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South Sudan: explaining the violence

The spiral of violence in South Sudan is not simply an ethnic conflict of Dinka on Nuer. Politics, as well as oil, is at issue and a political settlement is required.

Alemayehu F Weldemariam
29 December 2013
Presidential guard at independence celebrations

As they celebrated independence, little did the Presidential Guard know its members would spark internecine violence two years on. Wikimedia / Steve Evans. Creative Commons.

Three million lives were lost before South Sudan finally became Africa’s 54th country on July 9, 2011 and joined the United Nations as the 193rd member state. After a relative lull, no one expected to see the world’s youngest nation tottering on the brink of all-out civil war just two years into independence. 

The international media have reported unvarnished an appalling series of events, portraying another African tragedy of epic proportion in the making. The Guardian described South Sudan as ‘the state that fell apart in a week’. What readers glean from these reports is an inter-ethnic conflict between Dinka and Nuer.

The ethnic dimension to the conflict is undeniable: in the capital, Juba, as reported, elements of the presidential guard, the Tiger battalion of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), killed hundreds of Nuer, producing a backlash in the form of Koung, Gadet and Lou Nuer targeting Dinkas in Bentiu, Bor and Akobo. But this overlooks the political factors at root of the conflict, too easily misread as just yet-another-ethnic-war-in-Africa.

The South Sudan president, Salva Kiir Myardit, has been unable and unwilling to transform the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) into a democratic and effective political force, though long pressed to do so by the former vice-president turned rebel leader, Riek Machar, and his colleagues. The government has confirmed that it has put under custody 13 former high-ranking officials on charges of coup plotting. It is increasingly becoming clear that the protagonists are vying for control over the mainstay of the national economy, namely oil.

Political infighting

What is going on within the SPLA today is reminiscent of infighting in the recent past. In 1983 it divided into three factions, one of which (known as the South Sudan Independence Movement) was led by Machar. And the accusation of an attempted coup recalls the charge by the late SPLA leader, John Garang, against a Nuer-based splinter group backing the Nasir declaration of 1991—again Machar was one of the alleged plotters.

Against this background, it’s not clear whether Tigers of Dinka origin went on a rampage on December 15 killing hundreds of Nuer because they were spurred by fear of a repeat of 1991—when some 2,000 Dinka were killed in Bor—or because they were acting on orders to contain the unfolding infighting or to abort the alleged attempted coup.

Machar denied he had attempted a coup but told Al Jazeera he wanted to be the country's next leader. The government lost control of Bentiu, capital of the oil-rich Unity state, where scores of SPLA soldiers were killed with more pursued through the swamps. Greater Upper Nile was in flames and Bor was under forces loyal to Machar, with looting and destruction the order of the day. The information minister, Michael Makuei, however told Reuters that the government planned to retake Bentiu and Bor and on December 24 claimed the latter goal had been achieved.

The fighting has resulted in the death of hundreds and displacement of tens of thousands fleeing to UN bases or safer areas of the country. Toby Lanzer, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator, told Al Jazeera on December 23 that the death toll from a week of violence had likely surpassed 1,000 people and, although no firm numbers were available, that the number of internally displaced had probably exceeded 100,000. The next day the UN Security Council authorised the near-doubling of its peacekeeping force in South Sudan.

With few reporters left in the country, Jok Madut Jok, chair of the Sudd Institute in Juba, posted live social media updates:

The ghosts of last week of fighting and death in Juba are still hovering over the city, haunting everyone, giving nightmares … Four daily flights to Khartoum and they are fully booked, the same Khartoum we sworn to never set foot in again after “liberation”. Roads leading to various directions from the capital city are packed with motorists. People remain terrified, visions of last week's killings still too fresh, and people are walking like zombies …

Stability at risk

Besides the toll the violence has taken, what is worrying is the damage to social cohesion, the image of the nascent country and its efforts to attract investment. Political stability is even more at risk, given the wholesale detention of so many government officials and political leaders as conspirators in the alleged abortive coup—a major obstacle to dialogue between leaders on both sides.   

Yet South Sudanese are calling for peace. A political settlement could range from a federative arrangement for self- and shared rule within the political community to a modus vivendi for democratising the state and party apparatuses.

Neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya can play a key role through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Ethiopia has a strong interest in regional security and stability: it not only shares a border with South Sudan but Nuer also live in Ethiopia’s Gambella region and it would fear an influx of refugees. And the east African trading bloc, meeting on December 27 in Nairobi, demanded that within days Kiir and Machar rein in their forces and talk face-to-face. 

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