South Sudan: from Party to Disaster Part I

South Sudan celebrated its independence from Sudan in July 2011 with a large folk festival attended by celebrities and heads of state from around the world. But despite great optimism and international support, the country was thrown back into a bloody civil war as early as December 2013. Since then, an increasingly extensive war with broken promises and peace agreements has led to a deep political crisis, economic collapse and a humanitarian catastrophe in the world’s youngest state.

  • How and why did South Sudan go from celebrating its independence to a three-year civil war?
  • What do the contradictions between the conflict actors consist of?
  • What consequences has the conflict had?
  • What role has the international community played in resolving the conflict?

2: Background to the conflict

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire gathered and colonized the areas of the upper reaches of the Nile. The colony became known as Sudan , and it included present-day South Sudan, a country located in Africa according to From 1899 Sudan came under a British-Egyptian condominium (co-government), and in 1956 Sudan became an independent state . Political unrest, disagreement and violence then led to civil war in the southern provinces of Sudan where various rebel movements fought for independence in the period 1963–1972.

Then a new and more extensive war started in 1983. The second civil war lasted for over 20 years and with enormous suffering and many died as a result. It was concluded in 2005 with a peace agreement between the government in the north (Khartoum) and the guerrilla movement Sudan People’s Liberation Movement ent / Ar my (SPLM / A) in the south. The agreement included a referendum on independence, held in January 2011. South Sudanese then clearly voted yes (98.8 percent) to secession from Sudan, and the state of South Sudan was established (for more information on the historical background see HHD 21, 2009-2010 ).

Both commentators and the international community feared that the tense relationship between North and South would undermine the newfound peace. But the biggest threat turned out to be internal political strife in South Sudan. The South Sudanese state apparatus was militarized and authoritarian, but weak and had only limited control over the new country. Previously, the struggle against the ruling powers in the north had helped to unite the people in the south, but when this common enemy fell away in 2011, political dissatisfaction within the country increased. A power struggle within the SPLM escalated in 2013. President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, which at times had been mortal enemies already during the Civil War, was at the center of the political storm.

In June 2013, Salva Kiir fired Riek Machar and the rest of the incumbent government. In the months that followed, the two factions escalated the conflict further. This was a full-blown civil war from 15 December. Violent fighting broke out in the capital Juba between soldiers loyal to the president and soldiers loyal to Riek Machar.

3: Civil war in South Sudan

When the media and others try to explain the ongoing crisis, they often focus on perceived “profound contradictions” between the country’s many ethnic groups and the personal rivalry between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. In particular, there are contradictions between the two main ethnic groups, Dinkas and Nuere, which are highlighted. But we believe this is a misinterpretation of what is at the heart of the conflict and the underlying factors that drive the conflict.

Like a number of other authoritarian governing traditions in the Sahel belt in Africa, South Sudan is characterized by weak state institutions that have poor public services (education, health care, police and the judiciary), an oversized defense and widespread corruption . This provides scope for political leaders to buy power and loyalty through monetary donations and the arbitrary distribution of positions of power to civilian and military leaders – who in turn ensure loyalty and support from their soldiers and supporters at the local level.

Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are first and foremost front figures for various power networks where support and loyalty are a commodity. They therefore have limited personal power and the ability to act independently of a policy and resource allocation that benefits the interests of their own networks. An authoritarian ruling tradition inherited from colonial times, a lack of education in the population and an uncontrolled stock market reinforced by social media make it easy for the country’s elites to mobilize political support along territorial and ethnic divides in their struggle for power, resources and influence. This has made it difficult to establish a common national identity and has instead helped to divide South Sudanese society. The Civil War has further accelerated these destructive tendencies.

In the days and weeks after the fighting broke out in Juba in December 2013, the parties escalated the conflict and the violence spread to large parts of the three states, Jonglei, Unity and Øvrenilen. The government’s SPLA forces under Salva Kiir, and the so-called SPLA in opposition (IO), led by Riek Machar, quickly identified themselves as the two main parties in the armed conflict. The war continued despite several attempts at negotiation, including several agreements on a ceasefire in January 2014 and an agreement on a solution to the division within the SPLM party in Arusha (Tanzania) in January 2015.

After further negotiations under international pressure and threats of sanctions from the international community, many felt that the parties had reached a breakthrough when a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in August 2015. But the fragile agreement was based on reluctant compromises and an agreement on power distribution between the two the leaders who should prove difficult to implement in practice.

The parties delayed the implementation of the agreement, but in April 2016, Riek Machar finally returned to Juba and was reinstated as vice president. In the months that followed, tensions in the capital increased because the parties had difficulty cooperating, and clashes between military units intensified. The reason for the increased uncertainty was that Juba was not demilitarized, as the agreement from August 2015 provided for. Furthermore, international observers and peacekeepers (UNMISS) had neither enough power nor sufficient mandate to keep the parties’ soldiers in check. On July 8, while Salva Kiir and Riek Machar were meeting in the presidential palace, fighting broke out again, right outside.

Over the next few days, fierce fighting broke out between government forces and the opposition, and the city was gripped by chaos and lawlessness. Soldiers looted shops and killed and raped civilians, while the peacekeepers could only watch. At least 36,000 people fled, and around 300 were killed in the fighting . The situation in Juba also led to a flare-up of violence elsewhere in the country, and by the time a new ceasefire was in place three days later, the foundations of the peace agreement had been destroyed. The government had full control over Juba, and Machar and his forces fled to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan

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