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Kerry Turns His Attention To South Sudan's Civil War


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. This week Secretary of State John Kerry turns his attention, as much as circumstances allow, from the crisis in Ukraine and Mideast peace talks to the civil war in South Sudan. South Sudan broke away from Sudan barely three years ago and now that new nation is being torn apart in a fight for power between the president and former vice president.

MONTAGNE: There are peace talks going on in a neighboring country, Ethiopia, and that's where Secretary Kerry is this morning as he begins his week long trip to Africa. NPR's Gregory Warner is traveling with the secretary and joined us from the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. Good morning.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is Kerry hoping to accomplish by traveling to this region of Africa?

WARNER: I think the main aim is trying to bring peace to South Sudan. This is a country which the United States really helped bring into being. Not three years ago South Sudan declared independence from its northern neighbor. This was after decades of violent struggle against Sudan. Now that government is really falling apart.

You have a political rivalry between these arch politicians, both former resistance fighters from that independence struggle, and, as so often happens in this part of the world, they're fighting by sparking ethnic tensions. Some of the more recent ethnic massacres of civilians has just been absolutely horrific - children slaughtered, women tortured, apparently for their ethnicity.

Meanwhile, peace talks are continuing. So in a nutshell, Kerry is here to spur on the peace process and try to end the violence.

MONTAGNE: But there is something, Greg, about that fight in South Sudan, and as you suggested, it has deep roots. I mean these two politicians were both allies and enemies at different times during that war with Sudan. There's some bad blood between them, you know, massacres from way back when that nobody has forgotten. Does the U.S. and Secretary of State Kerry have much leverage?

WARNER: You know, I think it's a great question. I mean there are two immediate aspects of this trip to Addis Ababa and one is diplomatic - this peace talks process - and the other is a more regional military intervention. Now, the peace talks have been going on, really stopping and starting, in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa for four months now, between, as you said, delegates from both of those sides, two of these - both of these archrivals.

And I was meeting with the regional ambassador chairing those talks yesterday. He said there's been a lot of talking about talking while people are dying. So clearly, you know, there's a sense that these sides are still fighting a fight, they're still in this war mentality that they've been in for decades. And the urgency that the international community is trying to put on them is just not being felt.

So that brings us to the regional military intervention which Kerry has been talking about. Secretary Kerry said he met with regional leaders today. They've put together a timeline for actual troops on the ground. He said the terms and the timeline had been agreed upon but then he said that more information will come out, perhaps later today, perhaps tomorrow.

MONTAGNE: OK. So the secretary will be doing a lot about South Sudan right there in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, but what bout Ethiopia itself? Is that of interest on this trip?

WARNER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And if we widen the lens here, even South Sudan depends greatly on Ethiopia's intervention. But look, right. Kerry is really here trying to assert the United States' diplomatic and economic leverage in this part of Africa where anti-Western rhetoric has really gotten stronger just in the past few months, especially in Ethiopia.

So more recently there was a news event just days before the secretary's visit. Ethiopia cracked down on a couple of bloggers. Six bloggers were arrested, three journalists alive(ph), but then they were whisked off to prison. This is alarming even in a country where - which doesn't really have free speech because people felt that social media was one of the last free spaces left.

And they were accused of conspiring with foreign human rights organizations to destabilize the government. That was the accusation. But look, here's the interesting thing, Renee. That crackdown was actually signaled two weeks ago with a documentary on Ethiopian state TV. And stay with me here, because it's an interesting documentary which basically links what the Ethiopian government called destabilizing elements inside Ethiopia with the West's intervention in Ukraine.

And there were a lot of clips from Russian talking heads saying, yeah, the West is intervening in Ukraine and Georgia and Venezuela. And so there is a broader anti-Western rhetoric which sees itself as very much aligned with Russia. And that's very surprising, I think, to Secretary Kerry and to the Obama administration which has spent much of the past year trying to bolster its role in this part of Africa.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, Greg, thanks very much.

WARNER: Thanks so much, Renee. I really appreciate it.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Gregory Warner who's travelling with Secretary of State John Kerry, who today is in the capital of Ethiopia at the beginning of a weeklong trip to Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner
Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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