Renewed violence in South Sudan rekindled criticism of the White House's decision to invite embattled President Salva Kiir to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, a first-of-its-kind gathering of nearly 50 African heads of state.
Since December, Kiir's intolerance of his political opposition has stoked a bloody conflict that is threatening to draw in neighboring Sudan. Aid agencies say famine will break out within weeks if nothing changes, and peace talks that began Monday, Aug. 4, in Ethiopia between South Sudan's government and the country's rebels have stalled. The stakes are high. Humanitarian groups say 50,000 children could starve if the crisis is not averted.
Notably absent from the peace talks: Kiir, the man many blame for stoking the violence in the first place. Instead, he's in Washington for a series of meetings, photo-ops, and stately gatherings centered on the summit's goal of strengthening business and security ties between the United States and the African continent.
The sight of Secretary of State John Kerry and Kiir, who met on Tuesday and shook hands in front of cameras, made some in Foggy Bottom cringe.
According to multiple sources familiar with the decision, some officials within the State Department opposed including Kiir and urged the White House to rescind his invitation, fearing his presence in Washington would hinder peace negotiations. That recommendation was ultimately rejected by senior State Department officials and the White House National Security Council, which wanted to host an inclusive event.
"The president and others in the administration have made clear that we will engage countries, even when we have disagreements," White House spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. "President Obama invited all African leaders who are in good standing with the African Union and the United States."
Critics say the timing couldn't be worse.
"The White House made a mistake by rewarding President Kiir with an invitation and photo-op at the summit given his role in the violence plaguing South Sudan," Jimmy Mulla, president of Voices for Sudan, told Foreign Policy. "The population and the country would be better served if the government and the opposition groups are all stationed in the region and focused on the peace negotiations."
At the root of the conflict, which has left 10,000 dead and has displaced 1.5 million people since December, is ethnic fighting between the Dinka ethnic group, loyal to President Kiir, and the Nuer ethnic group, loyal to deposed Vice President Riek Machar. The fighting rapidly accelerated in late 2013 after Kiir accused Machar of launching a coup. Kiir used the excuse to crack down on the opposition, unleashing a wave of ethnic violence. The United States says it has seen no evidence of an attempted coup. On Tuesday, the United Nations said that at least six Nuer aid workers were killed by a militia group.
The steady increase in violence has alarmed Kiir's critics inside and outside Barack Obama's administration.
After the White House extended invitations early this year, more than 12,000 activists wrote Obama and Kerry raising concerns about the summit. United to End Genocide, an advocacy group that works to end mass atrocities, coordinated the letter-writing campaign. "Inviting Kiir to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit risks sending the wrong signals," said Daniel Sullivan, United to End Genocide's director of policy and government relations.
Disinviting Kiir would've been problematic for the administration, which invited other leaders with similarly troubling human rights records, such as Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
One State Department official put it bluntly: "There are way worse leaders invited to the summit," said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the press. "The fighting in South Sudan between the Dinka and the Nuer tribes is on par with power struggles in dozens of African countries."
"Disinviting a legitimate leader to a summit with dozens of other human rights abusers sets a bad example for the U.S. government," the official added.
Others say Kiir belongs in a separate category.
"I think Salva Kiir represents a unique case," said Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. "Although the underlying causes of unrest in South Sudan run deep, there would not be an open conflict and civil war were it not for him."
Kiir's decision to skip the peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, juxtaposed awkwardly with that of Liberia's and Sierra Leone's leaders, who canceled their summit trip to wrestle with the Ebola outbreak ravaging their countries.
"I respect the presidents of governments like Liberia [for] staying home and dealing with the crisis at hand, but in a medically driven crisis, there's not much that can be done other than reassuring the citizenry," Pham said. "But in South Sudan, Kiir can actually effect change in the peace talks if he truly worried about the fate of his people."
Of course, others say just the opposite.
"I think the advantage of inviting President Kiir is that it may allow opportunities for administration officials to have frank conversations with him about the conflict, perhaps along with regional leaders who have an important role to play in ending the violence," said Jon Temin, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace's Africa programs. He noted that Kiir's attendance, along with leaders from Kenya and Ethiopia, provided a good opportunity for the three countries to coordinate.
It's unclear whether progress is being made in either Washington or Addis Ababa. On Wednesday, the East African organization leading the peace talks, IGAD, said rebel leaders didn't show Tuesday for the second day of negotiations in the Ethiopian capital. In Washington, Kerry didn't allay critics when he appeared with Kiir and blamed rebel leader Machar for the violence.
"Mr. Machar needs to understand this," said Kerry. "It was his initiative that broke the agreement and took his troops back into a violent status."
After Kerry's remarks, Kiir offered a vindictive statement accusing Machar of losing control of his military and condemning the media for misrepresenting the conflict. Kerry ended by praising Kiir for attending the summit.
"I thank you very, very much for your statement and for being here to join us for this conversation," Kerry said.
"I would have hoped for a much stronger public message from Kerry to Kiir," United to End Genocide's Sullivan said. "[He] ignored the government of South Sudan's role in some of the atrocities committed and in limiting humanitarian access."
Voices for Sudan's Mulla said the exchange "may only embolden the president," noting that both Kiir and Machar "are liable for charges."
"The U.S., regional bodies, and the international community should come as mediators and not get blindsided by either of the parties," Mulla said.
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