Addis Ababa is the location of the headquarters of the African Union, which has been deeply involved in the search for an end to the civil war in South Sudan. So, too, has the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The Obama administration was a prime sponsor of the process by which South Sudan became independent four years ago, and has contributed over one billion U.S. dollars to the country since the conflict erupted in 2013. As such, President Obama’s visit to Addis provided a good opportunity for talks at the highest level on the conflict in South Sudan. The Obama administration is blunt: the humanitarian disaster now underway is the result of unscrupulous political leaders who have exploited an ethnic conflict that they cannot control.
Currently, there is little optimism that South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and his former vice president and current rebel opposition leader, Riek Machar, will accept a peace keeping and power sharing deal sponsored by neighboring countries by an August 17 deadline. The hope is that this deal would put an end to the brutal ethnic warfare between Kiir’s Dinka people and Machar’s Nuer people, and the consequent humanitarian disaster. On July 27, President Obama and the presidents of Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, the Chairperson of the Africa Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and the foreign minister of Sudan met to consider next steps. According to the media, the conversation focused on what next steps might be if the two South Sudanese warlords do not accept the peace keeping and power sharing deal by the deadline.
According to the media, the leaders discussed possible additional sanctions. In the past, U.S. officials have raised the possibility of economic sanctions and an arms embargo to pressure Kiir and Machar to come to an agreement. One non-U.S. participant, not identified, also raised the possibility of the deployment of regional forces if there is no agreement by August 17 or, if there is, to enforce the terms of the agreement. However, an anonymous U.S. official is reported by the media as saying that the group did not reach a consensus on next steps.
Neither an arms embargo nor an intervention force are easy options. Despite conflicting views within the administration, the U.S. joined Russia and China to veto a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo. An African intervention force, however constituted, would likely require substantial international support in terms of money and materiel. On the other hand, an African intervention force could be the first step toward the creation of an institution that could exercise a trusteeship of a state that has failed.
South Sudan’s current chaos is a reversal for the Obama administration’s approach to Africa. It has devoted much diplomatic and political capital to South Sudan up to now, to little avail. But, so too did earlier, successive administrations over more than a decade. Indeed, the plight of South Sudan under Khartoum’s occupation before 2005 became a rare, African issue of widespread concern to American public opinion. The “lost boys of Sudan” was its face as a public issue.