South Sudan

Volatile nation

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Riek Machar, the former Vice-President, and Salva Kiir, South Sudan President, pay their respects at the grave of Sudanese rebel leader John Garang in Juba in this May 2010 picture. Photo: Pete Muller/AP

Government soldiers after re-taking Bor, north-west of capital Juba, on December 25. Photo: JAMES AKENA/REUTERS

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (second, right) meeting with South Sudanese political detainees held in government custody during a visit to Juba on December 26. Photo: AFP

The country seems all set to implode once again as hostilities between two major ethnic groups, one supporting President Salva Kiir and the other backing the former Vice-President, escalate.

IT IS BARELY TWO AND A HALF YEARS SINCE South Sudan joined the community of independent nations, and the spectre of civil war has once again cast its shadow on the nation. The latest cycle of violence erupted on December 15. According to reports, trouble started when a clash took place between two sections of the presidential security guards. This escalated into massive bloodletting, with the two major ethnic groups, Dinkas and Nuers, pitted against each other in the capital, Juba, and other towns. Dinkas constitute around 15 per cent of the population and Nuers around 10 per cent. President Salva Kiir is a Dinka and his former Vice-President, Riek Machar, who has emerged as the leader of the rebellion, is a Nuer. Kiir arrested many of Machar’s allies serving in the government, including senior Ministers.

Much of Juba has been reduced to rubble. By the end of December, international agencies reported that more than a thousand people were killed and tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes following the violence. United Nations bases have been besieged by refugees seeking protection. The rioters attacked a U.N. base near South Sudan’s border with Ethiopia, resulting in the deaths of two peacekeepers, one of them an Indian, and several civilians who had sought refuge in the base. In the last week of December, the U.N. decided to double the number of peacekeepers in South Sudan to 12,500. The United States has mobilised its forces stationed in Djibouti to intervene in South Sudan if the situation goes out of hand. The U.S. media have reported that the Barack Obama administration is prepared to send forces at six hours’ notice. President Obama has warned against “any effort to seize power through the use of military force”. He had earlier said that South Sudan “was on a precipice”.

President Kiir alleged that Machar tried to stage a coup, but the former Vice-President has refuted the claim. He is, however, demanding the resignation of the President now. Machar said the President “repeatedly violated the Constitution and was no longer the legitimate President”. Trouble has been brewing in the country since July when, in a surprise move, Kiir removed Machar from the post of Vice-President along with the entire Cabinet. The President also removed some elected State Governors. The African Union (A.U.) and the regional grouping, Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have chosen to describe the situation as a “crisis”.

The oil factor

Some of Kiir’s decisions have been erratic. Six months after attaining independence in July 2011, the President unilaterally closed the pipeline that carries South Sudan’s oil to the international market following a dispute over pricing with the Republic of Sudan. South Sudan’s oil is transported to world market through the north, with Sudan getting a share of the revenue earned. South Sudan is Africa’s third biggest exporter of oil but remains one of the poorest on the continent. With its economy on the verge of collapse, South Sudan reopened the pipeline after 18 months.

Barely 1 per cent of the country’s population has access to electricity. South Sudan’s economy continues to rely on international aid. Corruption is all pervasive in the country. A 2012 survey revealed that half of the police force consisted of fake names. Kiir even admitted that 75 officials had misappropriated more than $4 billion from the treasury.

South Sudan was engaged in serious military skirmishes with its northern neighbour over the disputed oil-producing area of Abyei. Kiir had ordered the army to forcibly take the oil-producing town. The Sudanese army retaliated with force, and before the fighting turned into an all-out war, a ceasefire was negotiated. Khartoum has accused South Sudan of encouraging secessionist movements in the Blue Nile and Kordofan States of Sudan. Relations between the two countries have been normalised in recent months, but the unrest in the South could have an adverse impact on the beleaguered economy of Sudan. The much-needed oil revenues could soon dry up and cause further hardship for the people there.

