After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, the mood in South Sudan was one of celebration and hope for the future. However less than five years later it has gone from being the world’s newest country to a ‘failing state’, after experiencing two years of brutal conflict which have divided the nation along ethnic lines.
Despite a ceasefire being signed in August 2015, South Sudan remains wounded, tense and bitterly divided, with the prospects of a lasting peace looking unlikely. The country’s civil war, characterized by horrific human rights abuses and attacks on civilians, has taken place largely outside the glare of media spotlight. Over the past two years the conflict has claimed more than 50,000 lives, with at least 1.6 million people internally displaced and 12,500 UN peacekeepers being deployed in an attempt to stabilize the situation.
The civil war began in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir Mayardit – also head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which had fought for independence – sacked his entire cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of instigating a failed coup against his regime.
The feud between two rival politicians quickly escalated in to full-scale conflict, and took on a strong ethnic dimension from the start, dividing South Sudan between its two largest ethnic groups. The Dinkas aligned with President Kiir, whilst the Nuers largely supported the rebel movement led by Machar.
The conflict which followed has had devastating effects on South Sudan’s civilian population. Rape and sexual violence have been used as a method of intimidation, child soldiers have been recruited to fight, whilst property has been looted and entire villages have been destroyed. The violence has also severely affected South Sudan’s economy: the farming industry has ground to a halt, causing nationwide food shortages and leading to widespread hunger and starvation. In 2014, the UN described the country’s food crisis as the ‘’worst in the world’’, with up to 4 million people severely affected and up to 50,000 children dying of malnourishment.
Whilst recent atrocities committed in the Middle East have frequently made the front pages of newspapers, the horrific scale of human rights abuses in South Sudan has continued almost un-noticed by the outside world. In April 2014 rebels attacked a UN base in Jonglei state, killing 58 people including many children, before UN peacekeepers could intervene. When the town of Bentiu was seized, civilians were massacred in a hospital, with one UN worker describing the scenes as ‘resembling the 1994 Rwandan genocide’.
Thousands of women and girls have been abducted, tortured and raped; whilst ethnic cleansing has taken place on a mass scale: men have frequently been executed by both sides, with some eyewitness reports even claiming that babies have been burned alive.
The people who have somehow managed to survive are now living in desperate, cramped conditions, seeking refuge on UN bases. Food and water supplies are scarce, whilst the spread of disease is rife. As a result of the conflict, South Sudan now has amongst the highest rates of starvation and infant mortality in the world.
However, there have recently been positive developments. In August 2015 a peace agreement was signed after several rounds of negotiations. However the deal remains fragile, with frequent armed clashes initiated by both sides regularly violating the ceasefire.
A question many are now asking in light of the initial celebratory mood after South Sudan’s ‘liberation’; is ‘how has it come to this?’
Firstly, the US-supported independence campaign and western-funded state-building project, presented a simplified picture and glossed over the internal divisions within South Sudan. Before the independence referendum in 2011, the issue was simplified as being the ‘Christian South’ breaking away from the ‘Muslim North’; ignoring the underlying deep-rooted ethnic tensions which would inevitably make the process of uniting the South more difficult than it appeared.
The main focus was on building infrastructure and state institutions, at the expense of ensuring good governance, resource redistribution and reconciliation. For example since independence, 38% of oil revenue has been spent on the military whilst just 7% has been spent on education. President Kiir has struggled to transform the SPLM from being a militant liberation organization into a democratic political party. Political elites have been accused of displaying increasingly autocratic behaviour, whilst creating divisions and stirring ethnic tensions.
Despite the recently improved situation the prospects for long-term stability do not look good, as many obstacles to peace remain. Firstly, both sides have committed in the past to end the fighting, but have routinely broken their promises to launch new offensives. Secondly, the power-sharing agreement does not tackle the issues of accountability and justice, whilst it also leaves the underlying causes of the conflict unresolved. Thirdly, there is dis-unity on both sides of an increasingly complex conflict: there are hardliners in both camps, whilst broad coalitions of civilian militias and military units will be difficult to control.
Going forward, South Sudan’s neighbours are likely to play a key role in mediation. However to add to the complexity, they are also divided and have competing aims. For example, Uganda has consistently supported President Kiir; Sudan has allegedly provided weapons and logistical support to the rebels; whilst Kenya has a key interest in the situation considering its strong economic links with South Sudan.
In the end, the civil war has served only to cause mass human suffering, deepen ethnic animosity and create a heavily militarized society with a dangerous culture for revenge. The cycle of conflict which has plagued South Sudan will be difficult to break without addressing the underlying causes. Considering the region’s troubled history of violence and a society now deeply fractured along ethnic lines, the outlook is bleak. South Sudan has the potential to become ‘another Rwanda’; the world is again at risk of a horrific genocide taking place in Africa almost un-noticed, outside the gaze of the mainstream media, and largely ignored by western politicians before it is too late.