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Vice Blog

Will South Sudan Descend Into Civil War?

Observers and world leaders are worried that it might.

Civilians seeking refuge from violence in the UNMISS compound in Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. (Photo: UNMISS/Hailemichael Gebrekrstos)

South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, is teetering on the verge of civil war. After an estimated 450 people died fighting in Juba – the country's capital – at the beginning of the week, the conflict has continued to spread, with armed civilians killing two United Nations peacekeepers and injuring one in a remote eastern region of the country late on Thursday. Parts of the South Sudanese army – a coalition of armed groups that fought both with and against each other during decades of war between themselves and against Sudan's Khartoum government – are fracturing along historical, political and tribal fault lines.


The violence – the worst since a 2005 peace deal gave South Sudan the right to secede in 2011 – has forced thousands of civilians to flee to UN compounds in Juba and others areas throughout the country. “We are doing everything possible to ensure the safety of civilians in our compounds, but our resources are limited and are now being stretched to breaking point,” the UN’s spokesperson in South Sudan, Joseph Contreras, told me. With supplies being consumed so fast, he said the UN was concerned about their ability to continue providing water for those in their care over the next few days, as well as worrying about a potential outbreak of disease.

Alongside Juba, where 20,000 people have fled to UN bases, the UN compound in Bor – 200km to the north of the capital – is housing over 10,000 people, including state ministers, MPs and the acting governor, after mutineers took control of the town on Wednesday, leading to more civilian casualties. Analysts, such as Sara Pantuliano – the head of the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group – have questioned why none of the 7,000 uniformed personnel from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) were deployed on the streets of Juba in the first days of the conflict.

President Kirr addresses a press conference on Monday (photo via)

Contreras told me that UNMISS would have been “outgunned and outnumbered” if they had tried to intervene in the fighting between rival groups within the Presidential Guard. The UN’s spokesperson said he was unable to comment on whether lives could have been saved if peacekeepers had been deployed on the streets when the fighting in Juba was at its peak on Monday and Tuesday. The primary responsibility for the protection of civilians lies with the host government, he said. Relative calm returned to Juba on Wednesday, but the UN didn't begin sending out military patrols around the capital until Thursday morning.


The conflict – which started as a political tussle for power within the ruling party between the president and those who wanted to succeed him – has, within days, led to hundreds of soldiers defecting from the army and civilians being attacked on the basis of their ethnicity. Human Rights Watch say that soldiers specifically targeted people from the Nuer ethnic group in Juba during the first days of the conflict, while members of the Dinka ethnic group may also have been targeted by Nuer soldiers. The attack on the UN compound in Akobo, which killed two Indian peacekeepers and injured another, was carried out by Nuer civilians seeking revenge for the attacks in Juba against the 30-plus Dinka civilians taking shelter at the base, India’s ambassador to the UN said.

The incident shows that terrible “accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg”, according to Human Rights Watch’s Africa director, Daniel Bekele. He called on government officials “to take urgent steps to prevent further abuses against civilians and quickly deescalate rising ethnic tensions”. Both sides accuse the other of stirring up inter-communal tensions, while at the same time invoking past rifts within the SPLM, the former rebel movement that now governs South Sudan.

President Kirr charing a security meeting on Wednesday (photo via)

President Salva Kiir – a member of the Dinka tribe – says he is ready for dialogue with his main opponent politician, Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe and Kiir's former deputy, who he sacked in July. But Machar, who is now on the run after his home in Juba was attacked on Tuesday, is demanding that Kiir step down as a condition of entering talks. Despite Machar now calling for Kiir to be ousted, consensus among analysts is that Sunday’s fighting was no coup attempt, but was triggered by a dispute between elements of the Presidential Guards, known as the Tigers.


All members of the Tigers were ordered to surrender their arms, according to former Minister of Higher Education Peter Adwok. But when only Dinka soldiers were rearmed, Nuer members of the Tigers understandably took notice. A fistfight soon became a gunfight and the Nuer soldiers, estimated to number around 300, took control of the headquarters, until they were dislodged the next day. By failing to halt the crisis at its inception and by not attempting to urgently reconcile their differences, all parties are “risking widespread bloodshed”, the International Crisis Group think tank said, warning that civil war was “frighteningly possible”.

Machar’s call for a “palace coup” and his failure so far to distance himself from suggestions that he may be planning to link up with the group of army defectors – led by fellow Nuer Peter Gatdet – that's vying for control of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state, has done little to calm the situation. Jonglei, like most of South Sudan, is awash with small arms – a hangover from the civil war and numerous failed attempts at civilian disarmament. Gatdet, a serial defector, rejoined South Sudan's army (the SPLA) most recently just over two years ago after abandoning his own rebellion in neighbouring Unity state. It is now feared he could encourage his former comrades in the South Sudan Liberation Army – which is waiting in Mayom county to be assimilated into the SPLA as part of a ceasefire agreement – to once again take up arms.


Civilians seeking refuge in the UNMISS compound in Bor, capital of Jonglei state, to flee violence. (Photo: UNMISS/Hailemichael Gebrekrstos)

The politics of South Sudan’s military are known for their Machiavellian tendencies, so rumours that Gatdet may yet reach out to David Yauyau – whose rebellion in Pibor county Gatdet was, until last week, responsible for eliminating – may not be as far-fetched as they first seem.

Oil-rich Unity state, from where both Machar and Gatdet hale, is still pumping its crude north through Sudan to international markets, but the shockwaves of recent days are threatening production. Nuer employees from two of South Sudan’s main oil fields attacked their Dinka colleagues on Wednesday, resulting in 16 deaths, according to the acting Unity state governor. The UN spokesperson in Juba told me that it was his understanding that this fighting did not involve firearms, but instead weapons like “knives and sticks”. Around 200 oil workers arrived at UN’s compound north of Bentiu on Thursday to escape the violence, along with over 100 others, Contreras said.

A contact in Bentiu told me on Thursday evening that gunfire had been heard coming from the direction of the SPLA’s fourth division, which is based in Unity state and mainly consists of Nuer soldiers as they are the most populous tribe in the area. Local people were worried, he said, that SPLA’s fourth division could follow the pattern of Bor, with a large mutiny resulting in the town falling out of government control. Today, Ugandan forces were deployed in Juba on the invitation of South Sudan's government. They are reported to have secured the airport in order to evacuate Ugandan nationals.


Once conflict in Sudan started in 1983, it claimed over one million lives, forced four million people from their homes and took a huge international effort over two decades before the SPLM and the Khartoum government signed the landmark 2005 peace deal. “South Sudan stands at the precipice,” US President Barack Obama said on Thursday. In recognition of this, the African Union has sent a delegation led by the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to try and broker a dialogue between the warring factions. However, with Ugandan troops being stationed in the capital, at Juba's request, Museveni may no longer be seen as being a neutral player by Machar. It can only be hoped that this is achieved while the country’s leaders still have it within their power to persuade their supporters and associates to step back from the brink and avoid a devastating all-out civil war.

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Previously from South Sudan:

What the Hell is Going on in South Sudan?

It Was an Unhappy Birthday for the Youngest Country on Earth