Does South Sudan have what it takes to find peace?


The political landscape in South Sudan is always subject to change, but there’s one constant: conflict.

The country’s brief six-year history as an independent state has been turbulent, to say the least. After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, the country departed Africa’s longest-running civil war, only to start its own internal conflict two years later.

In July 2013, the country’s only president to date, Salva Kiir, sacked his entire cabinet, prompting criticism from a number of opposition members – including vice-president and long-term political rival Riek Machar. Machar and other officials were later sacked in December, accused of attempting to overthrow the government, and the capital was split in two.

South Sudan’s government disintegrated under a mix of political and ethnic tension. The international community warned of a looming catastrophe and the predictions were correct. In December 2013, conflict broke out in Juba between government troops and rebel fighters. South Sudan’s civil war had officially begun but conflict in the world’s youngest nation was nothing new.

The truth is civil war had been brewing in the country for some time already. As one analyst at the time put it: “This is a crisis that has been looming for months, if not years.”

Tribal violence marred South Sudan’s first years as an independent state, killing thousands and displacing many more. There were reports of state-sponsored human rights violations, child soldiers and gender-based violence. And then there was the burning question of where rival ethnic groups in Jonglei – one of South Sudan’s poorest states – were getting the funds and weapons for such clashes.

The idea that South Sudan enjoyed two years of peace between gaining independence and civil war breaking out is a fallacy. This is a country whose history of conflict predates its own existence, where peace is a foreign concept – raises worrying questions over whether the country has what it takes – or even knows how – to bring its civil war to an end.


A history of violence

In January 2011, a referendum was held in southern Sudan to determine whether an independent South Sudan should be created. In February, the referendum commission announced a 98.83% result in favour of South Sudanese independence.

The referendum followed a 22-year struggle for independence (1983-2005), which was essentially a continuation of the first Sudanese civil war (1955-1972). Meaning rebel forces in southern Sudan had been fighting for independence, in one for or another, for fifty years by the time fighting paused in 2005.

The peace agreement that ended fighting in 1972 failed to dispel the political and ethnic tension that fuelled Sudan’s civil war. Officially, the country was at peace but conflicts raged on over power and natural resources – a theme that would carry over into South Sudanese independence.

As Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir warned ahead of the referendum, South Sudan wasn’t ready to create a peaceful state:

“The stability of the south is very important to us because any instability in the south will have an impact on the north. If there is a war in your neighbour’s house, you will not be at peace. The south suffers from many problems. It’s been at war since 1959. The south does not have the ability to provide for its citizens or create a state or authority.”

Crucially, throughout the second Sudanese civil war, conflicts between rival tribes in the south increased – especially between Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups. South Sudan’s ethnic tensions and habit for fighting over land and other natural resources was building long before it would even become a country.


An independent, divided South Sudan

By the time South Sudan became an independent state, it inherited a divided government tainted by its violent exit from neighbouring Sudan. Salva Kiir, who was both President of Southern Sudan and Vice President of Sudan between 2005-2011 became the first president of an independent South Sudan.

Riek Machar, who acted as vice president under Kiir’s presidency of Southern Sudan reprised the same role in South Sudan. However, it was a partnership that would tear the world’s youngest nation apart within two years of independence.

Typical to this story, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar shared a history of conflict between themselves. It’s easy to point out the ethnic backgrounds of both figures as a case point: Salva Kiir is a member of the Dinka community while Riek Machar belongs to the rival Nuer people. However, their relationship is more complicated than that.

The two rivals fought both side-by-side and against each other during the fight for South Sudanese independence. On numerous occasions, Machar demonstrated a tendency to fall out with military officials. One such fallout saw Machar abandon the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and create a faction comprised mostly of ethnic Nuers. Machar and his faction were blamed for the 1991 Bor massacre, which killed more than 2,000 Dinka.

Akshaya Kumar, a South Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, is among those who attribute this incident to much of the tension between Kiir and Machar.

“President Kiir has been drawing on those memories and referencing them, even in his public statements,” she said. “So, we know that that is something that is certainly salient on his mind as well as the minds of many other South Sudanese.”

However, it was Machar’s political ambition that ultimately got him sacked from the position of vice president – not once, but twice.


More than a personal conflict

The danger with focusing on Kiir and Machar’s relationship is it makes South Sudan’s civil war sound like a personal conflict between the two leaders, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. South Sudan is torn by complex ethnic lines, comprising of various armed groups and a seemingly endless supply of arms.

The soap opera that became Kiir vs Machar in the headlines took attention away from deeply-rooted divides in South Sudan’s military – and this continues to be the case today. A number of military officials have quit in recent months, claiming Salva Kiir is attempting to build an ethnic army of Dinkas.

Last week, Kiir also sacked controversial military leader, Gen Paul Malong –  a move that has infuriated some while receiving praise from others. Malong was considered by many as the real power behind Kiir’s regime and largely responsible for renewed conflict following the country’s 2015 peace agreement.

There are fears conflict could escalate in the country once again after Thomas Cirillo – one of the military officials who recently quit – threatened to overthrow the president wth his newly-formed rebel group.

In times of doubt, South Sudan’s strongest characters have a habit of dividing and declaring war. Or more to the point, when their positions of power come under threat, they bear arms in the name of injustice – prolonging a civil conflict that continues to claim innocent lives.

It’s a habit peace deals have failed to break – long before South Sudan became an independent state – and with a history of such violence, who is there is South Sudan’s political elite to show there’s an alternative option.


Feature image: By Al Jazeera English – Kiir awaits, CC BY-SA 2.0,

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.