Written by: Sina Hommeland
Picture by: Steve Evans
“Today is the most important day for the people of South Sudan, the proclamation of whose birth and emergence as a member on the community of world nations you have just witnesses. It is a day which will be forever engraved in our hearts and minds.”
- Salva Kiir 9. July 2011 (Johnson, 2016, p.15)
This was the optimistic tune of Salva Kiir’s first speech as president of South Sudan. Unfortunately, this optimism did not last. July 9th 2011 was supposed to symbolize three things. The first was the fresh beginning for the world youngest country. Secondly, the end of the over 50 year-long civil war in Sudan, and lastly the beginning of a sunshine story for the international community. Just two years after the independence, a new civil war broke out. This time between members inside the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A
Though this was the biggest obstacle the new nation had to face, it was not the first. During the first two years, they dealt with everything from corruption in the leadership (Johnson, 2016, p. 25-28), to an outright conflict with Sudan about who had the right to the oilfields in the north of South Sudan (Johnson, 2016, p. 60). Because the conflict in South Sudan is such a complicated conflict, I am going to focus on what started the civil war in late 2013, what happened during the initial days, and what consequences it had for the population.
The civil war started December 15th 2013 between the Dinka fraction and Nuer fraction of the SPLM, as a result of soldiers in the presidential guard starting to fighting inside one of the barracks. The fighting then spread to the other military barracks in Juba later that night (Johnson, 2016, p.183-184). What the motivation behind the shooting was no one knows, but there are different theories as to what happened. One thing that is important to have in mind is that before the shooting started, President Salva Kiir dismissed Riek Machar as vice-president together with the whole cabinet, on allegations that they were planning a coup to overthrow him.
One theory as to what happened is that the shot was fired as a signal from Machar, that the Nuer soldiers should start fighting the Dinka fraction of the guard, in hopes of getting control over the guard (Johnson, 2016, p.185). The other theory is that the shot was fired because Kiir tried to take the weapons away from the Nuer soldiers as a way of preventing them from using the weapons to fight for Machar in a possible civil war (Johnson, 2016, p.185-186). At first glance, the conflict looked like a power conflict between Kiir and Machar, and to some degree, it was.
This is the simplified version of who is to blame for the civil war, and what the reasons was. Based on an investigation done by the African Union, there were never any plans to initiate a coup with Machar in the lead. To back this up one could take a look at what friends and foes of Machar said about him. They all agreed that he did not have enough support in the Nuer population to carry out a coup. However, a person that Machar’s friends and foes did suspect could carry it out, was is the former governor of Unity State Taban Deng Gai (Johnson, 2016, p.248). A couple of days before the alleged coup, Taban Deng Gai said to his fellow Nuer members that there was a huge chance that he himself and Riek Machar would be arrested. He also went on to encourage the Nuer members of the guard to do anything to stop this (Johnson, 2016, p.249).
If this was the case, where does that leave Machar in all this? There is little to no doubt that Machar had some part in all of this. He might have been a puppet for Deng in the beginning, but he is still responsible for what happened after the first shot was fired.
Regardless of who had the biggest role in starting the civil war, it took an ethnical turn during the first days. State officials started to take sides, and the SPLM started to fracture based on ethnical lines. On one, side the once loyal to Machar, mainly Nuer soldiers, and the once loyal to Kiir one the other side, mainly Dinka soldiers.
From the beginning of the civil war Dinka soldiers did not only kill Nuer soldiers, but also Nuer civilians (Johnson, 2016, p.188). The security situation in South Sudan deteriorated in a couple of days, and the fighting spread from the capital to other cities and areas of the country (Johnson, 2016, p.199-206). The Nuer soldiers were almost as bad as the Dinka soldiers were. However, it is clear that the fighting became an ethnical cleansing directed on the Nuer tribe.
At one point Dinka-soldiers went from door to door killing Nuer civilians based on what language they spoke (Johnson, 2016, p.190). If the person spoke Dinka or Arabic, they would survive, if not they were either killed on the spot, or taken prisoner and shot later (Johnson, 2016, p.190).
The day after the fighting began there were one incident concerning the Nuer population. About 300 Nuer men were rounded up and put in a room at the military-operation base of a Dinka group. The reason behind the imprisonment was their ethnicity. Later that night, unknown individuals started shooting through the windows several times. Later soldiers went in to the room to see if there were any survivors, 12 people survived because they were hiding under the dead bodies of their fellow Nuer’s (Johnson, 2016, p.189).
At some point, no one really knows when, the two leaders lost control over their armies.
This sort of violence, which I have described over together with raping of women and children as a tactic of war, has been the case in South Sudan since the beginning and up until today. What is going to happen after the signing of the latest peace agreement, no one knows. Based on what we have seen before when ceasefires was signed, the disagreements in the SPLM/A are running too deep for the parties to put aside. Therefore, unless the two parties actually sit down and try to work through the disagreements, there is little chance that the peace agreement will hold.
Consequences of Civil War
Because of the civil war, the humanitarian situation in South Sudan is one of the worst the modern world has seen. During the first day of fighting as many as 10 000 people sought refuge in the UN base located in the capital Juba (Johnson, 2016, p.187). These numbers only kept rising during the first period of the civil war. By December 23th there were over 28 000 people classified as Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Aweial County (Johnson, 2016, p.202)
In 2014, 1.5 million became displaced; hundreds of thousands were refuges in Ethiopia and Sudan, the latter came as a shock to everyone because of the strained relations between Khartoum and the South Sudanese people (Johnson, 2016, p.261). Because of the manmade disaster, South Sudan has also broke the record for the worst famine in its history by making close to 4 million in need of urgent food aid (Johnson, 2016, p.262). The fact that a country this young have a record to break when it comes to famine is unbelievably sad, but what is worse is that they broke it with 4 million. By, 2016 2.3 million had fled for their lives, 650 000 across international borders, and 200 000 to UN bases (Johnson, 2016, p.292). The countries that the refugees went to, and are still going to are Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya. All countries with their own problems.
Maybe the nightmare can turn back into a success story. What the future brings for the world’s newest country I do not know, but the road ahead for everyone involved, is long and bumpy. Not only do the government have a seemingly impossible task with rebuilding the country after the civil war, the government also have to start the reparations of the trust inside the government and between all the different ethnical groups. This has to happen before the SPLM can try to unite the people of South Sudan in the way they were meant to be. However, before they can start on this they have to sort out the food shortage, and what to do with all the IDP’s and refugees in other countries. If they manage to get just a fraction of this done, there is hope for South Sudan.
Johnson, Hilde F., 2016. South Sudan; the untold story; from independence to civil war, I.B. Tarius &Co. Ltd
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