Despite Warning Signs, South Sudan's Violence Escalated Fast

The United States played a key role in helping South Sudan gain independence. But, U.S. diplomats are having a hard time helping the country emerge from internal political and ethnic violence.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to spend the next few minutes looking at some of the reasons why South Sudan seems to be falling apart, just a couple of years after celebrating its independence from the North. Independence was also seen as an American success, because the rebellion in the South was a long-running bipartisan cause in Washington. So, when a vicious cycle of ethnic killing broke out last month, the U.S. pushed hard for peace negotiations between the countries feuding politicians, its president, and its vice president. Those peace talks aren't going well, and that highlights that the U.S. influence with the government and its leaders has its limits, while some question how the U.S. has used what influence it has.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Aid groups paint a grim picture of what's happening in world's newest nation. Elke Leidel, who is with Concern Worldwide, managed to visit thousands of displaced people in an oil-rich region where rebels have gained ground. She says there's an urgent need for a ceasefire and for humanitarian access.

ELKE LEIDEL: All this should happen very, very quickly if we want to avoid an even bigger disaster. It is already a disaster but it will become bigger and bigger every minute if it is not stopped.

KELEMEN: There were plenty of warning signs last year but she says no one expected the violence to escalate so quickly. Princeton Lyman echoes that. He's a longtime diplomat who was, until last year, the Obama administration's envoy to the region. Lyman spent much of his tenure trying to resolve the outstanding hostilities between South Sudan and its former rulers in the North. And he had a hard time getting Washington to raise concerns about internal politics in the South.

PRINCETON LYMAN: You had so much sympathy for the South that it became very difficult to criticize them for anything.

KELEMEN: South Sudan's constituency included administration officials as well as celebrities. Lyman says he understands their sympathy for the South, where millions died as mainly Christian and animist rebels fought a decade's long war of independence from the Arab rulers in Khartoum. But once South Sudan became a state, he says, the U.S. needed to be more hard headed.

LYMAN: I can't tell you the number of times people accused me of quote, "moral equivalency" - that you're putting them on the moral equivalency with Khartoum, which is the personification of evil.

KELEMEN: And Lyman says South Sudan's President Salva Kiir used that constituency to his benefit and ignored U.S. advice on internal matters.

LYMAN: He was listening more and more to what I call the secure-i-crats9ph), the people who were telling him you are surrounded by enemies, who let us take care of them - we'll harass them, we'll kill them, we'll jail them. And we tried hard pushing him back on this and we weren't successful.

KELEMEN: Ted Dagne has a different perspective. He worked as a U.N. advisor to Kiir's government until last summer.

TED DAGNE: I don't think people really understood what has transpired over the past six months very well.

KELEMEN: Last summer, Kiir fired his vice president and longtime political rival Riek Machar - someone Dagne says has never been happy in the number two spot.

DAGNE: He's very open. He's always engaged international diplomats. But he has always been ambitious over past 20 years to assume power and to become the number one.

KELEMEN: Both in the rebel movement in South Sudan, and now in the independent state. That political infighting has touched off tribal violence that has been hard to control. And the U.S. leverage is limited, says Dagne, a longtime advocate for South Sudan.

DAGNE: It's like seeing your child, who you brought up to be a great kid, seeing him moving in the direction that is influenced by bad behavior. And what I see in South Sudan is once independence was achieved, some of the leaders, in my view, have forgotten what they were elected to do.

KELEMEN: Dagne says the best the U.S. can do is to work with regional players to send a united and constructive message, urging both sides to negotiate. And to make clear to Machar that he won't be recognized if he tries to seize power.

Much is at stake, says Lyman, the former envoy on the Sudans.

LYMAN: If this becomes a really failed state - if we can't resolve this conflict and bring this country back - it will be a blight on the region, and a sad ending, I think, in everybody's mind to what was a just struggle for independence.

KELEMEN: And one the U.S. has backed diplomatically and financially for many years.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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