It was the summer of 2011, and out in the African region bordering west of Ethiopia, celebrations were rampant. The referendum results had just been revealed – an overwhelming 98.8% yes responses for independence. After years of civil war dating back to 1956, a new country was born, and the future was bright; a future without conflict, without an authoritarian, theocratic dictatorship, without oppression or discrimination of ethnic groups. South Sudan would become the newest country in the world.
10 years on, and any hopes for South Sudan to become a peaceful, democratic state has all but gone. In less than 3 years of independence, the nation quickly descended into all-out civil war after the president Salva Kiir Mayardit, part of majority ethnic group the Dinka tribe, accused his vice president Riek Machar, of the Nuer tribe, of organizing a coup d’état. Nuer communities and groups were allegedly discriminated, attacked, displaced and/or killed in the hundreds of thousands in Juba, sparking a vicious and bloody retaliation through the SPLA-io (South Sudan People's Defence Forces – in opposition) and initiating the South Sudanese Civil War. This has been regarded by the Nuer as an attempt at ethnic cleansing, but the real motives behind Machar remain unclear. Despite this, the Nuer population are fully behind Machar, who is seen as a prophet and promises an inevitable democracy under his regime.
In reality, Riek Machar is no saint. The confrontational and violent relationship between the Dinka and the Nuer has been observed before in 1991, when Machar turned on the Dinka through the Nuer’s infamous rebel ‘White Army’ during the Sudanese Civil War. This conflict between Salva Kiir’s government and Machar’s rebels have now crossed over to civilians on both sides, where communities are now displaced, tortured or murdered by other ethnic groups, and has resulted further in a refugee crisis, as millions of South Sudanese are forced into Uganda.
In February of 2020, South Sudan ended its civil war and Machar and Salva Kiir formed a coalition government together. Even so, a familiar feeling of déjà vu still lingers as Machar was reinstated as vice-president for the third time – in an attempt to rebuild an impoverished society plagued by violent war, economic ruin, famine, and genocide. The futility of past peace agreements and the ongoing tensions between ethnic groups is a clear red flag that there is still much more to resolve. Intervention by Ugandan troops and UN peacekeepers have also done little to subdue the brutality and resolve the famine.
The crisis and hostility seen in South Sudan is too complex for a single solution, but by looking into its recent history, perhaps past mistakes can be revealed and taken into account when attempting to ease ethnic tensions. Why is there so much animosity between the Dinka and the Nuer groups? What can the UN and the international community do differently to ensure that any peacebuilding, humanitarian, and economic development efforts are not in vain? And finally, do political institutions (or lack thereof) in South Sudan need reform or does there need to be a radical overhaul?
One of the many disputes that was observed within the SPLA between 2005 and 2011, as South Sudan was gradually being formed, was due to the distribution of rich, unexplored oil reserves within the South Sudanese region. A reliance on a key primary product often prevents economic diversification, and almost always sparks corruption between the political elite. The method in which these oil reserves are distributed have been fiercely debated and fought over by many government officials, and as a result have played a major role in raising tensions. Oil has also allowed for the civil conflict to continue, with weapons, ammunition and other military assets being funded extensively. With the source of all this capital from oil, perhaps there is something the international community can do to make sure that this money does not go into the wrong hands.
Another key observation to consider is that both Salva Kiir and Machar have strong military backgrounds as well as controversial histories. In Peter Martell’s recent book “First Raise a Flag: How Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace”, he documents a decade of civil violence in South Sudan from firsthand experience on the front lines, reporting through a more social perspective stories from multiple actors across both sides, as well as detailing in depth South Sudan’s brutal colonial history of slavery and suffering. He also emphasizes particularly, however, on the corruption and authoritarian nature of South Sudan’s leaders from 2005 onwards. This included the billions of dollars of oil revenues that was being looted and given to elites, and the exploitation of ethnic disparities to incite extreme violence on a national scale. Clearly, the distribution of power and military intervention within political institutions in South Sudan need radical reform. These two elements of South Sudan – its massive oil reserves and corrupt elites – do show a glimpse of the issues but again, do not represent the complexity of ethnic tensions and violence that South Sudan is experiencing. As the abused become the abusers, this vicious cycle of murder and revenge between the Nuer and Dinka has increasingly worsened since 2011.
South Sudan is at the moment one of the most dangerous countries in the world, ranked fourth last in the Human Development Index, and third most vulnerable in the Fragile State Index. There is clearly little reason for optimism. But when the future is so bleak, and as South Sudan continues to struggle with political legitimacy and ethnic tensions, perhaps hope is all that is left.
Written by Cameron Gordon
Cameron Gordon is a columnist at DecipherGrey.