South Sudan, a largely Christian area of East Africa, broke away from the Arab-dominated Sudan and became the world’s youngest state in 2011. Despite much international good will and a wealth of oil reserves, the new nation descended into civil war in 2013, a conflict that has forced 2.2 million of its 12 million people from their homes.
But today marks real hope the war will end. East African leaders are gathering in the South Sudan capital of Juba for an important ceremony. The government of South Sudan has agreed to a peace deal with rebel forces.
The suspension of fighting represents a victory — not least for South Sudan’s civilians but also for international mediators who conducted peace talks in Ethiopia, enduring many fits and starts in the negotiations.
The Obama Administration also deserves credit. Last month, it threatened both sides with a year-long arms embargo and target sanctions. Those threats helped bring both sides kicking and screaming to a deal. The agreement, however, should come with a healthy dose of caution.
There’s a good reason why negotiations had stalled and Team Obama felt obligated to twist so many arms. South Sudan’s government has serious reservations about the deal. And it’s not hard to see why. South Sudanese President Salva Kiir opposes provisions that turn over security around the capital, Juba, to an outside force, gives rebels the governorships of two provinces and creates an international commission run by foreigners to monitor the deal.
But the humanitarian and international pressure on all sides for a deal has been mounting, with some 200,000 refugees currently housed in United Nations refugee camps, up from just 120,000 in April. Getting the refugees back in to their homes is essential if the country is to begin hearing.
The two sides in South Sudan distrust each other but their self-interest should triumph over their fear. The only way peace will return to South Sudan is if the Western powers don’t just celebrate a cease fire but establish a lasting peace. That includes the hard work of supporting the democratic institutions they helped create, combating corruption and convincing voters that the use of ballots is always better than the use of bullets.