On July 9, 2011, South Sudan became an independent state, making it the newest nation in the world. However, despite its short history, the country is extremely fragile and has been experiencing widespread corruption, violence, fighting, and border conflicts since its conception as a new nation. The start of this new nation comes off the back of a 22-year civil war between the Sudanese government and the people of South Sudan. Unfortunately, as a country striking out on its own after a long and violent conflict, the system was so fragile and new that the newly formed nation soon began to experience the violence and corruption that had plagued their past.
The conflict in South Sudan began as a series of political disputes between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. Political corruption was prevalent with Machar accusing the President of trying to turn the nation into a dictatorship and President Kiir accusing Machar of attempting to stage a coup. This resulted in the firing of the President’s entire cabinet and fighting that began in December 2013, between the presidential guard and members of the army who were loyal to Machar. As the violence progressed, the conflict began to take on a more ethnic dimension with the Dinka people aligning with the President and the Nuer siding with Machar. Neither side of this conflict has clean hands; both the government and rebel forces have committed mass atrocities against their people. Tactics used against the civilians include massacres, extrajudicial killings, ethnic targeting, sexual violence, and the use of child soldiers. To date, this civil war has claimed the lives of tens of thousands as well as displacing roughly two million civilians. Further exacerbation of the situation is the now looming threat of famine that threatens millions of lives.
There are many factors that have contributed to the speedy downfall of South Sudan. The first being the combined struggles of forming a new nation and historic ethnic tensions. The challenges that come with creating a new nation like establishing their political, economic, and military policies were already more tenuous as the single government party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has just been leading a civil war, fighting in the bush. They now had to transition to trying to establish a legitimate government. The ethnic and tribal tensions in the country halted and complicated this development. South Sudan is made up of many different ethnicities and tribes and there has always been a history of clashes and revenge attacks between groups. When the civil war broke out in 2013, the ethnic violence that had already existed fed off of the new conflict and only continued to grow.
South Sudan also had to deal with problems coming from external sources. Militia groups with a history of supporting the North tested the new nations army and caused violence within the country. Another pressing threat is the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). A rebel group that began in Uganda has provided problems in South Sudan before it became a separate nation as well as following their succession from the North. Since 2008, the LRA has displaced over 460,000 civilians and abducted more than 3,400 people, turning many children into child soldiers as well. Another external conflict is the continued struggle with Sudan. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has attacked the South, manipulated ethnicities and tribes within the country to keep the conflict going, as well as bombing several areas including locations where many refugees have fled. Two of the biggest continuing disputes between Sudan and South Sudan however, are over the region of Abyei and the South’s oil wealth. The Abyei region is a border territory that has been historically disputed and has resulted in violence over its boundaries. The oil conflict stems from the South retaining most of the oil within its borders but that the oil must travel through pipes in Sudan in order to be exported. While at one stage, an agreement was in place to split the revenues between the North and the South, in 2012 the SPLM shut down the oil wells preventing the oil from reaching Sudan.
The international community has reacted quite quickly to the conflict in South Sudan with the UN immediately condemning the violence and authorizing the deployment of more than 13,000 UN peacekeepers to the area. The problem though has been that deployment has been slow and not very effective. Many attempts at creating ceasefires have been attempted with negotiations unfortunately falling apart each time. Target sanctions have been employed but have not shown much of an effective change.
Going forward what needs to happen in South Sudan? One of the most important ideas is more as well as better humanitarian aid and access. The pressing threat is the looming famine, which would call for a marked in crease in humanitarian aid should it escalate. Also, targeted sanctions are still needed but in conjunction with arms embargos to better manage the flow of weapons and ammunition that fuels the violence. Efforts to improve South Sudan’s justice and accountability policies are also a must in order to begin holding both sides of the conflict responsible for their crimes.