying infrastructure as a significant limitation to statebuilding.
The crisis brings up the question of international responsibility to intervene. Foreign and UN troops are on the ground in the country, but how long should they stay? What is the correct balance of military, civilian, and technical support? At what point would their presence move beyond support and into either neocolonialism or, post-transition, supporting an unstable government?