The U.N. Security Council’s swift political and military response to the civil strife in South Sudan is welcome, but the country’s troubles seem far from dissipating. When violence broke out in various districts of the world’s newest republic a fortnight ago, analysts saw it as an attempted coup against President Salva Kiir by forces under the command of former Vice President Riek Machar. Mr. Machar’s rebel troops were initially successful in taking control of several strategically important towns in South Sudan, including in the oil-rich Unity state. Since then, fighting has intensified in the country’s capital Juba and other provinces, with the United Nations reporting that “thousands” have been killed and nearly 80,000 displaced internally. Meanwhile, the civil war is rapidly snowballing into a full-fledged ethnic conflict — President Kiir belongs to South Sudan’s largest tribe, the Dinka, while his deputy-turned-rival hails from the Nuer tribe. The Army has been split along these tribal lines, with soldiers battling their own ranks and engaging in indiscriminate killing of civilians. On December 19, the rebels attacked a U.N. base in Akobo, in the eastern Jonglei state, killing at least 30 civilians belonging to the Dinka tribe as well as two Indian peacekeepers. Another Indian peacekeeper was wounded.
Reinforcing the troop strength of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) — what with its limited mandate — will not ameliorate tensions. To ensure peace, South Sudan is desperately in need of a politically mediated settlement, chances of which will begin to diminish once the conflict is reduced to ethnic one-upmanship. Sensing this, African Union leaders have made their way to Juba to establish a dialogue between the warring parties. If what Mr. Machar and his loyalists are seeking is a power-sharing deal, the international community, led by the AU, must send an unmistakable signal to them that violence cannot be a bargaining chip in that quest. With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that political struggle was inevitable in a newly independent state under the shadow of the oil curse; no one expected it to manifest so soon and so violently. Without effective institutions of state to deal with such a conflict, South Sudan seems set to face turbulent days ahead. With unabated political violence, the country is hardly in a position to attract foreign investment, which it can ill-afford to ignore. India’s priorities are clear — assist in the UNMISS’s mission in whatever diplomatic and military way it can, while ensuring the safety and prompt evacuation of Indian nationals left in South Sudan.