Thursday, April 10, 2014

South Sudan: Next Steps?

Brief Overview of the Current Situation

In a Nutshell: political rivals agitated ethnic tensions in order to gather support for their side/cause and it all resulted in ethnic cleansing. Such moves are a very common occurrence in Africa. Considering the fact that  the ethnic tensions existed in South Sudan for decades, if not centuries,  the current situation is hardly surprising.

What Happened : On the national level, there are two main players: President Salva Kiir vs. the former Vice-President Riek Machar. Kiir is from the Dinka tribe, while Machar is from the Nuer tribe. In a press conference on 6 December, 2013 Machar publicly accused the President of dictatorial tendencies. On 15 December, 2013, in-fighting occurred between the Presidential Guard, which Kiir described as an attempted coup d’├ętat perpetrated by forces allied with Machar.  Machar dismissed the accusation as a pretext for Kiir to get rid of the political opposition and fled. Soon the infighting spread throughout SPLA, which effectively split into those siding with Kiir and those siding with Machar. Both sides committed grave human rights abuses. On 21 December, Machar told the press that he was in rebellion against the Government[1]

Now, the Nuer militia that support Machar is called the White Army or the SPLM/A in Opposition. It seems these men seem to be more driven by ethnic hatred, rather than politics. The peace talks are currently a majestic failure, as neither leader is actually interested in making any concessions because they both desire total political control. However, even if Kiir and Machar did come to some kind of a political agreement, it makes one wonder if the ethnic violence would just stop. It seems as that it spiraled out of the control of either leader.

Some Background: During the Second Sudanese Civil War, Macher and his Lou Nuer allies, revolted against Garang's SPLM/A and formed a splinter group - the South Sudan Defence Force. They eventually re-joined the SPLM/A, but Lou Nuer's "treachery" still plays a big part in the conflict between South Sudan’ tribal communities. Thus the speed with which the infighting has spread throughout the SPLM is not surprising since the division within it was stark and had existed for a long time.

Ethnic Tensions: It is also important to remember that South Sudan has many ethnic groups that often have deadly disagreements - usually over land/pastures. Indeed, there are more than 60 ethnic groups in South Sudan. The Dinka is the largest ethnic group, making up 35% of the total population, while the Nuer group is about half the size. It makes sense for the political leaders from these tribes to incite “us vs. them” mentality, because it diverts the attention of the ethnic group from their own leader and his intentions to “them”.

The current conflict is happening against the background of  longstanding ethnic tensions within South Sudan. One of the causes for those tensions is the competition over land and pastures. Since climate is changing, the competition over pastures is increasing and becoming more deadly. Inter-tribal conflicts arise when pastoralists from one tribe enter the territory of another. In addition, conflicts between farmers and cattle-keepers are a recurring problem. These problems have been going on for decades, if not centuries. Cattle raiding and reprisals have been a part of life for generations between the Nuer, Dinka and Murle tribes. Raids are undertaken to increase stocks and to compensate for those lost. At this point, these thefts are accepted as part of daily life and contribute to culture of retaliation/vengeance between the tribes. Since South Sudan's independence in 2011, ethnic violence and cattle raiding have been on the rise - usually the clashes were between the members of the Murle tribe and the Nuer tribe. Thus the current conflict between the Nuer and the Dinka adds a whole new level of complexity to the situation. Thus the solution to current ethnic conflict will be intertwined with the solution to the pastoral conflicts.

Competition over Oil: I should also mention the current struggle over the oil resources: oil=money=power. Machar wants to cut of Kiir from the oilfields and thus economically undermine him. So, understandably, Machar is against the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) (that consists of neighbouring states) sending in forces to protect Kiir's oilfields. At this time, the first monitoring and verification team was deployed to Jonglei state capital Bor on 1 April, followed by a second team, which was deployed to Unity state’s Bentiu on 5 April. They are charged with "assessing, monitoring, investigating, verifying and reporting allegations of violations against the cessation of hostilities".

South Sudan and the Neighbours

South Sudan is surrounded by CAR (resource rich but unexploited), Uganda (resource rich), Sudan, Kenya (resource rich) and Ethiopia (resource rich). Once the conflict started and people started fleeing, the neighbouring countries were flooded by refugees – around 254k of them.

Uganda is pushing the refugees into settlements or camps, which can be expensive for Uganda and dangerous for the refugees. Uganda is also fully supporting Kiir: it sent thousands of troops to South Sudan to protect some of the installations in South Sudan, but then it joined government forces in the fight against Machar's forces. Machar naturally protests Uganda’s involvement in South Sudan and its inclusion as an observer in IGAD led peace talks. Machar threatens to boycott the upcoming peace talks in Ethiopia if Uganda takes part in them as an observer. Since Uganda is clearly not impartial, the rebels believe that it should simply join Kiir’s negotiating team.

