Ending War in South Sudan: A New Approach


On December 15, South Sudan will have been at civil war for three years. In 2013, just two years after the country seceded from Sudan and gained independence, fighting broke out in the capital between forces loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. The political struggle between Kiir and Machar dating back to the 1990s, and divisions within the ruling party, quickly devolved into full-scale civil war, pitting tribal groups against each other. Leaders manipulated ethnic identities and mobilized members of their respective tribes. Forces loyal to Kiir were mainly from the Dinka tribe, and were pitted against Machar’s tribe, the Nuer.


The death toll of the war in South Sudan is at least fifty thousand people, although the United Nations stopped counting in 2014. Privately, humanitarian officials note this is figure is greatly underestimated. Other news outlets estimate the figure could be as high as three hundred thousand people killed. In three years, the civil war has displaced 1.8 million people internally and caused 1.1 million people to flee the country. Approximately 40 percent of the population faces severe food shortages, and almost 75 percent is dealing with some degree of food insecurity. Needless to say, the situation is dire.


In a new Center for Preventive Action (CPA) report, Ending South Sudan’s Civil War, author Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, argues that the only way to save South Sudan is by putting it on “life support.” To ensure the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, she proposes that the United Nations, in coordination with the African Union (AU), establish an international transitional administration to run the country for ten to fifteen years. Instituting a transitional administration, and taking power over the country from current leaders, would be an extreme measure. Almquist Knopf argues, however, that it would provide the “clean break” that South Sudan needs to end fighting between tribal groups, rebuild the economy, strengthen institutions, and heal from three years of civil war and decades of violence. Lessons from other UN transitional administrations—such as those in East Timor, Kosovo, and Liberia—could be applied to shape a more peaceful and inclusive future for South Sudan.


Because the United States played a unique role in fostering the country’s independence, it is well-placed to help guide the transition from civil war. As a road map toward establishing an international transitional administration, Almquist Knopf proposes the United States should:

  • Foster a negotiated exit for Kiir and Machar, in coordination with South Sudan’s neighbors, using tools such as offering amnesty, pressing the AU to establish a hybrid court, and instituting time-triggered sanctions and an arms embargo through the UN Security Council.

  • Reach out to Kiir and Machar’s core partisans and family members to defuse spoilers and persuade them to accept the UN and AU administration.

  • Conduct sustained high-level diplomacy with South Sudan’s neighbors, other states in the region, and the AU to design the international transitional administration and generate support for it.

  • Conduct a diplomatic campaign with UN Security Council members and donor countries for them to endorse and secure funding for an international transitional administration.

The United States has allocated $1.9 billion in humanitarian assistance to South Sudan since the outbreak of the civil war, and contributes greatly to the UN peacekeeping mission there. The report’s proposed approach would not necessary be more costly. According to Almquist Knopf, investing in an international transitional administration would be more effective than the current U.S. policy approach. It would finally put an end to the violence and offer the people of South Sudan an opportunity to build an inclusive, representative, and legitimate state.


Read Kate Almquist Knopf’s Ending South Sudan’s Civil War for a full analysis of the challenges South Sudan faces and how the United States can help foster a transition out of civil war.




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