This month, President Obama will make his fourth trip to Africa, visiting Kenya for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and Ethiopia for meetings with Ethiopian and African Union (AU) leaders. This will likely be his last visit to the continent as president—and the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. It represents a unique opportunity for Obama to engage fellow heads of state on one of the most pressing issues in the region, South Sudan.

South Sudan, a country that top United States officials have proudly claimed to have helped “midwife” into existence, has been embroiled in a brutal civil war since December 2013, just two years after it became independent from Sudan. Mass atrocities have been widespread since the start of the conflict, some of which may even amount to genocide. Children have faced some of the worst violence. UNICEF recently reported horrific stories of boys being castrated and left to bleed out. Girls as young as eight have been gang raped and murdered. UNICEF also estimates that 13,000 children have been forced to fight on both sides of the conflict. The total death toll is unknown, but estimates are upwards of 50,000 and more than two million people have been displaced. The conflict has had secondary and tertiary consequences as well: 2.5 million people are at risk of famine, and tens of thousands are at great risk of contracting diseases like cholera at internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.


The conflict is largely driven by the personalities of President Salva Kiir Mayardit – President of South Sudan and leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLA) – and former Vice President Riek Machar – leader of the opposition force known as the SPLA in opposition or SPLA-IO. The two leaders have signed nine agreements to cease hostilities, but have violated each within days of signing. Neither Kiir nor Machar has shown any intention of ending the conflict, displaying a complete disregard for the wellbeing of their people. Yet, almost all measures to bring about a negotiated settlement will likely include a power sharing arrangement between them, bringing the country right back to where it started.

Up to this point, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has been the chief peace broker, attempting to establish an enforceable, sustainable cessation of hostilities agreement to allow for wider peace talks to take place, and put the country on the path towards a transitional government, peace, and reconciliation. Unfortunately, the disincentives to continuing the conflict have not outweighed the incentives to keep fighting.

While sanctions have been discussed ad nauseam by the international community at the United Nations (UN), AU, and individual countries like the United States, these discussions have not translated into strong action. The UN Security Council recently imposed sanctions on six generals accused of fueling conflict and disrupting the efforts towards achieving peace. Resolution 2206, which paved the way for the sanctions, also opened the door for an arms embargo at a later time, but without a clear path towards initiating the embargo.

However, sanctions on a few individuals will not bring this conflict to an end. Instead, all parties with leverage over the warring factions and war profiteers must make a concerted effort to stop the conflict. Top donor countries must make it clear to both Kiir and Machar that they will not support either leader through a transitional government if the fighting does not stop. And pressure must be exerted on external actors to cease providing direct support — in the form of financing, military and logistical assistance, and munitions — to the two conflicting parties. Regional support and cooperation for robust sanctions, an arms embargo, and discontinuing direct support to both factions is needed to ensure that the two leaders feel the consequences of not resolving the conflict. Anything short of this and international efforts will not be successful.

During his upcoming trip, Obama should speak with the heads of state of Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia—Kenyatta, Museveni, and Desalegn, respectively—and urge them to exert pressure on Kiir and Machar to end the conflict. The President needs to make it clear to them that a peaceful South Sudan is in the best interest of its neighbors and the entire international community, and if they actively disrupt the path to peace they may find themselves facing consequences as well.

In one of his first trips to the continent, Obama said, “Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.” Unfortunately, the world’s newest nation never got the chance to build these institutions, because strongmen like Kiir and Machar put their own personal interests ahead of their people and country. The people of South Sudan deserve better. They deserve what President Kiir promised the South Sudanese during his Independence Day speech: “a government whose first, second, and final priorities are public interest, public interest and public interest!”

South Sudan will mark its fourth Independence Day on July 9 with another year of conflict – another year that robs the South Sudanese people of a chance at peace, development, and democracy. As Obama’s time in office comes to an end, he has undoubtedly begun to consider his legacy. The president should capitalize on the opportunity to engage in high-level diplomacy during his last trip to Africa, doing his part to ensure that South Sudan will celebrate its 5th anniversary as a unified country rather than a broken one.

Brand is the director of Policy and Programs at Jewish World Watch (JWW), an organization dedicated to preventing genocide and mass atrocities around the world.