Sudan has an adversarial history with South Sudan, the country that gained independence from it in 2011. However, it is providing some diplomatic support to South Sudan in this crisis. South Sudan arrested eleven officials from the SPLM  that it did not want to participate in the peace talks and Sudan did say that it will support South Sudan in not allowing these officials to participate in the talks, even if Uganda does not withdraw its forces. So even though Sudan was at first against Ugandan force being in South Sudan, it has soften its stance. Seven  of the eleven officials in question have been released.They are now located in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the peace talks are taking place. Four are waiting trial for treason. 

Ethiopia is taking in refugees as well. There are about 85 000 refugees at the Ethiopia- South Sudan border. However, the conditions in these camps are poor as the camps are grossly over-crowded: holding sometimes twice the amount of people than they are meant to accommodate.

Ethiopia is also accusing Eritrea for having a hand in the current South Sudan conflict and for supporting Kiir’s forces. Relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia have been adversarial since Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991, after 30 years of war. For its part, Eritrea claims that it is acting in hopes of promoting peace and stability in the region. Kenya, another neighbour of South Sudan, supports Eritrea’s rhetoric and looks to deepen its relationship with that state.

Kenya and Ethiopia oppose to the presence of Ugandan troops in South Sudan believe that their presence threatens regional peace and stability.

Another South Sudan’s neighbour is Central African Republic (CAR). Its current security situation is just as alarming as the one in South Sudan, if not more. Some analysts warn that the current crisis in CAR, which started in December 2012, has the possibility of repeating the history of Rwandan genocide. The situation then reversed in the country as Christian militias took power and started targeting Muslim minority, which lead to thousands of deaths, 650k internal displacements, and 290k refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries.

Next Steps

If the issue is elites' struggle for power (which I think it is, but it’s a debatable point) than the international community should resolve the situation in a decisive manner. This leaves little room for power-sharing, which is usually international community’s go-to solution to every power struggle. However, since Kiir and Machar were not able to successfully share power, there is little likelihood that they will be able to do so in the future or that the resulting government with two warring factions will be able to function. 

A better resolution to the conflict is to elect another government that is more representative of the different sections of society and work on local conflict resolution and reconciliation. It is important to take Kiir and Machar out of the picture as the current conflict is almost intimately linked to them. It is unlikely that the Nuer people will allow Kiir to govern in peace after this conflict, even if he did win the elections – and the Dinka will not allow Machar to govern.  This does not mean that once Kiir and Machar are out of the picture that the conflict will end. However, the conflict is more likely to cool down if the agitators were not inciting further violence.  Kiir should be pressured to resign by the international community or the people of South Sudan. Neither Kiir nor Machar should be allowed to run again – I am not sure how this could be accomplished, but since both are guilty of inciting human rights abuses  it should not be too hard for the South Sudan's Supreme Court to rule on.

Interim government should be established to fill the power vacuum.  It should busy itself with diffusing ethnic tensions. First of all, the interim government needs to attempt Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) + Reconciliation . This step will be next to impossible since the rebels (the Nuer) will not want to disarm without fully knowing they will not be retaliated against by the Dinka. Unless, one reorganizes DDR.  First, international community would send in its peacekeeping troops to prevent retaliation and foster security. Second, interim government should work on creating the mechanisms for reconciliation in order to combat the culture of vengeance. These mechanisms have to ensure that people feel that their suffering is recognized. It is important to remember that reconciliation cannot be based on retribution. It should be based on forgiveness and the desire for a better future. The reasoning behind this is that when ethnic cleansing takes place and human rights abuses are committed on the same scale by both sides, it is hard to pin point the perpetrators and “eye for an eye” mentality just makes more opportunities for vengeance.Third, soldiers should be re- integrated into the society, which will make it easier to accomplish the fourth step demobilization and disarmament, that is disbandment and disarmament of armed groups . It is easier to give up the arms if first you have a good vision for a different future i.e a good civilian job. 

Next, the new government has to tackle the underlining issues for ethnic tensions.To deal with the cattle raids and  inter-tribal tensions, I propose a police task force that is made up of individuals from different tribes. This task force would patrol the areas where cattle raids are most frequent. They would also investigate cattle raids. The cattle police task force will not in and out of itself solve the problem of cattle raids, however, with luck, it might discourage the victims taking the matters into their own hands and retaliating. Granted, the police force will have to be just and efficient or it will likely to create more problems than solve.

