Austin Bay
U.N. and African mediators announced on Tuesday that South Sudan's president Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar have agreed to a ceasefire. A political agreement signaling a common desire to curb South Sudan's internal turmoil made by these two political adversaries and erstwhile guerrilla allies is a major step toward preventing a much larger East African regional war.

However, stopping and then limiting the damage of the Dinka versus Nuer tribal war spawned by the murky late evening events of Dec. 15 in South Sudan's capital, Juba, may be much more difficult. Kiir is Dinka. Machar is Nuer. In July 2013, Kiir fired Machar as vice-president, after Machar accused Kiir of undermining democracy and favoring his Dinka cronies with government largesse.

Kiir supporters accuse pro-Machar rebel soldiers in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (South Sudan's military) of attempting a coup on Dec. 15. Machar supporters accuse Kiir's Dinka-dominated presidential guard of deliberately fomenting a dispute with Nuer soldiers and then opening fire in order to establish a political pretext for purging Machar's political allies. Whatever sparked the battle in Juba, fresh blood has spilled between the tribes. Mutual accusations of mass murder and ethnic cleansing have followed the bloodbath. Fighting has erupted in five of South Sudan's ten states. Two SPLA generals (both Nuers) commanding two major state divisions defected to Machar. Other tribes and clans have chosen sides.

But let's return to the tentative ceasefire. The U.N., the African Union and numerous other countries (including China and the U.S.) back the deal. Moreover, several East African nations, including three of South Sudan's neighbors, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, have made a commitment to support South Sudan's national integrity.

That commitment sends a tough message to Sudan's president, indicted war criminal and South Sudan's nemesis, Omar al-Bashir. Bashir openly covets South Sudan's oil fields. His Islamist regime in Khartoum lost billions in oil revenue when South Sudan became independent in 2011. With South Sudan rent by tribal conflict, Bashir might seek to regain control of South Sudan and end its existence as an independent state.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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