South Sudan - Tribal Warfare 2013-2018?

Following the signing of a new peace agreement, conditions have greatly improved from when former Vice President Riek Machar fled Juba in 2016. Warring factions and the government of President Salva Kiir signed a new peace agreement in September 2018. Under the agreement, Machar, who led one of the largest rebel groups, is expected to come back in May 2019 when the pre-transitional government is supposed to wind down to make way for the transitional government of national unity. In the four months since the signing of the agreement, there haf been a very significant decline in casualties as a result of political violence. But there had been an uptick in casualties with regard to cattle raiding. And where peacekeepers patrol, such as around Protection of Civilian sites, violence was almost non-existent.

A landlocked state with a diverse ethnic mix, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after a long and devastating war with Khartoum. South Sudan's war, which has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced about four million, broke out in December 2013 when South Sudan President Salva Kiir accused his then-deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup, dashing the optimism that accompanied independence from Sudan just two years earlier. Since a 2015 peace deal collapsed in July 2016 with Machar fleeing South Sudan, Kiir's government has gained the upper hand militarily while the opposition has splintered into a myriad of factions.

South Sudanese rival leaders on 27 June 2018 broke a deadlock in peace talks in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, agreeing on a ceasefire to take hold after 72 hours, according to Sudan’s foreign minister. South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his arch foe, Riek Machar, agreed on “some points,” announced Sudan's Foreign Minister Al-Dirdiri Ahmed in Khartoum following the first face-to-face meeting between Kiir and Machar in almost two years. "All parties have agreed on a permanent ceasefire within 72 hours of signing the Khartoum Document," said Ahmed, after which Kiir and Machar signed the document in the presence of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. "This day was expected by our people in South Sudan and it has now come," Kiir said after the signing of the agreement.

Confirming the deal, Sudan’s SUNA news agency said the agreement calls for the opening of corridors for humanitarian aid, the release of prisoners and the withdrawal of forces. SUNA also reported that the agreement calls on the African Union and East African regional bloc to provide forces to oversee the cease-fire.

The latest push for peace in South Sudan comes as part of a fresh bid launched by East African leaders, with the two fighting factions facing a looming deadline to avert UN sanctions. Several previous ceasefire agreements have been violated. The Khartoum negotiations came after a round of talks brokered by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa faltered.

Alex de Waal wrote in 2016 "South Sudan today is a collapsed political marketplace. The country’s political market was structured by competitive militarized clientelism for access to oil rents. Those oil rents have almost disappeared but the structure of competition is unchanged and the price of loyalty has not reduced to a level commensurate with the available political funding. The result is that political loyalty and services are rewarded with license to plunder. This is inherently self-destructive. South Sudan’s political economy is being consumed to feed its political-military elite.

"President Salva Kiir) provided access to oil rents in return for political allegiance. By this means, he was able to bring the majority of armed groups into the SPLA’s ‘big tent’, but only on the basis of spending most government revenue on an unreformed security sector. This maintained a façade of unity among the political elites. It secured independence. However, the viability of the system was entirely dependent on a continued inflow of oil funds, and when that was shut off in January 2012, it was only a matter of time before the system crashed. When political rivalries for the leadership inevitably emerged, Pres. Kiir did not possess the funds, repressive apparatus, or political skills to maintain his position: the war arose from a mismanaged kleptocracy."

At least ten thousand people were killed in the first month of fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and soldiers backing former deputy, Riek Machar, who was dismissed in July 2013. By New Year 2014 thousands had been killed in tribal warfare that pitted Dinka troops against Nuer combatants. Some 250,000 people had been displaced by the fighting as of 09 January 2014, and while no official death toll has been released, a top U.N. official saidit is likely to be "very substantially in excess of the figure of 1,000 that we know for sure about.”

Tensions within South Sudan, the world’s youngest country which only gained independence in July 2011 after seceding from Sudan, burst out into open conflict on 15 December when President Salva Kiir's Government said soldiers loyal to former deputy president Riek Machar, dismissed in July 2013, launched an attempted coup. Kiir belongs to the Dinka ethnic group and Machar to the Lou Nuer.

