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 independence in 2011. The world’s youngest nation came into existence amid great challenges. Secession from Sudan marked a major milestone and a fresh opportunity for South Sudanese. But massive state-corroding corruption, political instability within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and persistent tensions with Sudan over the sharing of oil revenues left South Sudan deeply vulnerable to renewed conflict.

On December 15, 2013, tensions between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, and those aligned with his former Vice President, Riek Machar, of theNuer ethnic group, exploded into fighting on the streets of Juba, the capital city. South Sudan’s dramatic return to war has torn communities apart and left countless thousands dead. As of September 2014, 1.8 million people were still too afraid to return to their homes. Even through humanitarians have given assistance to over 3.1 million people in South Sudan, they estimate that at least 2.2 million were still facing either crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. This puts them at just one level under levels during a “famine” or “humanitarian catastrophe.”

In order to secure a durable peace, South Sudan’s warring elites need to begin to feel the consequences of their actions. Negotiations led by the East African Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, have so far failed to yield an agreement. Although neighboring states have threatened to impose punitive measures, including asset freezes and travel bans, on individuals obstructing the peace process, deadlines have passed without action. The regional heads of state have met over a half a dozen times to discuss the situation in South Sudan, but these extraordinary summits have done little to stem the violence. Without regionally and globally enforced sanctions on key individuals and credible threat of prosecution for for mass atrocities and human rights violations, the civil war looks set to intensify.

A Return to War In South Sudan

Since independence, South Sudan has been handicapped by the competing interests of powerful political actors and the factions and interests they represent. In early July 2013, along with three other friends of South Sudan, Enough’s Founding Director wrote to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, warning “after almost nine years of self-rule, the government is still failing to meet the basic needs of its people. Despite claims that vast sums have been expended on investment in infrastructure, there is very little to show in the way of roads, medical services, and education for millions of South Sudanese who greeted the prospect of independence with eagerness and hope.” Machar and other leading political figures from a variety ethnic groups began to openly challenge Kiir’s leadership of the ruling party. Pointing to disunity within the ruling SPLM party, Kiir dismissed Vice President Machar and an entire cabinet of ministers in July 2013. As tensions rose within the SPLM, Kiir announced that he had dissolved all internal party structures in November 2013.

Originally contained to fighting between Nuer and Dinka elements of the elite Presidential Guard, the violence quickly spread to residential areas of Juba. Multiple sources confirm door-to-door searches for ethnic Nuer, In one dramatic incident documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International at least 200-300 Nuer men were shot by security forces at a police station in Juba. Thousands of Nuer civilians sought refuge in peacekeepers’ base. Nine months later, many still remain there.

Since then, violence has spread across the Greater Upper Nile region, including Unity, Jonglei, and Upper Nile states. Following mass defections, the national army of South Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has also split. To many, this is not a surprise, because the national army consisted of a collection of former rebel groups who remained loyal to their leaders, rather than to the army’s command and control. Notwithstanding the growing humanitarian catastrophe, both sides continue to recruit, train, and resupply their forces.

Unknown thousands of fighters and civilians have been killed, and terrible massacres have been perpetrated on both sides. In response, the United States and European Union have issued limited sanctions designations against military commanders on both sides for mass atrocities, human rights violations, and obstruction of the peace process. Although UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has pushed for “punitive measures” against those obstructing the peace, the UN Security Council has yet to act. Diplomats say that they are deferring to IGAD, the regional body leading negotiations, on when to enact sanctions in order to avoid upsetting ongoing negotiations.

For its part, IGAD has failed to take action on promised punitive measures, in spite of violations of agreements signed by the warring parties on January 23, May 9, June 10, and August 25. Regional monitors have documented over a dozen violations of the January 23rd Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement, but there have been no consequences for those elite actors most responsible. As famine looms, the conflict looks poised to take on an increasingly regional dimension. Both Sudanese rebel forces and Uganda troops have already been actively fighting in South Sudan. Now many fear, that both countries will be drawn further into the conflict.