Another way to help alleviate tensions between tribes would be to create development projects that also involve individuals from different tribes. By working together on a common project, the people from different tribes would form positive connections and relationships. It will hopefully help discourage the demonization of the other tribes and contribute to more peaceful relations. Projects that create inter-dependence between tribes will also be highly valuable in this context as they will also discourage violence. It is unwise to cause harm to those on whom you depend.

The new government should actively encourage peaceful relations between different tribes. It should have an active media campaign to bring to light the similarities between tribes, to encourage peaceful resolution of disputes, and to highlight inter-dependencies  The government leaders need to stop encouraging ethnic tensions and contribute to their resolution.

Furthermore, the leaders need to be convinced by international community that having a more peaceful society is in their interest. They will incite violence only if they believe that it is more beneficial for them. War and conflict has to be made too costly for the leaders. 

However, only the South Sudanese can actually make a lasting change.  They can begin by not killing the members of the rivaling tribe in retaliation. International community needs to step in to provide basic security, but the rest is up to the people. If the people realize that the killing is perpetrated by armed groups and not normal people of other tribe, they could stop the senseless and endless cycle of violence. If the Dinka in the SPLA  tarted the killing, then the Nuer should have retaliated against only the Dinka in the SPLA, not all Dinka people. The people should not allow themselves to get caught up in political rivalries. Better yet, the average Dinka and Nuer should band together in times such as these and retaliate against the SPLA, Kiir and Machar.

Lastly, Uganda needs to withdraw its forces. It says that it will withdraw the forces once the IGAD stabilization force arrives. Hopefully, it will be so. It is very problematic that Uganda supports Kiir since it basically involves itself in an ethnic cleansing within the territory of another country.  Also, if a Nuer was ever elected as a president of South Sudan, it could lead to tensions between the two countries.  However, getting involved in each other’s internal affairs is common for the countries in this part of the world. Very often one country will support the rebels fighting the government in another country. It is hard for anyone, except the leaders of those countries, to do something about this issue. The leaders need to understand and believe that stability in the region depends on them working together rather than fighting and trying to undermine each other....

 I have a dream… 

Further information on the current situation in South Sudan, please check out the following report by International Crisis Group:

Good short video on internal politics within SPLM that play a large part in the current conflict



  1. It should be mentioned that some divide and conquer is in effect from outside of South Sudan. Machar and his Nuer Tribe have been known to receive support from the country they received independence from, Sudan and it's President Bashir, who would like to see South Sudan fail, whereby it would recover dominion over the land, the people and the oil.

  2. Well, I think that you have done a fair analysis of the situation, though some nuances may be missing. By way of critique, I see that a lot of your orientations in the piece above are based on subtle sweeping assumptions about Africans and African politics on the one hand, and about international politics on the other, that may not be quite correct. First of all I think you have oversimplified the conflict in to something feels like "a fight between two dummies that should know better", rather than a conflict between two people facing the genuine realities of ethnic contestations, and political disagreements, that is at the centre of their everyday life and livelihoods. And this is a basic reality that societies and communities face when in conflict. If you would look back, there is a sense in which you can see that it is the same kinds of reasons that manifested during the First and Second "World Wars". I advise that you read more about the socio-anthropological realities that Africans, like Kiir and Machar are faced with. Also (since you are a student of international relations) in terms of how you have viewed it within the frame of international relations perspectives, I think you seem to miss a bit the point that South Sudan is a sovereign country, with an elected Government in place... and that it is a civil war that is going on and not an inter-tribal war... Hence, I think you suggestion that the international community should intervenes and remove both parties and install a transitional government may not be practical in relation to the current realities of the international politics landscape. The international community cannot just wade in and remove both parties from the scene, the best case scenario may be that they will secure a deal to construct a joint government between the two factions through the peace deal, while the best case is that the international community may just sit back and wait for both parties to fight and then support the party the seems to be winning to restore order to the country.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I know a lot about ethnic issues in different African countries but the oversimplification here was intentional, for the purpose of length. I would have to write a book to properly discuss the ethnic issues in South Sudan. The point of the post was to give a simple overview of the issue, and then brainstorm some suggestions, not to discuss any point at length. As for your other point, I think you misunderstood. I do not think international community should establish the interim government. I think it should help establish it once the current government is gone, but the push for the change has to come from within the country... I was vague about how that would happen but I mentioned perhaps the Supreme Court could somehow intervene? Anyway, my starting point for positive change was the interim government and then I made my suggestions from there. Lastly, I know that there are tons of other issues that I did not address; the major one being the internal politics within SPLM that play a huge role in this conflict. Again, I did so intentionally because the post was already running long. I was thinking about making more academic posts than the current more casual ones, but I think the proper place for such lengthy discussions is still my Academic Work tab where I do post more in-depth articles.