When not plotting military strategy to seize South Sudan’s crucial oil fields, former South Sudanese vice president-turned-rebel leader Riek Machar spends time reading the economic and political history Why Nations Fail.
Cynics might argue he would do better to simply look around his basic bush camp, where mutinous soldiers and an allied ethnic militia crammed with child soldiers prepare themselves to attack South Sudanese government forces, as a brutal four-month-long civil war in which thousands of people have already been killed intensifies.
“I didn’t want to fight any more war again,” Machar told reporters in a recent interview at his camp, saying people had been through enough fighting during Sudan’s long civil war, in which he was a guerrilla commander.
It was that war, which lasted more two decades, that paved the way for South Sudan’s independence from the north.
However, although less than three years old, the world’s youngest nation is spiraling toward collapse.
With a ceasefire deal in tatters, the UN fears more than 1 million people are at risk of famine and analysts warn the war is dragging in regional nations.
More than 1 million people have fled their homes, with violence worsening amid a renewed offensive by the rebel forces, as well as revenge attacks by multiple militia forces.
Peace talks in luxury hotels in Ethiopia have made little if any progress, while analysts say that any solution would require major changes, not simply more promises inked only on paper.
“Propping up the government in Juba and polishing its legitimacy with a dose of political dialogue and a dash of power-sharing will not end the conflict,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in a recent report.
On Thursday last week, hundreds of gunmen stormed a UN peacekeeping base in the flashpoint town of Bor, killing at least 48 men, women and children sheltering there from a rival ethnic group before peacekeepers fought them off.
The UN Security Council called the attack an “outrage” that may constitute a war crime.
“Badly outgunned peacekeepers are no match for the thousands of heavily armed forces and militias,” the ICG said.
When fighting broke out on Dec.15 last year, it was sparked by “primarily political” arguments between Machar and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, the ICG said, but the battles have since escalated, spreading to other states in the oil-rich but grossly impoverished nation.
“Ethnic targeting, communal mobilization and spiraling violence quickly led to appalling levels of brutality against civilians,” the ICG report said.
Atrocities were also carried out further north in the oil-hub of Bentiu, which the army said on Wednesday last week it had lost to rebel forces.
The UN aid agency said it had reports of “targeted killings based on ethnicity,” with “several dozen” corpses rotting on the streets.
The violence is rooted in decades-old grievances between former rebels-turned-political leaders, combined with unhealed wounds left over from the long civil war that preceded South Sudan’s independence from Khartoum, Sudan, in 2011.
The fighting is between soldiers loyal to Kiir against troops who sided with Machar, but has also taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir’s Dinka people against militia forces from Machar’s Nuer group.
Many of the fragile gains made by the billions of dollars of international development aid that poured in after independence have been lost.