Conflicts in South Sudan

Jump to: A Return to War In South Sudan | Humanitarian Concerns | Challenges to Peace | Justice and Accountability

South Sudan Independence

South Sudan: The World's Newest Country

After decades of brutal civil war that left two and a half million dead, the devastated and vastly underdeveloped southern part of Sudan secured its independence in 2011. The world’s youngest country came into existence amid great challenges. Secession from Sudan marked a major milestone and opportunity for South Sudanese, but the nascent state has remained fragile. During its first years of independence, an oil standoff with neighboring Sudan, inter-communal violence, persistent rebellions by splinter militia groups, increasingly constrained political space, corruption, and limited economic opportunities troubled the young nation. Then, in 2013. a power struggle within the ruling political party mutated into an armed conflict, first on the streets of the capital city, and then across the country.

South Sudan’s latest war has killed thousands and displaced almost one million people. Although a cessation of hostilities agreement has since been signed, it is not being enforced. As South Sudanese seek to move forward, they have to build stable government structures and assert credible rule by law across the country. An inclusive national dialogue process, security sector reform, and real accountability measures are needed to address the root causes of South Sudan's violence. Otherwise, the continued violence raises the specter of further atrocity crimes, and dangerous destabilizing consequences for the region.

A Return to War In South Sudan

On December 15, 2013, a long-standing power struggle between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Dr. Riek Machar came to a head. Both men claim allegiance to the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), South Sudan's most powerful political party. Nonetheless, they had been at odds for some time. In July 2013, Kiir dismissed Machar from his position of Vice President along with all the other members of the cabinet. Machar accused Kiir of abusing his executive authority and publicly announced his intention to challenge Kiir in the 2015 elections. Kiir in turn appointed a new cabinet, welcoming traditional opposition figures into the fold. Tensions simmered until early December, when a group of former government officials held a press conference challenging President Kiir’s leadership of the party. By mid-December, after a tense meeting of the ruling party’s most senior leaders, President Kiir accused Machar and other leaders of trying to overthrow him militarily.

Soon, both leaders and their allies took up arms. By leveraging existing ethnic fissures and capitalizing on an atmosphere of fear, both sides successfully mobilized supporters throughout South Sudan. Kiir and Machar are each from the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan – the Dinka and Nuer. As fighting between the two armed groups spread beyond the capital city, violence increasingly moved along ethnic lines. What began as a political power struggle soon took on an ethnic character. Credible reports implicate Kiir’s Presidential Guards in attacks on Nuer civilians in Juba. Other reports confirm Machar’s forces human rights abuses against civilians in Bor and oil workers in Unity state. Over the first few weeks of the conflict, rebels and government forces fought for control over the country’s major cities: Bor, Malakal, and Bentiu. Many civilians were caught in the crossfire leading to grave human rights abuses and atrocity crimes. The exact death toll is unknown, but there were reports that as many as 10,000 people had died in just the first four weeks of fighting.

On January 23, 2014 a Cessation of Hostilities agreement was signed between the Government of South Sudan and opposition forces, who call themselves the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition. Seven of the country’s high profile political detainees were released to Kenyan custody on January 29 and allowed to travel to Addis Ababa to participate in peace negotiations. However, four still remain in detention. One is under house arrest. Still, clashes persist. Instability, restrictions on access and looting has prevented aid from being delivered to more than half of those displaced. These are just the first steps on the long road to sustainable peace in South Sudan.

Humanitarian Concerns

In addition to widespread displacement, reports of mass killings, sexual violence, and other war crimes have emerged from the recent round of violence. According to observers, this conflict has the potential to set South Sudan’s development back by years.

Insecurity has impacted the capacity of the UN and other organizations to provide humanitarian aid to those displaced and affected by the violence. Both government forces and rebels have reportedly stolen equipment and supplies from humanitarian agencies’ storage facilities. As of February, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) was reporting that 3.7 million people are facing acute or emergency levels of food insecurity. The UN’s Toby Lanzer has warned that the situation will be further exacerbated if farmers miss the main planting season that begins in March.

Of those displaced, 710,600 are within South Sudan, while 171,000 have fled to neighboring countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. Meanwhile, conflict in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions also continue to force Sudanese to flee into South Sudan, primarily into Upper Nile and Unity states. As of February 2014, 233,364 Sudanese were living as refugees in South Sudan. In Upper Nile, there are insufficient sources of safe drinking water in the state’s refugee camps. According to a report by the Famine Early Warning System Network, food security is at a "crisis" level in Upper Nile and Unity State. This means that thousands of refugees do not have access to food and, consequently, face malnutrition.

What is food security? Food security exists when people have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food at all times. It is based on three pillars:

  • Availability means that food is consistently available.
  • Access means that people have the resources to obtain food.
  • Use refers to basic knowledge about nutrition and care.  (source)

Challenges to Peace

The state's failure to provide infrastructure, education, or a stable investment climate has meant that young South Sudanese have few opportunities. Especially in the oilfields of the Greater Upper Nile region, where massive wealth from under the soil is exported out of the area with no discernible benefits to the communities, a huge reservoir of uneducated teenage boys has been easy recruiting fodder for rebel commanders and opportunistic politicians who use them to further their own ambitions. The long simmering challenges associated with the amnesty and integration splinter rebel factions came to a boil at the end of December, when large parts of the national army defected to join the armed opposition.

South Sudan has struggled with cyclical inter-communal violence for decades. Ethnic groups have a history of rivalry over access to water and grazing land. Many groups have easy access to arms. As a consequence, youth from all communities have perpetrated tif-for-tat retribution for past grievances. South Sudan’s army and police are unable to provide adequate security to prevent this violence. In Jonglei state, these dynamics were complicated by an armed rebellion from David Yau Yau, a Murle sepratist. In early 2014, Murle signed a cessation of hostilities agreement with the government. Nonetheless, he continues to push of an independent Murle state. In March 2012, President Kiir launched a disarmament campaign on the Jonglei state, “Operation Restore Peace.” Soon after, reports of human rights violations by government forces against civilians during the campaign, particularly in Pibor county, came to light. Compounding this problem, the state’s security forces lack the capacity to protect civilians from inter-communal violence, making armed civilians very reluctant to give up their weapons.

inter-communal violence = fighting between communities and ethnicities within a country

Rebel militias have been operating in South Sudan for years, beginning with the country’s early civil wars and carrying through to the present. Due to President Kiir’s efforts to pursue reconciliation, amnesty and integration, many rebel forces joined the national army or laid down their weapons. It is likely that the government of Sudan is supporting at least some of the militias operating in South Sudan, including Yau Yau’s Jonglei group. While David Yau Yau’s faction surrendered in early 2014, with the emergence of the SPLA/M in Opposition, a patchwork coalition of defected soliders, youth militais and rebel movements, the challenge is graver than ever.

Justice and Accountability

For sustainable peace to have a chance in both countries, impunity has to end for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The flip side of the coin requires inter-communal mechanisms of reconciliation that can provide a bridge back to coexistence between local communities that have been divided and mobilized against each other for years. That process is becoming more urgent by the day particularly in South Sudan, where mobilizing and recruiting soldiers and militia is occurring in some places along ethnic lines. Compensation for crimes will be key to ensuring justice is restorative, not just punitive.