The commander of the rebel movement in South Sudan has agreed to talk peace — if he can make it out of his secret war bunker.
Riek Machar told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon by phone on Tuesday that he would “try his best” to make it to Friday’s scheduled sit-down in Ethiopia, but that he was “now in a very remote area.”
There might be some truth to it: South Sudan is one of the least developed countries in the world, with almost no paved roads outside of the capital. The current rainy season can make travel virtually impossible.
Ironically, South Sudan’s lack of development is one reason why Machar’s rebels have kept the advantage over government forces. And United Nations peacekeepers — perennially undermanned — have also largely failed to bring the proper equipment for patrols in the country’s challenging environment.
“It has been quite difficult because of the lack of resources — human and logistic,” Ban said on Tuesday, acknowledging the difficulty in carrying out the “blue helmet” mission.
So could African peacekeepers succeed where U.N. troops have failed?
Secretary of State John Kerry seems to think so. On a visit to the region this week he urged the U.N. to rapidly approve a fighting force of African peacekeepers from neighboring countries Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, which are affiliated in a regional body known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD.
Kerry called for an IGAD force of 2,500 to 5,500 troops with a tough mandate to do what the U.N. hasn’t — namely, stop the fighting that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced an estimated 1 million.
“It is our hope that in the next days we can move more rapidly to put people on the ground who can begin to make a difference,” Kerry told a supportive crowd in Ethiopia.
There are a few reasons peacekeepers can be more effective when they’re fighting closer to home.
One, says Richard Gowan, research director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, is motivation. An Ethiopian soldier knows why he’s fighting in South Sudan — to bring stability (and therefore economic development) to his region. A U.N. peacekeeper from India or Nepal has no such rationale.
“Why should Nepali police put their lives on the ground in South Sudan?” Gowan asks. “The only way that you can get a really credible peacekeeping presence is if you bring in troops from the region.”
Besides, Gowan adds, regional troops can have a more intimidating effect on local troublemakers because of proximity — the generals and families of the soldiers are right next door: “It’s much harder for a rebel soldier or government soldier to attack regional troops and think they’ll get away with it,” he says.
African troop intervention in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo has been widely credited with turning the tide on those conflicts. But the same trait that can make regional troops more motivated — a stake in the outcome — can also invite problems.
When IGAD troops first agreed to help, they offered to defend the government’s oil fields. That’s fine if you want to keep the oil flowing, but not if you want to seem neutral.
The insurgency in South Sudan is fueled by many things, but primarily by the fact that government soldiers have targeted the rebels’ Nuer ethnicity. (More on that when the United Nations — and Amnesty International — separately issue investigative reports on Thursday.)
Jean-Marie Guehenno is the former undersecretary of peacekeeping for the U.N. and now a professor at Columbia. He says that if regional troops seem to be taking sides in an ethnic or tribal war, “there is a danger of instead of calming the conflict, you regionalize it.” He points to disastrous recent interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic.
So, will South Sudan be a Somalia or a Mali? In the end, the two sides seem to be preparing a compromise.
Ban said on Tuesday that he is open to the idea of African troops. And when Kerry formally asks for a U.N. vote on it this week, he is likely to request that African troops augment but not compete with the peacekeepers on the ground.
They’ll all wear blue helmets. And follow commands — not from Nairobi or Addis Ababa — but from New York.