Hibiscus with Ginger

Watching South Sudan

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Man, it’s been a while. Somehow, during all the time I’ve been away, war broke out in South Sudan. Family and friends have emailed me pretty much from the beginning asking me what my opinion is on what’s happening there, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t really feel like I have a lot of insight on the conflict itself—there’s plenty of people who’ve written smarter things about it than I can. Still, it’s the elephant in the room, and it feels tone deaf to not start out with some thoughts on what’s happening, so here’s a sort of overview.

It started as a power struggle between Salva Kiir and Reik Machar, and that power struggle has remained significant, even as the fighting expanded. Whether this started due to an attempted coup or due to increased power grabs by Salva Kiir is less important than the fact that both parties are seeking power and have been preparing for such a confrontation in some fashion for quite a while.

At the same time, the history of ethnic violence (most notably the Dinka-Nuer war in the 90s) meant that many were concerned that the fighting would become ethnically-based, a concern that has materialized, though not as early as some made it out. A piece by Andreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone outlines some of the history and the ways that both sides denied tribalism while still using tribe to mobilize. It’s clear that both sides have killed people on the basis of ethnicity alone, and that this violence has gotten worse as the fighting has progressed.

The UN Human Rights Researcher Ivan Simonovic notes that Bentiu and Bor have been almost completely destroyed. OCHA now estimates that 468,000 people have been displaced within South Sudan, with approximately 80,000 or so refugees in neighboring countries, half of which have gone to Uganda (bordered by the Central African Republic, Sudan, and the DRC, they don’t really have a lot of choices).

The whole conflict has pretty scary regional implications, not only due to the mass movement of people. As Aly Verjee explains, it makes sense that the Sudanese government support the SPLM and Salva Kiir, since they have an economic stake in South Sudan remaining stable, at least enough so as to secure oil flow. Uganda too has supported the SPLM, sending troops to support the government, presumably to avoid further instability on the border. A cease-fire was just signed in Addis Ababa, though there’s no word yet as to how successful it will be.

What’s less discussed so far is what role this conflict will play with Sudan’s rebel groups. JEM and the SPLA-N have been particularly active under the banner of the SRF in South Kordofan, Darfur, and even North Kordofan sometimes. Given the historic connections between the SPM and the SPLM-N, it seems likely that the group will be impacted—they clearly have personal relationships even if the amount of support the SPLA gives to the SPLA-N is less since South Sudan stabilized its relationship with Sudan.

JEM has already been accused of involvement in South Sudan, fighting on the side of the SPLA in Unity state, although it denies any activity in South Sudan and claims neutrality. JEM has a history of working with the SPLA, at least before the South Sudanese government’s relations with Sudan improved, so it makes sense that those connections might carry over. At the same time, it seems like a bit of a risk for JEM to pick a side in the fighting, should it continue; their neutrality seems a lot safer. It also seems ironic that armed rebel groups and the Sudanese government would all back the South Sudanese government in this conflict.

So we’ve been left watching as negotiations have continued. The Rift Valley Institute had a conference recently that discussed some possibilities for change or improvement, where Jok Madut Jok emphasized the need to address the root causes of the conflict rather than just focusing on an end to the fighting. Hopefully this ceasefire holds and the country can move on and address some of the issues that started this violence in the first place.

In the meantime, I’m just left thinking over and over that all the leaders involved in this conflict are extraordinarily selfish. The fighting will continue until political agreements are signed, while society has been massively disrupted again. Thoughts go out to all those suffering, with a sincere hope that it ends soon.

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