South Sudan Conflict Analysis
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of violent conflict. Praised as the world’s “newest democracy,” the country soon plummeted into its own civil war. President Salva Kiir, renowned for his rampant corruption, feared that his vice president, Reik Machar, was plotting to overthrow him. President Kiir wanted to keep full control of the government in order to reward his followers with oil revenue and keep these profits out of the public sphere (BBC). These two leaders belong to the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, respectively. During the fight for independence, local militias, usually ethnically based, joined together to form the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) acting as the political wing. However, the SPLM became South Sudan’s national army after the end of the conflict and the inability to fully institutionalize the army reopened ethnic grievances (Kuol). In December 2013, President Kiir ordered Dinka members of his presidential guard to disarm Nuer members in anticipation of a potential coup. The resulting violence spread across the country, with local rebel militias seizing land and slaughtering thousands of civilians. As the political rivalry between Kiir and Machar heightened, Kiir made the executive decision to expel Machar from office in July 2013. Machar’s subsequent exile compounded tensions within the political elite as loyalties began to splinter along pre-independence ethnic lines (BBC). Although a ceasefire has been in effect since 2017, skirmishes between government and rebel forces are not uncommon and multiple peace deals have been ignored. Most recently, Reik Machar and the SPLM-IO (in-opposition) have called for a 100 day extension on implementing a power-sharing government that was initially agreed upon in 2018.
The historical context of South Sudan relates to the root causes of its civil war. Since South Sudan became its own state in 2011, there is little collective history to analyze. This unique status explains the lack of strong democratic institutions that could prevent conflict, such as frequent elections and a robust civil society, as South Sudan is still in the process of democratization. Cederman’s research on democratization concludes that the initiation of these periods correlates with the outbreak of conflict because of regime instability. This could not be more evident than in South Sudan, with civil war breaking out just 2.5 years after independence and the start of democratic implementation. Additionally, historical tendencies to mobilize along ethnic lines and the inability of the state to address ethnic grievances helps explain the civil war. Before the war with Sudan, southern Sudan was composed of tribes that clung to local identities in order to mount opposition to the abuses of the northern regions. The lack of a unified southern identity persisted within the SPLM through the independence war although local militias did unite for most of the conflict.
President Kiir’s placation of the Dinka elite, although truly for economic rather than ethnic reasons, heightened the ethnically divided nature of political infighting until the outbreak of actual violence. The continued escalation of violence between ethnic groups after the start of the conflict is best understood through Chaim Kaufmann’s theory on the mediating civil wars. Kaufmann argues that “…hypernationalist mobilization rhetoric and real atrocities harden ethnic identities to the point that cross-ethnic political appeals are unlikely to be made”(137). Attacks by government forces on Nuer populations, especially in the northeastern states of South Sudan, increased rebel opposition to President Kiir and the intractability of civil war. These targeted attacks, coupled with President Kiir’s rhetoric on the SPLM-IO, have polarized ethnic groups in South Sudan. However, to categorize this conflict as purely ethnic would simplify the deeper issue the South Sudanese government wants the world to ignore.
The true root of conflict and impetus for continued violence in South Sudan is the corruption among South Sudanese elites and the reliance of the government on foreign aid. Oil production accounts for more than 95% of South Sudan’s domestic revenue and oil companies such as Nilepet are under complete state control. This means that instead of investing profits in democratization and state institutions, elites have the ability to funnel funds straight into their own pockets. Also, the abuse by President Kiir and his inner circle of foreign aid following 2011 independence compiled grievances in local communities that do not reap these benefits, such as the Nuer populations. The unequal sharing of resources and political representation mobilized ethnic groups to consolidate power out of fear of political domination, demonstrated through a concentrated Dinka presence across government offices. The outbreak of civil war in South Sudan is explained by a multitude of factors, with the exploitation of ethnic ties being just a small part of a much bigger abuse of power. If the distribution of wealth in South Sudan was more equitable and elites were held accountable for their greediness, it is possible that conflict could have been avoided as governmental mismanagement lies at the center of this civil war.
The human costs of the South Sudanese Civil War are immense, with an estimated 400,00 people dead and millions more displaced. The SPLM, the former South Sudanese independence army, came under the control of President Kiir once he came to office. The White Army, a Nuer splinter group of the SPLM from South Sudan’s independence war, is allied with the SPLM-IO against Kiir’s forces. Following historical trends, there is also local mobilization among smaller regional groups that often rely on child soldiers and smuggled arms from Sudan. The SPLM has the support of surrounding external players, including Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. President Museveni of Uganda has pledged military, economic, and political support to President Kiir throughout the conflict and his country has been integral in holding peace talks. Another significant mediator is the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which has been involved in South Sudan since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the independence war (Kuol). Throughout the civil war, multiple peace deals and ceasefires have been signed in 2014, 2016, and 2018 only to be broken by gunfire. Early cooperation between President Kiir and Machar could have de-escalated violence but both political actors refused to listen to external and internal parties to form a compromise.
The peaceful resolution of the South Sudanese civil war is a difficult objective to achieve. According to Zartman, protraction of conflict does not depend on the duration but rather on “…the duration’s effect” (49). As President Kiir has benefited from the centralization of power and control of the security forces as a result of civil war, the reignition of conflict has advantages for South Sudan. The conflict is seen as intractable even though its continuation is a deliberate effort by leaders on both sides to profit from war. Neither side has truly committed to actual mediation that requires legitimate concessions. The latest proposed solution to the South Sudanese war, the implementation of a power-sharing government agreed upon in 2018, offers the most realistic end to conflict. As told by Nilsson, “…when parties engage in costly concessions, such as implementing military and territorial pacts, … peace is more likely to last” (218). The South Sudanese government and opposing rebel forces must commit to addressing grievances and agreeing on a power-sharing deal that requires high-cost military and territorial concessions. This includes integrating security forces and creating states within South Sudan that are thoughtfully drawn, as requested by Machar. There have been a multitude of political concessions made throughout this conflict but they have either been reversed or ineffective.The opposing sides in South Sudan’s civil war must truly buy in to peace by making significant concessions or risk the outbreak of increased violence and suffering.
“South Sudan Profile – Timeline.” BBC News, BBC, 6 Aug. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14019202.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, et al. “Democratization and Civil War: Empirical Evidence.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 47, no. 4, 2010, pp. 377–394., doi:10.1177/0022343310368336.
Jarstad, Anna K., and Desiree Nilsson. “From Words to Deeds: The Implementation of Power-Sharing Pacts in Peace Accords.” Conflict Management and Peace Science, vol. 25, no. 3, 2008, pp. 206–223., doi:10.1080/07388940802218945.
Kaufmann, Chaim. “Reading 6.3 Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars.” Conflict After the Cold War, 2017, pp. 356–374., doi:10.4324/9781315231372-42.
Kuol, Luka. “Navigating the Competing Interests of Regional Actors in South Sudan.” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 29 May 2018, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/navigating-the-competing-interests-of-regional-actors-in-south-sudan/.
Zartman, I. William. “Analyzing Intractability.” Pioneers in Arts, Humanities, Science, Engineering, Practice I William Zartman: A Pioneer in Conflict Management and Area Studies, 2019, pp. 47–67., doi:10.1007/978-3-030-06079-4_12.