People & Power

Understanding the South Sudan conflict outside the ethnic box

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A wounded child sits next to a relative after receiving

A wounded child sits next to a relative after receiving treatment at the Malakal Hospital in the Upper Nile State of South Sudan on December 31, 2013 following heavy fighting in the the past few days. AFP photo 

By  Christopher Zambakari & Tarnjeet K Kang

Posted  Sunday, January 5   2014 at  02:00

In Summary

The new political crisis is the convergence of two different conflicts. It is now impossible to disentangle them and resolve them separately.

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Inside-out. On December 15, soldiers loyal to Riek Machar mutinied and in the subsequent days, the conflict kicked up a storm across South Sudan. Scholars Christopher Zambakari, & Tarnjeet K Kang discuss the situation in the world’s newest state.

The Republic of South Sudan is facing the most serious political crises since its historic vote for independence less than three years ago.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the conflict that started on December 15, 2013, when an exchange between soldiers quickly spiraled out of control and spread through the capital city and engulfed most states, has now resulted in more than 180,000 people being internally displaced, and a death toll estimated to be over a thousand. The conflict is primarily raging in the states of the Greater Upper Nile.

Former vice president Riek Machar, and forces loyal to him, claim to be in control of key parts of Jonglei and Unity states, which include oil sources that are critical to the country’s economic viability. Peace talks are underway in Ethiopia, under the auspices of the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
Although the focus is on reaching an agreement on the cessation of hostilities between government forces and the forces loyal to Machar, the political crisis that fractured the ruling political party, the national army, and incentivised numerous rebel movements in the country demands a truly comprehensive peace agreement that can address the root causes of the conflict.

Key events
In the months prior to December 15, key events created an environment that challenged the political power of President Salva Kiir. These included the firing of Machar, the dissolution of Kiir’s cabinet, as well as the dismantling of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)’s leadership structure.

While the speed at which the conflict has unfolded came as a surprise to many, several factors contributed to the tense environment. The Greater Upper Nile region, which includes the towns of Bor and Malakal, has been at the center of recent battles between SPLA soldiers and rebelling factions. The state of Jonglei in particular has continued to experience conflict before and after South Sudan’s independence 2011.

The media has largely presented the situation as a conflict between two sides, Kiir and Machar, or worse yet, reduced a political crisis to a tribal conflict.

This failure in diagnosis obscures the real motives behind the struggle within the SPLM and the increasing division within the army (SPLA). Secondly, the formulation of the problem is restrictive. By presenting it as a Kiir vs Machar struggle or Dinka vs Nuer war, analysts have also failed to come to terms with the complexity of the political environment in South Sudan.

Douglas Johnson, an expert on Sudanese history noted that “what we are seeing in South Sudan is the convergence of two parallel conflicts that have been developing over time.” However, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Those who are in opposition, the 11 high ranking officials who were arrested soon after the start of the conflict, are leading members of the ruling party. They come from diverse ethnic groups. Similarly, Kiir’s government is composed of a diverse group coming from different nationalities. Thus, this conflict cannot simply be about ethnicity though it has taken on an ethnic dimension. It is about politics and a struggle for power.

The second dimension that needs to be considered is the army. South Sudan’s national army is composed mainly of different factions that fought against the regime in Khartoum. Several of these disparate groups were integrated into a national army when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was being negotiated and more were incorporated during the transitional period that followed. The army has been loosely structured and key commanders have retained loyalty to their former militia leaders.

The process of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) has ultimately been a failure. Only 10,000 have been demobilised of an estimated 150,000 former militia. More than 6,000 people have been killed in South Sudan between 2009 and March 2012.
The majority of incidents leading to death have occurred in the states of the Greater Upper Nile, where the conflict is now raging over control of the oilfields.

The new political crisis is the convergence of two different conflicts. It is now impossible to disentangle them and resolve them separately.

Hence lies the opportunity for mediators in Addis Ababa to come up with a comprehensive peace agreement that straddles the old grievances that led to the proliferation of multiple armed groups in South Sudan and the recent insurrection exemplified by the events of December 15.

Mediating peace in South Sudan
IGAD and the African Union have taken the lead in mediating between the warring parties and talks are set to begin in Ethiopia between rebels and the government.

President Kiir has agreed to enter peace talks after meeting with regional leaders, yet has stated that he will not entertain the proposal of a power-sharing agreement with Machar and declared that the “alleged coup plotters” should not be rewarded with political power.

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