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Five months into the conflict, there is no sign of an end to it. If anything, as time passes by the violence is going from bad to worse. Although there was brief respite in March, it was mainly for mobilizing arms and fighters for the next round of fighting. Indeed, when fighting resumed in April, it became intense.

This came after rebels launched an offensive early in April with the aim of seizing the oil fields by retaking lost territories. The first territory to fall back into rebel hands was Unity state, whose capital city Bentiu rebels captured on 15 April. Upper Nile has become the next target. On 24 April while rebels claimed seizing of Renk County in Upper Nile and declared the imminent fall of Paloch Oil fields, government forces admitted attacks and fighting in the county.

More, rather than less, war to come

As the fighting rages on, the opportunity for stopping what proves to be the most brutal civil war in recent years is fast being lost. More, rather than less, war is sure to come. Four factors account for this prospect of further worsening of the conflict.

First is the zero sum calculation of both sides of the civil war and their apparent preference for war to determine the winner and loser. On the government side, the rebels launched the war for unseating an elected government. The rebels on their part continue to insist that the President should go for the conflict to end. As moments of lull witnessed in the course of the war suggest, the only limitation inhibiting their zeal for fighting their disagreements out is the supply of fighters and weapons. This preference for war can also be seen from the lack of any sign of commitment to settle this conflict through negotiation.

Second, both sides continue to mobilize fighters and weapons from their respective ‘support base’. Government has been recruiting new fighters largely from areas not affected by the war but mostly from Northern Bahr Elghazel, from where President Kiir hails. Former vice President and rebel leader Riek Machar was mobilizing mostly from the so-called White Army of the Nuer to which he belongs.

The third factor, related to the second, is the transformation of the nature of this conflict. When it started, this conflict and its genesis was chiefly an extension of a power struggle among the elites of the ruling party, Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), although the conflict also had ethnic undertones from the very beginning. As the civil war expanded and has continued to rage on, its ethnic dimension acquired increased prominence.

With the Bentiu and Bor massacres during the recent fighting, it has now become chiefly an ethnic conflict pitting President Kiir’s members of Dinka community against Reik Machar’s Nuer community.

Finally, there is the increasing involvement of fighters from outside of South Sudan on either side of the conflict. Apart from Uganda, that deployed its forces in support of the government, Kiir is suspected of receiving support from Sudan rebel groups such as the Darfur based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-North fighting Khartoum in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. The government accuses rebels of receiving support during the recent fighting from the Misseriya and Jajawid militias. Such involvement of fighters outside of South Sudan would only add fuel the civil war further.

Bentiu and Bor massacres: turning point

That the civil war is worsening is gruesomely and most conspicuously reflected, more than anything else, in the terror, displacement and killings inflicted on civilians. While civilians born the brunt of this civil war from the very beginning, in the recent fighting, attacks on civilians on the basis of their ethnic identity killed over a couple of hundred, wounded several hundreds and forced thousands into displacement.

Both government and rebel forces were engaged in targeting civilians and committing atrocities from the very beginning of the conflict. A turning point in this dimension of the conflict happened with the Bentiu massacre. No single previous incident since the war broke out last December comes near the scale of death in Bentiu.

When rebels recaptured Unity’s capital Bentiu, the worst incident of massacre of civilians since the war erupted in December 2013 took place on 15 and 16 April. In a statement issued on 21 April condemning the massacre, the UN Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) said that its investigators confirmed that ‘when SPLA in Opposition forces captured Bentiu on 15 and 16 April, they searched a number of places where hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians had taken refuge and killed hundreds of the civilians after determining their ethnicity or nationality.’

According to the UNMISS statement, ‘more than 200 civilians were reportedly killed and over 400 wounded at the Mosque.’ Although rebel leader denied the killings and blamed it on retreating government forces, in one report a member of the rebel group admitted the commission of the killings.

