South Sudan’s conflict has entered a new, more dangerous phase. While there has been no new fighting in the capital, Juba, since a splurge of violence in July, rebellion is spreading across the country. In its wake, refugees are fleeing into neighbouring Uganda and Ethiopia, fearing yet more bloodshed to come.
This briefing explores a crisis that has already left more than five million people – roughly half the population – in need of aid.
Where are we now?
At the root of the conflict is a political contest for power between President Salva Kiir and his rival, former vice president Riek Machar.
After two years of civil war, Machar arrived in Juba in April to cement a shaky peace agreement that gave his opposition SPLA-IO a stake in a government of national unity. But that deal expired in five days of fighting in July, which routed Machar’s small protection force.
Late last month, Machar announced from Khartoum that he would fight on. He was joined in rebellion by veteran dissident Lam Akol, who launched his own National Democratic Movement to battle the government.
More of the same?
So far so predictable. South Sudan is a country held to ransom by what analyst Majak D’Agoot refers to as the “gun class” - men like Kiir and Machar, “sectarian warlords” that have historically used violence, channelled through appeals to ethnic nationalism, to “hijack” the state for “personal gain”.
It’s essentially a zero-sum game for who will be “king of the hill in Juba”, says conflict researcher Alan Boswell. So far, it’s a contest that Kiir appears to be winning. He has moved quickly to sideline Machar, with former SPLA-IO chief negotiator, Taban Deng Gai, sworn in as vice president.
The government’s intention is for Taban to woo over as many SPLA-IO commanders as possible, and to present him to the outside world as a credible alternative to Machar. To that end he recently visited New York and hobnobbed with officials in the UN and Western governments.
At home, the government maintains the idea there is still a government of national unity, based on the Addis Ababa peace agreement, an exhausting and frustrating mediation effort by the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
“What I hear from government is a determination to move forward with implementation of the peace process,” said a Juba-based analyst who asked not to be named. “You go to meetings and workshops where people have name tags that still read TGoNU [Transitional Government of National Unity].”
Is Machar finished?
In building up Taban, the government is presenting the international community with a dilemma. Donors have to decide whether “we work with what we have, which is Taban, versus trying to ease Machar back into the peace process,” says Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group.
How acute the choice is will depend to an extent on what Machar does next. Khartoum, against which Kiir and the SPLA fought a bitter war to gain independence in 2011, has long meddled in the south – backing a rebellion by Machar against the SPLA in 1991 for one.
But Abdi believes the strategic calculation is changing. Through force of habit Khartoum may maintain an interest in Machar, but warming relations with Juba, and its main backer Uganda, means it would not be in Sudan’s long-term interests to arm and support him.
There is also diplomatic pressure to relocate Machar to South Africa, or anywhere else that does not share a border with South Sudan. With his aura already diminished, “If he goes to South Africa that will be the end of him,” says analyst Jok Madut Jok of the Sudd Institute.
He therefore wouldn’t be surprised if Machar manages to slip back into South Sudan: “If he can get into Upper Nile he will be a real player, and we’ll be back to full-blown civil war.”
Power to (my) people?
Ethnicity is often used as shorthand to explain South Sudan’s conflict and the atrocities committed against civilians by both sides. But the trigger for the civil war in 2013 was essentially a political dispute, based on internal SPLM opposition to Kiir that was drawn from multiple sources and ethnicities.
Kiir and Machar have since successfully mobilized key segments of their respective Dinka and Nuer communities, the country’s two largest groups. But while Kiir is seen by his opponents as promoting narrow ethnic interests, backed by the conservative Dinka Council of Elders, there is also resentment among some Dinka towards his clan, who are seen as especially favoured.
Neither are the Nuer monolithic. There are senior Nuer who have remained loyal to the SPLA, especially from northern Unity state. Broad ethnic labels tend to obscure local community dynamics.
Abdi believes the cardinal sin of the IGAD agreement was to view the struggle solely as a contest between Kiir and Machar. It was a narrow rather than a universal deal, ignoring the demands of other ethnic groups and contestants for power that predate the peace process.