Humanitarian Concerns

Of the estimated 1.8 million people who remain displaced from their homes today, 1.35 million are within South Sudan and 453,600 have fled to neighboring countries. Nearly 100,000 civilians are currently sheltering on U.N. bases around the country as South Sudan. Efforts to combat famine have been successful through the end of the year, but humanitarians warn that this requires a Herculean effort. Continuing to sustain that level of response may not be possible if the violence continues.

The conditions in Bentiu, the capital of oil-rich Unity state, represent a particularly appalling situation. Families are living knee-deep in water and fighting continues to threaten their safety. Women and girls are at risk of sexual violence, given cramped conditions and the breakdown in social and cultural norms as a result of the violence.

Challenges to Peace

South Sudan gained independence as one of the most fragile and underdeveloped countries in the world. The path to a lasting peace will require addressing not just the immediate challenges presented by the current conflict, but those that existed long-before independence was achieved. These include, but are not limited to, corruption, political party reform, inter-communal violence, and tensions over oil-sharing revenues with Sudan.

As a result of corruption, the Government of South Sudan failed to invest in public infrastructure, education, or health care. This 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 local communities, a huge reservoir of uneducated teenage boys are vulnerable to recruitment by rebel commanders and opportunistic politicians who use them to further their own ambitions. The long simmering challenges associated with the amnesty and integration of splinter rebel factions and the failure to reform the national army, the SPLA, provided the backdrop to the current conflict.

Since the current conflict was sparked by a power struggle within the SPLM, political party reform will be a primary task for the transitional government. Without any way to resolve political differences through peaceful democratic means, political elites will continue to resort to violence.

Another challenge is violence between communities. South Sudan has struggled with inter and intra communal violence for decades over access to water and grazing land between pastoralist communities. Easy access to weapons and ammunition is responsible for much of the violence. State security have not had capacity to provide protection to civilians or control the illicit flow of these armaments.

Persistent tensions with Sudan over the sharing of oil revenues and the status of the contested Abyei region also presents an ongoing challenge to peace and security. The Government of Sudan has provided southern rebels with funds, weapons, and ammunition – intentionally stoking tensions within South Sudan. Most recently, rebel leader David Yau Yau accepted the amnesty deal, creating a new administrative area for the Murle ethnic homeland called the Greater Pibor Administrative Area. Historically, Yau Yau has benefitted from Khartoum’s support. While this new deal has created peace between the Murle and the Government of South Sudan, it may also incentivize other rebel commanders to seek political and economic gains through violent means.

Justice and Accountability

Mass killings, sexual violence, and other war crimes have been widely documented by journalists and human rights groups in South Sudan. Children have been pulled out of school and the UN estimates there are at least 9,000 child soldiers that have been recruited into the current conflict on both sides.

For many, there cannot be peace without justice. So far, the Presidential Commission appointed by President Kiir has failed to hold government forces accountable for atrocities and obstruction of humanitarian aid. For their part, the armed opposition investigated a dramatic massacre in Bentiu and announced that one man with a machine gun was responsible for all the killing. To end cycles of violence and impunity, many South Sudanese civil society groups have advocated for a hybrid tribunal to prosecute those most responsible for mass atrocities and human rights violations on both sides of the conflict. The African Union has appointed a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to recommend the way forward, balancing international legal standards and more traditional forms of justice and reconciliation. The CoI has not yet released its final report, but it previously endorsed the idea of a hybrid court.

At the grassroots level, South Sudan has a long history of people-to-people peace initiatives led by traditional and faith leaders. These efforts have the greatest chance of healing the wounds between communities that have been driven apart by war. Truth-telling and reconciliation efforts will need to overcome the legacy of violence associated with not just the current conflict, but South Sudan’s long history of civil war.

Updated: October 1, 2014