RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In South Sudan, the fighting that began in December continues between groups loyal to two powerful rivals: President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, his former vice president. The conflict, which has left thousands dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes, caught many by surprise. It was just a short time ago - 2011 - that South Sudan became an independent nation after a decades-long rebellion against Sudan.
Alex De Waal heads the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, and he's a scholar of the region, including South Sudan. Welcome to the program.
ALEX DE WAAL: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, trying to make sense of this new, very vicious cycle of ethnic violence, can we just begin with a simple fact? And it's that these two top politicians - Kiir and Machar - they actually have more of a history of fighting each other than actually working together.
DE WAAL: Well, the ruling Sudan's People Liberation Movement emerged from a rebellion back in 1983, and it was run as an army. There wasn't a political infrastructure; it was a highly centralized army. But then in 1991, it split. There was a mutiny by some commanders - and Riek Machar was one of those - who objected to the dictatorial tendencies of the then-leader of the rebellion. And their rebellion against him turned into an ethnic war.
DE WAAL: It didn't start off as an ethnic war; it started off as a political dispute. But the moment the movement began to divide, it divided on ethnic lines. And unfortunately, that is something of a forerunner of what has happened in the last few months - a political dispute, the moment it became violent, turned into an ethnically colored war.
MONTAGNE: I think it might, though, be worth adding that the atrocities committed against each other are still reasonably fresh from that time. And there was a famous massacre, for instance, that Machar was responsible for, against the people of Salva Kiir.
DE WAAL: One of the nastiest realities of the war in South Sudan was that actually, more of it was spent the Southerners fighting one another, than actually fighting against the North. And there were efforts for reconciliation among the Southerners. But sadly, when the North-South agreement was signed in 2005, those internal to the South reconciliation peacemaking efforts were all put on one side, and those wounds were left unhealed.
And there is blame on both sides, but I think the fundamental problem was that the SPLM, as a liberation movement, did not develop the accountable political institutions or, indeed, the ethos of respecting human rights.
MONTAGNE: Well, as you've suggested, the creation of South Sudan as an independent state took, for one thing, years; but also, the U.S. - and the West - has been pouring billions into that very poor country. A lot of time and money - what did it buy?
DE WAAL: Well, the way that the reconciliation among the different militias was handled was a massive cash payout; really, accountable to no one. And up to half of the national wealth was actually spent on supposedly, salaries for up to 200,000 soldiers. The army of South Sudan has almost as many generals as the U.S. Army. So what appears to resemble a national army is, in many respects, really just a coalition of different armed groups who have personal loyalty to their individual commander.
And unfortunately, when there was a political dispute, the moment it turned violent, then the powder trail immediately led to an explosion that split the country along the lines of these ethnically constituted units with personal loyalties.
MONTAGNE: Would you say there are virtually no political institutions in South Sudan?
DE WAAL: Almost none. The ruling party doesn't function, the government is largely dysfunctional, and the army itself is hardly functional. So when this current crisis is resolved, all that work of state-building really needs to start very, very nearly from zero.
MONTAGNE: At this point, though, with all this bad blood - literally - do you think that's a reasonable expectation?
DE WAAL: It's very tough. And one of the problems, unfortunately, is that because of the justice of their cause, many of the foreign friends of South Sudan held them to a lower standard than others. And I think the time has come for some really rather tough love for the Southern Sudanese. The U.S. government and the friends of South Sudan - to begin to apply the same standards as they would elsewhere and say, we're going to try and encourage a much more properly representative form of governance that really allows the people of South Sudan, who've suffered so much for so long, to have a stay in something that is supposed to be a government of liberation.
MONTAGNE: Alex de Waal has written extensively about South Sudan and the region. He's director the World Peace Foundation, at Tufts University. Thank you very much.
DE WAAL: You're very welcome.
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