Reviews & Profiles

South Sudan’s unstable history

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By Eric Reeves

Posted  Thursday, December 19  2013 at  02:00

The events of the past few days have been an immense shock to the political system in South Sudan, and pose deep and likely ongoing threats. Below is a brief, selective historical chronology of some of the events that have led up to the fighting.

1991: Riek Machar, defects from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) led by John Garang; he is joined by Lam Akol (Shilluk) and others, and the defection of troops proves a disaster for the SPLA. Ethnic tensions between the Nuer (the tribal group to which Machar belongs) and Dinka (the tribal group to which Garang and the majority of the SPLA leadership belong) are greatly exacerbated.
The infamous “Bor Massacre” (of Dinka in the Bor area) for which Machar is responsible stands as an enduring historical symbol of civilian slaughter. Turning Southerner against Southerner on the basis of ethnicity was Khartoum’s most potent weapon in the long civil war. Though these events occurred more than 20 years ago, they live on in the minds of many in their assessment of Machar.

1997: Machar and Lam Akol sign the absurdly futile “Khartoum Peace Agreement.” Far from working to end the civil war, it removes Nuer and Shilluk forces from the opposition to Khartoum’s military forces and militias, setting the stage for large-scale oil development in what was at the time known as Western Upper Nile. The years from 1998 – 2002 are among the most violent and destructive of the entire civil war, with mass civilian clearances of areas in all directions around Bentiu, currently capital of Unity State and at the time epicentre for oil development activities by Canadian, Chinese, and Malaysian oil companies.

January 2005: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is signed, guaranteeing South Sudan the right to a self-determination referendum in six and a half years. Garang remains leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A)—effectively the interim government of South Sudan.

July 2005: Garang is killed in a helicopter crash, and Salva Kiir Mayardit is named his successor. Although also a Dinka (from a different region of the South), Salva is widely credited as being a conciliator, and this is demonstrated in his choice of Riek Machar as Vice President.

July 2011: South Sudan gains its independence, but extreme tensions remain with the Khartoum regime, which in May 2011 had ordered the military seizure of the Abyei region. Abyei was to have had its own self-determination referendum in January 2011. The results of such a referendum would certainly have seen the “residents” of Abyei vote to join the South. In March/April 2012 fighting breaks out in the area south of and in Heglig, a contested border area near Abyei and in the centre of oil production. The approach to resumed war is far too close.

2011: It becomes increasingly clear that the South has squandered many opportunities for economic development, and that neither executive nor cabinet powers have been creatively or productively deployed, leaving the South without a single means of exporting its oil except via the pipeline through Sudan (to Port Sudan).

As of December 2013 there is not a single operational refinery in South Sudan, although construction has belatedly begun in earnest. Any overland export of oil to the south or east remains years away, certainly if the commitment to an oil pipeline for transport remains primary.
Capacity within South Sudan—in all forms—remains dangerously weak.

Early 2013: Vice President Machar and his followers engage in increasingly sharp sniping at Salva Kiir, until July when President Kiir decides that such criticism can no longer be leveled at him from within his own government, and relieves Machar of his post as Vice President.

A more comprehensive cabinet shake-up occurs subsequently in July 2013, leaving many disgruntled former ministers and cabinet members. Pagan Amum, a powerful figure in the SPLM/A for many years, is relieved of his role as Secretary-General of the SPLM/A in late July 2013, putting him in the camp of those critical of Salva Kiir.
Notably the charges against Salva, for the most part, are not of corruption but of wielding power “dictatorially.”