After decades of struggle, by 2005 the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) was the dominant single political movement in Southern Sudan, and the genesis of a one-party state. On July 30, 2005, long-time SPLM leader John Garang died in a helicopter crash. The SPLM/A named Salva Kiir, Garang’s deputy, as President of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS). The July 2005 death of Garang and the formation of the Government of South Sudan gave the SPLM opportunities to bring rivals and former adversaries into the fold. The enlargement process intensified factionalism within the SPLM. While the SPLM has no serious political rival in the South, there are internal strains.

South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit dismissed his entire government, including Vice President Riek Machar, in a decree issued late July 24, 2013. Kiir also removed all deputy ministers. Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan’s Minister of Information and government spokesman before the restructuring announcement said a government makeover was overdue and that Kiir acted within the constitution. He rejected any suggestion that the reshuffle, as he called it, might cause instability in the world’s youngest country.

Alarmed by the increased conflict and violence in South Sudan, particularly the eastern state of Jonglei, the Security Council on 23 August 2013 strongly condemned attacks on civilians and the looting of UN and other international aid organizations’ facilities, and called on the Government to expedite safe and unhindered humanitarian access to the people cut off from aid. In a statement to the press, the Council “called on all parties, including armed militias, to exercise restraint, refrain from any acts of violence against civilians” and to “fully respect their obligations under applicable international law, including human rights law and international humanitarian law.” An estimated 100,000 civilians in Jonglei alone have been cut off from life-saving assistance as a result of fighting between State and non-state armed actors, and the recent resurgence of inter-communal clashes.

On November 26, 2013 South Sudan’s former Vice President Riek Machar said he was putting structures in place to challenge President Salva Kiir for the leadership of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) ahead of the 2015 general election. Some supporters of the ruling party said he was one of a group of visionless and directionless people in the party who were power hungry and intent on enriching themselves.

In December 2013, the political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar descended into violence, which by the end of 2014 left at least 10,000 people dead and more than 1.8 million displaced.

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar agreed 07 November 2014 on a power sharing formula in a deal to establish a national transitional government that would help steer the world’s newest nation to elections. The two warring leaders also called on their troops for an immediate cease-fire during the ongoing peace talks in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

One year after South Sudan's political infighting deteriorated into a deadly conflict, the parties appeared no closer to silencing their guns and getting back to the business of building the world’s youngest nation. Since its 2011 move to independence, the country spiraled into a humanitarian crisis that the UN said left half the population hungry and nearly two million displaced. Politically motivated fighting over the past year alone killed tens of thousands South Sudanese. More than a year of fighting in South Sudan left more than 10,000 people dead.

By the end of 2017 there were three armed structures in South Sudan claiming the heritage of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army: the Government forces (SPLA), the SPLA-IO loyal to Riek Machar (RM) and the SPLA-IO loyal to First Vice-President Taban Deng (TD). The SPLA and the SPLA-IO (RM) were supported by militias: the Dinka Mathiang Anyoor (now largely integrated into the SPLA) and the Nuer “White Army” respectively. The three armed structures and their associated militias favored guerrilla hit and run tactics over conventional battles, achieving success with light arms and minimal training, while living off the land. The Shilluk Agwelek militia had fought alongside both the SPLA and the SPLA-IO, and was primarily focused on the defence of Shilluk lands.

The United Nations refugee agency said13 February 2019 a surge of violence in South Sudan's Yei State displaced some 8,000 civilians and sent an estimated 5,000 people fleeing to the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Clashes between the South Sudanese army and a rebel group, the National Salvation Front or NAS, broke out on January 19. This was barely four months after the latest peace deal aimed at ending the country's five-year civil war was signed by President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar. The two major parties that signed the accord appear to be sticking to it. South Sudan has over 70 factions in terms of small groups and rebel groups. NAS is led by Thomas Cirillo, and this group refused to sign the peace agreement.

Join the mailing list