From Triumph To Tragedy: Understanding Conflict in South Sudan

by Aaron Spitler

March 3, 2017

In a recent report published by the United Nations, experts concluded that war-torn South Sudan’s sectarian violence has reached “catastrophic proportions”, noting the deteriorating security situation is nothing less than a descent into chaos. Newly-elected U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres depicted a stark reality in which paramilitary killings, sexual warfare and widespread displacement have become common occurrences, leaving tens of thousands dead in the process. Roving militias, divided by political loyalties and ethnic divisions, have conducted gruesome terror campaigns to create an environment in which nearly half of the population lives in dire need of assistance . Guterres’ warning of widespread atrocities has shocked the international community and evoked memories of the horrific genocide in Rwanda, a calamity the world swore would rear its ugly head. Despite these pleas for peace, international leadership to solve the humanitarian disaster has been nonexistent and proposed solutions have been sidestepped by geopolitical indecision. As the war slinks into its fourth year, conditions are ripe for the all-out ethnic civil war many foreign commentators, and South Sudanese citizens, fear will grip the country.  To stop this unraveling, these groups have demanded that international groups take a stand and not turn away during the nation’s most desperate hour.

Rampant tribalism was not always the norm in South Sudan, as their independence campaign was built on eclectic coalitions. During the decades long struggle against the Sudanese government, rebels from all backgrounds banded together to fight against the oppressive regime in Khartoum. Lt. General Salva Kiir, a prominent warlord belonging to the agrarian Dinka people, helped found the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and ardently advocated for self-determination. His zealousness engendered him to his compatriots and led to the creation of a larger-than-life persona, as some among the predominantly Christian Dinka have drawn comparisons to the Biblical prophet Joshua. In fact, the official government website lionizes Kiir and claims he “capably established the then fugitives in the Promised Land.” Among the semi-nomadic Nuer, field lieutenant Riek Machar emerged as a voice for the marginalized during the war and spearheaded guerilla operations throughout the northern hinterlands. A self-styled maverick, Machar clashed with commanding officers who argued for preserving the disorderly Sudanese state and positioned himself as a forerunner for popular sovereignty. During the war’s final months, both men emerged as power brokers for their respective tribes and peacemakers for a unified, multi-ethnic homeland.

These overtures for pluralism and relatively smooth transition following the independence referendum of 2011 won the acclaim of international powers like the United States. American involvement in the nation’s peacebuilding project dates back to the George W. Bush Administration, whose efforts helped expedite the nonviolent resolution to the conflict during the tail end of Barack Obama’s first term. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, President Obama celebrated the vote which not only marked the beginning of ethnic reconciliation, but also its accession into the community of nations. “In an important step forward, leaders from both northern and southern Sudan — backed by more than 40 nations and international organizations — agreed to work together to ensure that the voting would be timely, peaceful, free and credible and would reflect the will of the Sudanese people.” With Kiir installed as president and Machar his deputy, many observers believed ethnic rivalries would be subdued, government legitimacy could be established, and a grassroots civic culture could take root. Though questions about the viability of fledgling state remained in doubt, many in the Obama Administration as a major foreign policy accomplishment and victory for “soft-power” in producing regime change without resortingto “aggressive” tactics. Secure in the belief that the two would be competent architects of inclusive state-building, American diplomatic interests shifted away from the country and gradually disengaged from efforts to create civil society. Tragically, this leadership vacuum would soon reignite divisions and pave the way for disaster.

In the ensuing months, political infighting between Kiir, Machar, and their allies derailed many key initiatives while sowing discord in the executive branch. Jok Madut Jok, an analyst at a leading South Sudanese think tank, argues that tensions resurfaced when Machar (and his Nuer followers) released public comments that he would be better equipped to lead the country than the bombastic Kiir. “Sometimes there would be agreement on issues or programs to be implemented and the vice president, being the top administrator in the country, would sometimes fail to implement what has been agreed upon.” Sniping in the press created a political circus during these pivotal years, with both sides indulging in harmful rhetoric that promoted ethno-nationalist histories and minimized the contributions of other groups during the revolutionary struggle. Negotiations with Sudan regarding oil revenue sharing sputtered, anti-corruption legislation stalled and an economic stimulus package meant to alleviate poverty was scrapped as the former allies feuded. These missteps and perceived insubordination resulted in Kiir’s dramatic dismissal of his cabinet in the summer of 2013, in which Machar and his Nuer faction were purged and replaced with Dinka loyalists. In retaliation, the ousted leader called for an“armed struggle” against Kiir’s government, a move which has incited warfare across the country and still rages to this day. Though attempts to cease the bloodshed, such as peace talks in Addis Ababa throughout 2014 and a proposed “unity government” during 2016, have been attempted, all have faced intense scrutiny from both factions and have failed to stop rising death tolls.

Now, with escalating intergroup violence and ineffective governance, South Sudan remains seemingly trapped in a war without end. While many in the international arena sit in stunned silence and lament the coming of another failed state, three solutions have materialized that may prevent this collapse. First, the African Union has proposed the institution of a “hybrid court” that can rapidly redress human rights violations on both sides while respecting the rights of the people. Partnering with local judges and prosecutors, the collaboration seeks to enact social justice reforms within its judiciary that acknowledge ethnic differences. Moreover, a key stipulation posits that warlords can avoid prosecution by punishing perpetrators and discouraging future raids among those under their command. Secondly, President Kiir has also formed a “national dialogue” committee composed of all political parties to host a variety of discussions focused on reparation and societal rehabilitation. In an effort to address grievances without political pressure, Kiir believes that a series of open forums on the strife will restore trust in a government that respects all citizens. Finally, the framework for a temporary U.N. trusteeship headed by the U.S. has been touted as a means to force control out of the hands of aggressors and bring much needed stability to the area. Its goals include the reconstruction of social institutions, revamping of the electoral system, and safeguarding of the country’s most vulnerable populations. Each alternative has its benefits, but their practical implementation is a much murkier process. Warring parties are wary of outside intervention and fear that both the court restructuring and trusteeship would provide outsized influence to regional rivals. Conversely, the global community is reluctant in allowing Kiir to facilitate dialogues on diffusing tensions given his recent record.

However, one thing is abundantly clear: a solution to end this senseless slaughter is needed now more than ever. Though the situation is bleak, the hope for a prosperous, peaceful, and free South Sudan is one that lives on in its resilient people.

Aaron Spitler is a Sophomore B.A. student at the College of William & Mary and an Intern for the William & Mary Policy Review.