* Crisis between president and deputy long festered
* Bush war tactics trumping statesmanship
* Fighting exposes failure of national reconciliation
* Generous donors find limited traction over rivals
By Carl Odera and Edmund Blair
JUBA/NAIROBI, Dec 24 At a well-attended investor
conference in South Sudan's capital just three weeks ago,
President Salva Kiir declared that the world's newest country
was "at last safe" and open for business.
It was a bold assertion from a nation that only gained
independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades mired in conflict.
It suggested the moment had come to cap a huge international
effort to build a state. But it proved spectacularly ill-timed.
On Dec. 15, fighting erupted in Juba that has swiftly spread
beyond the capital along ethnic faultlines, exposing the failure
of national reconciliation efforts, the limited influence of
generous foreign sponsors and the reluctance of rebel
fighters-turned-statesmen to give up the tactics of bush
Whether South Sudan tips into a broader ethnic war or draws
back from the brink largely depends on two men who have long
tussled for power: the president from the dominant Dinka tribe
and the ambitious deputy he sacked in July, Riek Machar, a Nuer.
Both ethnic groups, spurred on by their leaders, have
clashed in the past, giving the latest spiral of violence an air
of depressing inevitability for many South Sudanese, desperate
for development in one of the poorest places in Africa.
"Neither cares much about their people," said Chuo, who
repairs motorbikes in Juba. "Instead, they are focusing too much
on personal grudges - the left-overs from their old days."
The United States and other Western backers of the new
nation are scrambling with regional African states to broker
talks, but have limited leverage to end fighting that has killed
hundreds of people and driven 40,000 to U.N. bases for shelter.
Failure to halt the escalation could have wider fallout in
an already volatile region. Sudan may be drawn in if there is a
threat to oil fields from which it derives vital fees from
pumping crude across its land. And other neighbours fret about a
descent into chaos. Uganda has already sent troops to Juba.
Both leaders say they are ready to talk. But old habits die
hard. Kiir said he was the target of a "foiled coup" and rounded
up rivals. Machar slipped away and has mustered militia forces.
"I am in the bush, and I am trying my best to have a better
negotiating position," Machar, 61, who holds a doctorate from
Britain's University of Bradford, told Reuters on a crackly
mobile phone line from an undisclosed location.
The international community has poured in billions of
dollars of aid and sent in a myriad of advisers to build the new
state. But it has been unable to fix the dysfunction that has
festered at the top of government and which came to a head in
the summer when 62-year-old Kiir dismissed his vice president.
"Opportunities were certainly missed to engage in more
robust preventive diplomacy over the past few months as the
political crisis began gathering momentum," said John
Prendergast, member of a U.S. group of intellectuals that
cajoled Washington to back South Sudan's split from Sudan.
In spite of Kiir's confident comments launching the Dec. 4-5
investment conference, a showdown had long been brewing with
Machar, who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions.
For almost a year before Machar's dismissal, the two men's
relationship in office was defined by "miscommunication or
mistrust or silence", said former culture ministry
undersecretary Jok Madut Jok, who left his post in April.
The powerplay caused stasis in government, and most
worryingly derailed crucial efforts to build a programme of
national reconciliation between bigger ethnic groups, such as
Dinka and Nuer, and the dozens of others that have long clashed
over control of the south's scant resources.
Jok, now chairman of the Sudd Institute think-tank,
described how Machar formed a committee to draw up a "practical,
scientific" plan to rebuild ethnic relations, only to have it
disbanded by Kiir, who put church leaders in charge to "focus on
praying away the woes of South Sudan and nothing more."
Those who know the two men give similar accounts of the two
characters on whose shoulders so much rests.
Kiir, largely educated in the bush, has patched up militia
rivalries to hold together the brittle SPLM/SPLA that fought
Sudan and now runs the south. But they say he lacks the vision
of his predecessor, John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash
in 2005, the year a peace deal was signed with Sudan.
Machar, his acquaintances say, is a highly intelligent rival
whose political ambitions tend to trump any national agenda. He
led a splinter SPLA group in 1991 and his Nuer troops massacred
Dinkas in Bor town that year. In 1997, he signed a unilateral
deal with Khartoum that gave him an official post in Sudan.
"Anything short of the two men sitting down and trying to
work it out will not work," said Jok.
But bringing the two together for now has hit deadlock.
Kiir's government has refused to release the group of rival
politicians he detained. Machar says they must be freed as they
are the ones who will handle any negotiations.
Much may depend on Kiir's reputation as a conciliator, often
bringing in rival militias even though it could mean putting
political influence before competence in government.
"Kiir has always said that he doesn't want his people to
turn back again to war," said Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial
Benjamin, citing the president's past talks with opponents. "We
talked to them and they were absorbed into our government."
Eric Reeves, a fellow American activist for South Sudan with
Prendergast, said Machar needed to be convinced that prolonging
any ethnic conflict would mean he would lose U.S. or other
Western support. "But there is no real leverage," he said.
The United Nations plans to beef up its peacekeeping force
in South Sudan, where the Akobo U.N. base was overrun and looted
by Nuers who are blamed for killing 11 Dinkas sheltering there.
But the patchwork nature of the SPLA army and shifting
loyalties means there is little chance of turning the UNMISS
force into a robust intervention brigade like the one that
quelled a rebellion in next door Democractic Republic of Congo.
"If you don't know where your enemy is coming from, or who
your enemy is, it doesn't really matter how heavily armed you
are," said Reeves.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Saturday that any
military effort to seize power would end U.S. backing. His
envoy, Donald Booth, was in Juba on Monday talking with Kiir.
Fighting has already reached oil fields, near Sudan's
border, cutting output by 45,000 barrels per day (bpd) to
200,000 bpd. That hurts flows that are the source of 98 percent
of land-locked South Sudan's revenues.
It is also vital to Sudan, which lost the fields when the
south seceded but relies on fees from oil going through its
pipeline to the Red Sea. A row over undefined borders, oil fees
and security brought the new neighbours close to war last year.
A South Sudanese academic, who asked not to be named, said
Sudan could move on the fields if the fall in revenues started
to bite and would worry about the deployment of troops from
Uganda, which supported the south's SPLA in the war with
Khartoum. Ugandan army sources said the troops would help secure
Jok said Washington and its allies might have steered South
Sudan on a safer course if a pell-mell rush to support the new
nation had come with more state-building conditions earlier.
"You might even say they (the international community) did
too much to let these leaders off the hook from their
responsibility to steer their country to stability," he said.
But like others, he said the blame largely lies with the
leaders, who have failed to make the transition from liberation
warrior to politician, squandering international goodwill.
"We thought our troubles were over after we won our freedom
from Sudan," said Peter, a Nuer who gave only his first name as
he sheltered in a U.N. base in Juba. "It's now a problem of
South Sudanese people killing their fellow South Sudanese."
(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Juba and Drazen Jorgic
in Nairobi; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff)