What’s Happening in South Sudan? 8 Things You Should Know (And How You Can Help)

south sudan

By Margaret Barthel

 1. It’s the world’s youngest country.

The background: following years of conflict, South Sudan peacefully gained its independence from Sudan in July 2011 after voters approved a referendum creating the new country. The split was hailed as a step towards full peace in a region deeply troubled by struggles over oil and intra-ethnic hatred.

However, as James Copnall, author of a book on the split, writes, “rebel movements that win freedom are often very badly suited to the more mundane process of governing a state”– an analysis that has unfortunately been true of the leaders of the Sudan People’s Leadership Army/Movement specifically current president Salva Kiir, who came to political power right after independence.

The political challenges facing the new country did not stop at inexperienced and often corrupt politicians: tensions with Sudan over borders — specifically the ownership of the Abyei territory, which abuts the oil-rich South Sudanese Jonglei and Unity states — have plagued the fledgling nation. In the division of the two countries, South Sudan received around 80 percent of the formerly Sudanese oil fields, which represent the third-largest oil deposits in Sub-Saharan Africa. The pipelines that deliver the oil to market, however, run through Sudan, which entitles Sudan to a portion of the revenue. Serious disputes have sprung up between the two countries over the oil business, often leading to disruption in oil production and economic hardship.

Furthermore, it has been difficult to bring peace to South Sudan’s many warring tribal groups. During its short national history, the country’s central government has been at war with tribal fighters who are furious about tribal group representation in government and suspicious that the government plans to minimize or destroy South Sudan’s democracy in an effort to seize power indefinitely. Other intra-ethnic conflicts arise from old animosities that existed before independence, such as the longstanding hatred between the Nuer and Murle tribes.

2. It’s a conflict that began small.

On December 15, fighting broke out in Juba, the South Sudanese capital, between factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, and those who support President Salva Kiir. The previous July, Kiir dismissed Machar and much of the rest of his cabinet in an attempt to preemptively defeat a suspected power grab by Machar.

Shortly after the fighting began, Kiir’s forces seized and detained 11 of Machar’s most important supporters on suspicion of rebellious intent. Kiir’s insistence that these political prisoners be kept in custody as criminals seriously hobbled ceasefire and peace talks later on.

3. It’s a conflict that divides along ethnic lines.

It’s unclear exactly which side struck the spark of struggle — each side accuses the other of beginning the conflict –but, once ignited, the fuel for the fire was readily available. Kiir is a member of the large Dinka tribal group, while Machar is a Nuer–the second largest tribe in South Sudan — so the struggle is rooted in ethnic ties.

The two tribes have a history of bloodshed between them. Past animosity linked to the perception that the Dinka were more obliging to British colonial rule than the Nuer has flared up in modern times: in 1991, Machar and a group of his supporters sought out and killed approximately 2,000 Dinka civilians in the Upper Nile Region of Sudan (now South Sudan) in the span of two months. The massacre occurred during Machar’s attempted coup against then-Sudan People’s Liberation Army General, John Garang, a Dinka. Tensions between the tribes have never fully eased since the fighting in the early 1990s.

4. It’s a conflict caught up in oil.

Some of the heaviest fighting between government troops and Machar’s forces has occurred in the oil-rich Jonglei and Unity states. The capital of Unity state, Bentiu, saw particularly bloody engagements after the army commander in command of the city defected to Machar’s cause. Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, has been heavily contested, too: in advance of cease fire talks, Machar’s troops seized the city at the end of December in an attempt to improve their bargaining position, in spite of threats of sanctions from other African nations if a ceasefire did not occur by the first of January.

5. Oil means heightened international attention.

The presence of oil in the most fought-over areas of the conflict has heightened international concern. African leaders, led by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopian Prime Minister Haliemariam Desalegn, called for a ceasefire and peace talks from the very first, and even went so far as to visit President Kiir in Juba in late December to pressure him to release the 11 Machar supporters from prison. Ethiopia hosted the talks that began on January 5, which were soon mired in arguments over the release of the detainees by Kiir.

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, is a staunch ally of Kiir. On January 8, three days after peace talks began, Museveni sent in Ugandan troops and equipment to defend parts of Juba, the capital city, from rebel attack.

