What Is the Context of the Violent Crisis in South Sudan?


If you are confused about Sudan and South Sudan, then join the club! We in Africa, even right next door to Sudan and its new neighbor South Sudan, a new nation created only three years ago, are often baffled by the strange happenings that are only hinted at in sporadic, obscure, and bizarre press accounts.

Clearly, part of the deeper problem with the Sudan crisis is that the world’s media is covering it without the resources they would devote to a human tragedy of this size in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Americas. Sadly, we are inured to Africans dying by the thousands, and it just doesn’t generate headlines. It is likely, according to UN officials, that thousands are already dead in South Sudan, but no one has hard numbers for a body count.

Though much blood has already been spilled in South Sudan, things got much worse in the last ten days. The focus of the violence has fallen more and more on civilians. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has ordered something like 7,000 international police and military to be added to a similar number already stationed in the area around Juba, but this may not be enough to counter the forces of the two South Sudanese factions fighting for the supremacy of the two principal South Sudan political heavyweights, Salva Kiir and his former collaborator and political ally Riek Machar. United Nations human rights officials on the ground have said that there is no cease-fire in sight. Until Kiir or Machar wins decisively, the conflicts and deaths will continue.

An oversimplified (but always helpful!) way to understand the context in which the current violence has erupted in this barren, central-eastern part of Africa is based on ethnicity and religion. There were two steps to the process that created the current mess, the first involving Muslim/Christian conflict that created South Sudan as a new nation in 2011, and now the current conflict, which has arisen solely within South Sudan as competing political figures vie for supremacy.

Back in the days of the old nation of Sudan, by far the largest country in all of Africa before it split up, northern and southern Sudanese often had fights based on religion and ethnicity. The northern Sudanese, who are centered in Khartoum, the magnificent and ancient capital city on the Nile, are largely light-skinned Arab Muslims. The people of southern Sudan are predominantly black African Christians. The Muslims for decades regarded the southerners as second class citizens and did not hesitate to brutalize them. And so it was these black Christians who voted overwhelmingly (98 per cent) to secede from Sudan as a new nation in 2011. This new nation was christened South Sudan.

The broader problems of greater Sudan came to brief public attention in a brilliant spark of explosive world prominence a decade ago, when Hollywood movie stars attempted to focus charitable giving on human misery in Darfur. Actor George Clooney famously lent his own great personal charisma and popularity to raise money for refugees. But then Sudan faded from the news, and now we find that the killing and horror has resumed.

Some three hundred U.S. citizens were evacuated from the city of Bor, capital of Jonglei Province, the geographical focus of instability in South Sudan. Bor is an area of newly discovered oil wealth, and this significantly complicates everything.

Massive, heavy-duty U.S. Navy Osprey aircraft, those magnificent airships that can shift their engines to point skyward when landing so that they function like helicopters, attracted gunfire in the last ten days while attempting to extract fleeing Americans. Meanwhile, thousands of citizens from other Western nations, including Canada, the U.K., and Australia, have elected to stay in South Sudan and tough it out, in the hope that a peace plan can be cobbled together before the violence gets worse. There may be some reason to hope.

The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has put pressure this week on the administration of President Salva Kiir for a Christmas cease-fire (ironically, the celebration of Christmas used to be banned by the old government in Khartoum), though with mixed results. Fighting continues as I write this, according to most reports. Refugees are fleeing into neighboring countries to the east, mainly Uganda and Ethiopia.

There are reportedly 20,000 displaced persons in Juba, the dusty capital city of South Sudan. The international airport has been closed, perhaps to slow down the tide of departures. There are another 15,000 refugees in Bor. All these people fear for their safety in spite of curfews from sundown to sunrise.

Some back-story may be helpful in coming to an understanding of the new wave of fighting that has escalated so dramatically in the last half of December: President Salva Kiir is the head of the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM), which is the political organization that led South Sudan to independence from Khartoum. Since taking power, even Kiir’s supporters have accused him of becoming despotic and paranoid, and more concerned about his personal wealth and status than he is in providing stable leadership and governance.

Under Kiir’s rule as maximum leader, corruption in southern Sudan has grown far worse than it was when Khartoum was in charge. In a comical incident a few weeks ago, Kiir even asked recalcitrant cronies, some of them cabinet ministers, to hand back cash they had stolen for personal use. The Kiir government, in short, is not governing.

The result is that the war-weary citizens of South Sudan are now perhaps even less happy than they were when Arab Muslim rulers in Khartoum called the shots. Kiir is one of their own, and yet he is oppressing them even more than the Muslims did. This creates anger and frustration.

The violence began almost six months ago in July when Salva Kiir dismissed the whole executive level of his government and shuttered a number of key ministries. But the fighting has grown much worse in the last six weeks, centered in the capital of Juba.

Ten days ago, President Kiir took off his customary black summer-weight business suit in favor of a khaki military uniform, the first time he has appeared in such a costume. It was successful theatre, if not successful in bringing peace and a laying down of arms.

Kiir has blamed his closest political associate, former vice president Riek Machar, another founding member of SPLM and a man of status and charisma equal to Kiir’s, of fomenting a coup d’etat directed against him. Kiir dismissed Machar from office. Riek Machar has now formed military units of his own to wage war against Kiir. Machar may well be an acceptable successor to Kiir, both in the minds of foreigners and the South Sudanese people. Many observers are now betting on Machar.

But it is hard even for seasoned observers in neighboring countries to gauge the true depth of the political split between Kiir and Machar, as they have squabbled before but usually succeeded in becoming pals again. There may be a new factor in the mix, however, which bodes ill for the conflict. This has been the starkly visible deterioration in Kiir’s health, which seems to have manifested itself in bouts of anger, violence, and a terrible ruthlessness against former trusted collaborators.

Salva Kiir’s inability to lead effectively suggests that the conflict will get worse before it gets better. Meanwhile, the flood of refugees into Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia continues. And the murder of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, continues in urban areas. And many of the remaining Europeans, taking a sign from the Americans, are packing their bags to depart for London, Paris, and Sydney to await better, safer days in Africa.


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