Those “centrifugal forces” are going to accelerate “the longer [a credible] peace process stays in the freezer,” says Abdi.
“I think you have two different wars going on in South Sudan right now,” notes Boswell. “You have a fight between Kiir and Machar’s coalitions over who will be king. But there are a bunch of smaller groups in South Sudan who are waging a war against the kingdom itself.”
Even though some groups in Equatoria have teamed up with SPLA-IO, they are all opposed to the hegemony of both sides. “They want a structure that’s more like a political union, a lot of smaller hills rather than one big one,” explains Boswell.
There are many other groups across the country like the Cobra Faction, which draws support from among the Murle in Greater Upper Nile. While former leader David Yau Yau is sticking with the government, the Cobras have joined “the struggle against the authoritarian, tribalistic regime in Juba”.
Stick or carrot?
The government’s approach in the past was to buy off these community militia, a strategy of co-option known as the “big tent”. But oil-dependent South Sudan is broke, and with carrots limited, the government has turned enthusiastically to the stick.
Wau, South Sudan’s second largest city, has felt the sting of retribution. It was purged by the army, allegedly on the grounds the Fertit people were supporting SPLA-IO. Human rights groups reported mass graves, and the UN estimated 125,000 people were made homeless.
Overall, more than one million South Sudanese are now refugees in the region, with about 174,000 fleeing since the beginning of July. UNHCR’s figures jumped sharply in late September.
People escaping the violence in Equatoria and crossing into Uganda speak of villages being attacked and looted, women sexually abused, and young boys conscripted. “You can feel something terrible looming on the horizon, an enormous pall,” says the analyst in Juba.
How can disaster be averted?
“The best scenario is an impossible one,” says Jok. “It’s to get Machar and Kiir to retire from politics, to be replaced by a caretaker technocratic government until elections.”
There are equally few diplomatic options. For a start, the Addis Ababa process is deeply discredited. “IGAD is in complete disarray. Many people no longer believe there is a cogent regional strategy to find a solution,” notes Abdi of the ICG.
The UN’s response to the July violence, in which its peacekeepers failed to intervene convincingly to save civilian lives, has been to talk tough about an additional Regional Protection Force.
IGAD countries may provide some of the troops (Zimbabwe and Egypt have also volunteered), but as it wants the UN to pay for the intervention, the proposed 4,000 RPF soldiers would fall under a discredited UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) command structure.
The RPF has the “pacification” of Juba as part of its mandate. But the government has made it clear it will not accept any force that could offer any real interference, and the fact its army has shown no compunction about killing UN peacekeepers, this is likely to provide food for thought for any potential troop contributors. The UN has so far not been able to even agree an arms embargo.
South Sudan is such a mess that there have been calls by, among others, former US special envoy Princeton Lyman, and African academic Mahmood Mamdani, that the country be placed under some kind of trusteeship for 10 to 15 years.
It’s of course a non-starter. The clock can’t be put back, and there is no support for the proposal in the African Union.
“Mamdani has taken progressive positions on most issues, so this is more a symptom of despair rather than anything else,” says Abdi.
“A trusteeship of 10 to 15 years is more than a regime change policy, it’s like ‘we’re really messed up’,” adds Boswell.
The solution has to come from South Sudanese, says Jok. His best-case scenario is that Kiir gives Taban enough space to play a legitimate role, allowing him to put a brake on the excesses of the army, and build a constituency among the opposition that bleeds support away from Machar.
But Boswell has a more pessimistic take. He believes the government will pursue a security solution that will intimidate and coopt communities. But he likens the outcome to a giant Ponzi scheme, in which its political base of support only gets narrower.
“The government is winning the war militarily, but the big question is what happens if the Ponzi scheme collapses, swallowed up by the political grievances it’s generating?”
South Sudan, already poor and underdeveloped, is being made poorer still. It's people that have lived through decades of civil war are enduring yet more violence. "There are no winners in any of this," says the Juba-based analyst.