Other nations have also weighed in: the Obama administration, which played a significant role in securing peaceful independence for South Sudan in 2011, exhorted Kiir to free the prisoners and condemned Machar for “using force to seize power.” In a rare move, China, which usually stays out of international debacles, urged a stop to the violence and requested that other countries support the peace talks in Ethiopia. It’s likely that this unprecedented move on the part of China stems from their oil and trade interests in the region: not only is China is Africa’s largest trading partner, it felt the disruption of the South Sudan oil business when it had to pull out China National Petroleum Corporation workers from the area. Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan, also spoke with Kiir about forming a force to protect the oil fields, which are the lifeblood of Sudan’s struggling economy.

6. It’s a conflict that has had tremendous human cost.

The humanitarian issues that have arisen from the South Sudan conflict are tremendous. Recent estimates put the death toll at approximately 10,000 people, and more than 500,000 more have been displaced from their homes. Many have sought refuge in the UN compounds located throughout South Sudan; the compounds are now overrun with tens of thousands of refugees. Another 32,000 refugees crossed the border into Uganda.

One of the largest of the displaced groups, some 75,000 people, escaped the violence in Bor in early January and took refuge in Awerial, a town several miles away. Awerial, unable to accommodate such a large population, is now one of many major humanitarian concerns: the town’s sources of clean water run dry by 10 a.m. each morning, and sanitation has completely broken down.

7. The conflict shows no imminent resolution.

Initial peace talks, which began January 5 in Ethiopia, quickly derailed over Kiir’s detaining of Machar’s 11 supporters. Machar refused to stop the violence without their release; Kiir contended that they were criminals who must be brought to justice. Finally, on January 23, the international community prevailed upon both sides to sign a cessation of hostilities agreement, which guaranteed the release of the political prisoners and outlined a monitoring force comprised of government, rebel, and international troops to keep the peace. However, the agreement failed to specify when Kiir would release the political prisoners–and Kiir has stated that he wants to see them stand trial first–so its efficacy is questionable.

Worse, the outlook for a long-lasting political solution seems bleak. Kiir rejects any kind of power-sharing set-up; Machar wants Kiir to resign from the presidency, despite the fact that the international community vocally disapproves of ousting an elected official with violence.

Meanwhile, there are troubling reports of continuing violence in the Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile states. By all accounts, the struggle that has ripped apart the world’s youngest country is far from over.

8. Help the humanitarian groups doing urgently-needed work on the ground in South Sudan.

The following is a short list of organizations working to address the situation in South Sudan. A more comprehensive catalogue of the international NGOs in South Sudan is available at the South Sudan NGO Forum website.

-ACTED, a relief organization based in Paris, maintains the largest of its global relief operations in South Sudan. Since 2007, they have been working towards the welfare of displaced persons in the country, with significant increases in their presence as of 2012. Currently, they are operating two camps in Juba as well as locations in Awerial and Bor, ensuring refugees have clean water, good hygiene, and sanitation solutions. For more information on their efforts, see their South Sudan page.

-The International Rescue Committee has had a presence in the South Sudan region since 1989. Their efforts are particularly focused on mitigating gender-based violence in UN camps, as well as providing clean water, sanitation, and protection for the shelters. Currently, they focus their work in Juba, Awerial, and Bentiu, with plans to expand to provide aid to the UN camp in Bor, once the area is secure. Read more here.

-Save the Children has 20 years of experience in the South Sudan area. It focuses on protecting displaced children, ensuring their nutrition, trying to reunite lost children with their parents, and giving displaced children psychosocial and educational assistance. At present, Save the Children is active in Juba, Awerial, and Nimule, and will enter Bor and Malakal once the threat of violence diminishes.

-Mercy Corps has an 11-year history of making change in South Sudan. In the short term, they supply emergency assistance–shelters, clean water, and sanitation–to displaced individuals outside of UN bases. Longer-term projects include building temporary classrooms, furnishing school supplies, and helping to smooth the economic and communal difficulties of refugees returning home. Their efforts are currently concentrated in Juba and Bentiu, and they are studying the situation in Warrap State and the Abyei Administration Area with an eye to developing a new branch of their aid operation.  Find out more here.

-The Enough Project gathers and analyzes information on site in South Sudan, in an effort to gather perspectives from different stakeholders, propose policy solutions to political leaders, and energize the American public to pressure their elected officials to take action. See their analysis of the current situation here.


Margaret BarthelAbout the writer:

Margaret Barthel recently graduated from Smith College with a degree in English Language and Literature. Among other things, she’s a writer, reader, history buff, and outdoors enthusiast with deep interests in feminism, politics, and the environment. A semester abroad studying at Oxford University and exploring continental Europe, in addition to plenty of quirky family vacations, are to blame for her love of travel. Find more of her work at margaretbarthel.wordpress.com.


Photo by EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection

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