How does one understand the current conflict in South Sudan? Two major explanations are on offer. The first claims it is an ethnic struggle between the two largest groups in the country, the Dinka and the Nuer, the first led by the president, Salva Kiir, and the second by his deputy, Riek Machar. The second explanation sees it as a power struggle between individuals in the SPLM/A leadership.
While neither explanation can be ignored, neither is sufficient to explain the conflict. This is because both ignore key ingredients: The process of state formation that has further politicised ethnic allegiance and ideological preferences that both intersect with and soften ethnic conflict.
The immediate background to the current crisis is declining support for Kiir, who has hitherto held a monopoly of top positions, as Chairman of the party (SPLM), the army (SPLA) and as president of the country. Before Kiir dismissed them from their respective positions, at least three in the party leadership had publicly declared their intention to run against him in the coming elections. One was Machar, second in the state-party leadership. The second was the Secretary General of the party, Pagan Anum. And the third was Rebecca Garang, the widow of the late SPLA leader, John Garang.
The opposition to Kiir’s leadership is at several levels: Personal, ethnic, and ideological. At the individual level, its root is loss of confidence in Kiir’s leadership ability as he moved to undercut whatever remained of accountability structures within the state and the party in order to hold on to power.
At the political level, the causes of the conflict lie in a process of state formation that has radically politicised ethnicity. This politicisation has occurred at two levels, the military and local administration. The army is in reality a bunch of localised militias, each led by an ethnic coterie of generals.
Local government policy instituted by the new South Sudan government made ethnic identity the basis of creating local government units, and thus of access to customary land for peasants and employment for the urban population. In localities where populations were ethnically mixed, which is just about everywhere, making ethnic identity the basis of rights to land and employment was a sure recipe for breeding ethnic antagonism.
At the ideological level, active opposition to Kiir includes those who had previously been lukewarm to the call for an independent South Sudan and had instead called for a closer relationship with Sudan in the north. This comprises both those who had been inspired by John Garang’s call for a New Sudan and those who had followed Machar in looking for an accommodation with the power in the north.
With the majority in the party against him, Kiir decided to use the structures of the state to dismantle whatever still remained of organs of the party. The occasion for this came when his opponents demanded that he disband the Presidential Unit that he had newly set up, which he placed not only outside regular army structures but also more or less under his own control. According to those opposed to Kiir, though he agreed to do so, he began by disarming only Nuer soldiers in the unit. When they resisted, he claimed it was an attempted coup.
When Salva Kiir unilaterally dismissed both the vice chair and the secretary general of the party, along with other senior officials, from leadership positions, the move did away with structures of accountability in both the party and the state. It also destroyed whatever conflict resolution machinery existed at both levels.
The implications were huge, especially because the South Sudan army, the SPLA, is less a national army than a coalition of ethnic militias. SPLA has hundreds of generals, possibly more than any other army in the world. Not only is every leader in each militia that joins the SPLA rewarded with the rank of general, these generals are also assured of continuing command of “their” unit, it being none other than the militia now bearing a new title.
This is why when the party leadership split, few were surprised that the army also split. The fighting in South Sudan did not begin as a civil war. It began in the barracks and then spread to the surrounding civilian population as soldiers identified and targeted possible opposition in the civilian population on an ethnic basis.
This then is neither an attempted coup nor a rebel attempt to take over government. It is, rather, an attempt by the top leader of government to forestall a vote of no confidence in his leadership, by dismantling all structures of accountability in a bid to usurp power.
The political leadership in the region, meeting under the framework of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) , an eight-country trading bloc in Eastern Africa], has made things worse by calling on the two sides to the conflict to negotiate, while brazenly supporting the Kiir faction, where necessary with troops. Uganda has taken the lead in this.
There is no public information on the number of Ugandan troops who have entered South Sudan, but estimates vary from several hundred to several thousand. Ugandan soldiers have entered South Sudan ostensibly to save Ugandan civilians, but few doubt that their real purpose is to assist the Kiir faction. This does not bode well, either for the region, or for Uganda, or for South Sudan.
What then is the way forward? I have two suggestions.
Externally, IGAD countries, and Uganda in particular, continue to view Sudan to the north as an adversary, using lenses crafted in an earlier period. There is need to recognise the importance of cooperation between the two Sudans for ensuring stability on both sides of the border. This is not just because oil excavated in the South passes through and is refined in the North. It is also because important sections of the SPLA, particularly those who man the artillery, come from northern states such as Nuba Mountains. Conflict between the two is likely to exacerbate problems within each. In reality, Sudan to the north is likely to hold the trump card when it comes to influencing the outcome of the conflict in South Sudan.