Anarchy Returning to South Sudan: Is another Civil War Brewing?

Clashes are nothing new or extraordinary in South Sudan. The world’s youngest nation has already spent the better part of its existence simmering amidst a chaotic civil war. In fact, the surging violence and fuelling dissent was one of the cornerstones that aided its foundation in the first place. However, the world has changed and so has the objective of the revolt. What hasn’t changed is the butting fabric of the country that has never allowed instability to subside. And while the fighting today seems reminiscent of the blazing catastrophe that razed the region a few years ago, the complexity has jumped up a notch or two. A solution, thus, would need to resolve the festering divide instead of just patching the problem. Sounds simple, yet, the resolution should route a creative and lasting impact if the country intends to subdue the conflict before it gains momentum.

The history of the nascent country, primarily the events leading up to its independence, puts an array of aspects into perspective. Sudan existed as a single country up until a decade ago. Years and years, decades even, of repressive rule emboldened the autonomous factions within Sudan, specifically the southern states. The decades-long span of civil war between the warring states of Sudan was one of the most debilitating eras witnessed by the African continent after the period of colonization. And while the objective was to fight off the oppressive ruling class to achieve an equitable distribution of power, the struggle didn’t bore its fruit until 2005 when the Sudanese regime reluctantly allowed autonomy to the southern part of Sudan – comprising ten diverse states. The civil war culminated with an agreement that elevated Salva Kiir Mayardit – Leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – as the President of this autonomous region.

Mr. Kiir went on to win another election in 2010 despite an ideological conflict within the ranks of the independence movement. However, the power consolidation was hardly threatened as it glimmered as a hope for the aspirations of a separate state. Infighting would have endangered the common objective. However, the struggle renditioned its cause just six years after the accord as South Sudan seceded from Sudan as an independent state in 2011.

Now as the nation sobered up from the jubilation of independence, it was particularly awakening to realize a stark reality. There was no common objective for the conflicting groups to tolerate each other. Thus, the road ahead proved to be a bumpy ride and not exactly a smooth sail as once envisioned. In reality, the very diversity of South Sudan that once weighted the cause of a liberal state, now made it vulnerable to a difference of opinion and, by extension, more prone to conflicts. The gradual build-up of frustration and irateness reached its apex just two years after independence. A dissent between two of the majority ethnic groups of South Sudan sowed the premise of another civil war – this time between the ranks of South Sudan itself.

President Kiir, stemming from the Dinka ethnic group, accused Vice President Riek Machar, belonging to the rivaling Nuer ethnic group, of plotting a failed coup against his government. Mr. Kiir sacked his entire cabinet along with Mr. Machar, leading to the eruption of violence between the two groups that once jointly campaigned for independence just a few years in retrospect.

The spreading violence soon engulfed much of the Unity states and even the upper Nile as the presidential guards along with the armed forces, both loyal to the Dinka ethnic group, joined the revolt against the rebelling groups. Mr. Machar was forced into exile while the civilians were killed, looted, raped, and pillaged along the ethnic lines. Sexual violence peaked as entire communities were incinerated to the ground, forcing a huge flux of refugees to neighboring Ethiopia and Uganda. After multiple international efforts, threats of a collage of sanctions, and numerous attempts by the United Nations, the war eventually folded in 2018. As the accords were mediated, a ceasefire soon followed along with a power-sharing agreement which eventually brought Mr. Machar back to South Sudan; reinstated as the Vice President under a fragile peace agreement.

The war lasted for five years: taking up 50% of the entire narrative of the existence of South Sudan on the pages of history. More than 400,000 people were massacred while the culprits were spared scot-free. A peace deal was signed yet no retribution was served to the culprits of the civil war. More than 2 million people were displaced yet no constitutional reform came into existence to resolve the conflict that could re-erupt in the future. Instead, the same leaders resumed where they left off while the population bore the burden of chaos. A decade later and South Sudan is no better than its parent country. In fact, rampant corruption, a crumbling economy and, fraying institutions have all rendered the country in the worst possible shape one could have ever imagined.

Now as 8 million out of an 11 million populace is desperately in need of humanitarian aid, anarchy is making its return. The rival forces in the echelons of Vice President Machar have revolted against his leadership: appointing Lt General Simon Gatwech Dual as his interim replacement. Renewed calls have been made to displace even the President himself. These developments are already fuelling the pent-up resentment as almost two dozen fighters have already been slain in multiple skirmishes over the last weekend. And while the calls of replacement and revolt are neither unorthodox nor surprising to either of the duo, the concern is regarding a gradual revolve of an ethnic divide that was unfortunately not addressed after the civil war. Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IAD), a major regional bloc, projected its fears earlier that even a spark could easily destabilize the entire South Sudan again. And even if it’s a false alarm, a bulging humanitarian crisis along with an unraveling economic disparity doesn’t exactly pose a prosperous future for the country that ironically parted ways from Sudan for peace and an equitable standard of living.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.