Analysis of Conflict in South Sudan


An armed struggle broke out across South Sudan on December 28, 2013, between South Sudan’s army and the White Army, an ethnic Neur militia group loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar. This conflict has resulted in over one thousand casualties and displaced over one million people. On January 23, 2014, representatives of President Salva Kiir and Machar signed a ceasefire agreement in Addis Ababa. This ceasefire, however, turned hollow on February 18th when the White Army, raping and slaughtering civilians along the way, recaptured parts of Malakal, the capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile state. Some analysts suggest that the rebels used January 23rd’s ceasefire to regroup and rearm. The UN has declared South Sudan a level 3 humanitarian emergency—the same ranking as Syria.

A power struggle exists within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) between President Kiir, a Dinka, and Machar, a Neur. Kiir is a seasoned battle veteran, whereas Machar perceives himself as an intellectual with the political foresight to guide the young country through turbulent times. In 1991, Machar led a faction, comprised mostly of his ethnic Neur, to break away from SPLM, and collaborated with the Sudanese government in Khartoum to weaken Kiir’s faction. Forces loyal to Machar then killed hundreds of Dinkas in the 1991 Bor massacre. The two men attempted to form a unity government in 2011, but Kiir dismissed Machar as vice-president during a July 2013 cabinet purge, a purge that came on the heels of Machar accusing Kiir of abusing his executive authority publically. Machar then announced he would challenge Kiir as SPLM chairman and run against him for president in 2015.

In 2011, Sudanese president Bashir argued that South Sudan should not be given independence because the country would lapse into ethnic conflict. His prediction has proved prescient. What began as a political power struggle has since devolved into a complex, ethnic conflict exacerbated by the absence of a collective identity in South Sudan. Before the country gained its independence, President Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum represented a common enemy, uniting Southern resistance. Yet SPLM infighting and, in fact, independence have weakened the country’s unity. Indeed, society has fractured along ethnic lines, mainly between the two largest and politically powerful ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Neur.

Competition exists between the Dinka and Neur because both Nilotic groups, characterized by mobility and cattle-rearing, have fought over access to grazing land for their cattle and water-points. Their tradition of “turf-wars” has become more violent; the decades-long North-South civil war has enabled cattle raiders to trade their spears for modern weapons. Yet although this unhealthy ethnic rivalry exists, economic hardship better explains South Sudan’s recurrent violence.

The government’s failure to develop an efficient system to distribute wealth and resources has exacerbated ethnic divides. The government must provide opportunities for its citizens, and thus far, it has been unable to create a stable investment climate or to put forth new infrastructure and education initiatives. This lack of opportunities had proved fodder for opportunistic rebel commanders and politicians who seek to exploit the grievances of the Sudanese youth.

Focusing on national reconciliation may make peace possible in South Sudan. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) currently mediates the peace negotiations between the government and rebel forces. Since February 18, 2014, both the South Sudanese military and the White Army have sought an unlikely military victory to shore up their negotiating position. Thus, the IGAD’s first priority is to broker another cessation of hostility agreement. A stronger ceasefire can be achieved by deploying a regional stability and protection force, both focused on limiting civilian harassment. IGAD should also deny the UN’s request for Ugandan President Museveni to mediate the conflict, and should instead demand Ugandan troops that are supporting South Sudan’s army to leave the country. Thus far, this highly visible military presence has undermined IGAD’s impartiality and threatens to pull Sudan directly into the conflict.

Regional interests complicate IGAD’s mediation efforts. The Troika, namely Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States, played a critical role in mediating the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Troika should engage with an influential China to develop a system of leverage, including: pressuring Uganda to redeploy its troops, using targeted sanctions against those undermining peace efforts, and developing communications with Sudan.

In order to reach a lasting political solution, ongoing negotiations need to become more inclusive and focus on security sector reforms. As a confidence-building measure, the South Sudanese government should release the remaining political detainees that were accused of an alleged coup plot after Machar was removed from power. Further, both political and civil-society groups must engage in a dialogue aimed at restructuring SPLM.
If they fail to do so, then future political power struggles may too mutate into armed conflicts.

Security sector reform remains an unaddressed issue. Demobilizing and providing reintegration opportunities for combatants are critical for long-term stability. Infrastructure projects can provide local employment, enhance fluidity, and extend police protection, enabling the government to develop a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The Troika can condition development assistance for such infrastructure projects on the performance of demobilization and reconciliation efforts.

For sustainable peace in South Sudan, IGAD, UNMISS, and the Troika must keep the South Sudanese government focused on the peace talks in Addis Ababa, transparency and inclusivity in the national dialogue process, and political and security sector reform. IGAD should continue to lead mediation efforts, with UNMISS assisting in monitoring the ceasefire and the Troika providing financial and political leverage. The national government and rebel groups are locked in a painful stalemate, and Sudanese civilians are bearing the costs. It is due time that local and international actors find a workable solution to the conflict.

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