In a troubling sign echoing recent cycles of sectarian violence in neighboring Central African Republic, the killings in Bentiu were followed by retaliatory killings in Bor. On 17 April, in Bor, Jonglei’s Capital, another territory fiercely contested by government forces and rebels since the beginning of the conflict, 200 armed men in civilian clothing attacked the UN base where over 5000 civilians, mostly from the Nuer community, were seeking protection. With the Indian battalion of UNMISS troops unable to stop the mob, the attack claimed the lives of some 50 people and injured twice as much.

A cycle of retaliatory ethnic violence targeting civilians has now become major part of this civil war. As the conflict spreads into other areas as now the reported in Western Bahr El Ghazel, it will be further reinforced.

Two scenarios: Dismemberment and/or an all out genocidal war 

Very tragically, in the context of such worsening of this unconscionable civil war, rather than the end of the war and what kind of peace, the question in the mind of citizens and friends of South Sudan is how terrible this civil war is going to be. The evolution of the fighting and the course that it is likely to take, as pointed out above, suggest that South Sudan faces two worst-case scenarios.

The first scenario is what may be taken to be the Somalia scenario in the aftermath of the fall of Said Barre in 1991. In this scenario, South Sudan, like Somalia did over 20 years ago, South Sudan will be divided into diverse fiefdoms of ethnic warlords with no one able to defeat anyone and its integrity as a state would come to an end.

What makes this scenario plausible – after the government was saved by Uganda’s intervention – is the fact that neither party will be able to defeat the other. This can be gathered from the course of the fighting so far where by many of the territories where fighting has taken place be it Bor, Malakal or Bentiu changed hands so many times.

Some developments in the aftermath of the fall of Bentiu in to rebel hands will further entrench the positions of both sides. Most notably, President Kiir sacked two key government officials. He removed the army Chief of Staff Major General Mac Paul Kuol, one of the most senior Nuer leaders still in the government and the head of military intelligence, Major General Mac Paul Kuol and replaced them with Paul Malong Awan, Governor of Bahr El Ghazel and Police Major General, Marial Nuor Jok. According to the Sudan Tribune, rebel spokesperson, Brigadier General Lul Koang Ruai, ‘said the removal of General Mai and Kuol and their subsequent replacements by Awan and Jok, who are seen as the architects and masterminds of Juba Massacre, marks the beginning of an “imminent bloodbath, escalation and regionalisation of the conflict”’.

Additionally, with the two major communities fighting, others, particularly in Equatoria region, are also likely to be mobilized into protecting their territory and shielding themselves from the violence. This is another dimension that will reinforce this scenario.

The other scenario is the descent of South Sudan into a full-blown ethnic war reminiscent of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In a statement he issued on recent events in South Sudan, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta warned that ‘we are creeping into genocide …in our region.’ Indeed, trends reminiscent of the 1994 Rwandan genocide were witnessed in the course of this civil war and particularly in the recent fighting.

As in 1994 Rwanda, places of sanctuary such as places of worship and refuge were the sights of major violence in the recent fighting. Apart from the Kali-Ballee Mosque where 200 were killed, the sights where the killings took place during the Bentiu massacre included a church, hospital and an abandoned UN World Food Programme (WFP) compound.

Similarly, in a development that evokes the memories of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, local radio, Radio Bentiu FM, was used to incite the violence. As the UN statement noted some rebels took the local radio to ‘broadcast hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu, and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.’

Finally, what plunged Rwanda into the madness of genocide was the collapse of the government upon the death of the president. In the case of South Sudan, if the current campaign of the rebels for seizing the oil fields as a means to starve the government of revenue succeeds, it will push Kiir’s government to the brink, which will in turn trigger an all out genocidal ethnic war.

Either scenario will result in large-scale human tragedy involving widespread killings of civilians and displacements.

South Sudan is reaching the point of no return. Given that the parties cannot be counted to change their course, can regional and international action be counted on to avert the fall of the country into abyss? If it is the only option, what form and make up does and should such action involve? Is sanction really enough particularly if it is not enforced by all countries with leverage on the leadership including the countries in East Africa? Would the pledge ‘never again’ made in Rwanda early this month be honored and something more be done? Can it be done before it is too late?