The international communities, especially the country’s main backers—the U.S. and neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia—have been working overtime to bring about a negotiated settlement to the fighting that has now enveloped most of the country. The Ethiopian Prime Minister and the Kenyan President rushed to Juba in an effort to defuse the situation. Kiir then offered a truce along with the release of eight of the 11 senior politicians, all Nuers, who were arrested on charges of plotting a coup. They had held senior positions in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which led the fight for independence from the Muslim and Arab-dominated north. Machar wants the rest of the arrested politicians released and has asked for formal peace talks before negotiating a ceasefire. As of now, the government forces want to arrest him on various charges, including on charge of plotting a coup. The U.S. as well as regional leaders have made it clear that they will not accept the violent overthrow of the Kiir government.

As the year ended, most of the oil-producing areas of the South were under the control of forces aligned with Machar. The oil-producing Unity State is in rebel hands, but the government is massing troops to capture the State capital, Bentiu. The army, owing allegiance to the President, has recaptured the towns of Bor and Malakal, but the rebels are massing militias to confront the army. The “White Army”, comprising largely of armed Nuer youth, who smear their bodies with ash prepared from burnt cow dung, has entered the fray and is marching towards Bor. The involvement of the White Army in the hostilities threatens to plunge the country into a full-scale civil war, pitting the majority Dinkas against Nuers.

Ethnic killings

Many senior Dinka politicians, including Rebecca Garang, the widow of John Garang, are vocal critics of the President. Rebecca Garang was among the Ministers sacked by Kiir earlier in the year. Machar has been a divisive figure, even among some of his own ethnic compatriots. Kiir described him as a “Prophet of Doom” and has been making references to his collaboration with the government in Khartoum in the 1990s. Machar has retaliated by accusing the President “of inciting ethnic killings and tribal divisions”. Fractures along ethnic lines were evident in South Sudan long before the country became independent. Machar himself had at one time aligned with Khartoum during the two-decades-long civil war that ended in 2005. The SPLM faction owing allegiance to Machar had split from the main movement in 1991. The serious infighting had resulted in the deaths of thousands of Dinkas in Bor.

The massacres of 1991, which have been blamed on Machar and Nuers, have evidently not been forgotten. Machar then formally joined the government in Khartoum following his differences with Garang, the SPLM’s towering leader at the time. Machar returned to the SPLM only in 2002. After the death of Garang in a helicopter crash, Kiir, his second-in-command, took over.

Both Garang and Machar held doctorates from Western universities, while Kiir has very little formal education. The differences between Kiir and Machar were out in the open as soon as the new government came into being in South Sudan. In 2012, Machar openly said that he would seek the leadership of the SPLM. Soon after, he started questioning Kiir’s style of leadership and his general political acumen.


In April 2013, Machar was stripped off many of his powers and later removed from office along with the entire Cabinet. Kiir also fired many senior office-bearers of the SPLM, including its popular secretary-general Pagan Amum. The critics of the President accused him of trying to consolidate all power in his hands so that he could run for another term in office unopposed. His opponents, alluding to Kiir’s ethnic roots, accused him of fostering “Dinkocracy” instead of democracy.

In the first week of December, Machar along with other top SPLM officials such as Amum, accused the President of having authoritarian tendencies. They said he had “immobilised” the structures of the ruling party and was driving the country into an “abyss”. Soon after, high-level arrests and bloodletting followed.

A former South Sudanese Minister, Jok Madut Jok, had presciently told a television network at the time of independence that his country was like a four-legged animal “but with all its legs broken”. He went on to explain: “The first leg of any government is a disciplined army. We have problems with how our military functions today. That’s a broken leg. We have a civil society. That is very weak now. The third leg is delivery of services. It is hard to deliver security. The fourth leg is political unity—we have been having difficulty uniting our ranks,” Jok said.

South Sudan seems set to implode once again. All the four legs necessary for running a successful state have now suffered multiple fractures.

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