South Sudan Part One: War and Famine


Last week we looked at the current state of violence in Somalia, which has impacted on its neighbours Kenya and Ethiopia, and has contributed towards a major humanitarian crisis, as was the case in Yemen. That warfare worsens and creates food shortages, curtails medical care and creates health crises, and destroys the state infrastructure providing for basic human needs is nothing new. Throughout history pillage has supported armies after wanton destruction and the modern remedy of the Geneva Conventions and other attempts to alleviate the inhumanity of warfare are comparatively recent innovations that are ignored more often than not. To the west of Ethiopia is the Republic of South Sudan, an oil rich country with a population of between ten and twelve million people. The current population is difficult to estimate due to a refugee crisis.

South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011 after decades of fighting and is the world’s youngest country. It is also one of its bloodiest. A civil war has been underway since 2013 between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), which originated in a dispute over governance but has manifested itself along ethnic lines. The lowest estimate for casualties is 50,000 and the highest is 300,000 as it is difficult to get accurate casualty figures. In some regions there is famine described by the UN as manmade, and rape is endemic. The violence has led to the displacement of over three and a half million people, with one and half million fleeing to neighbouring countries. To put this in context, the number of refugees who are housed in refugee camps in Uganda alone is larger than the movement of refugees across the Mediterranean to the European Union.

The civil war began with a split between the President, Salva Kiir, and the Vice-President, Riek Machir, in which Kiir accused Machir of planning a coup d’état and this quickly escalated into serious fighting between their followers. We should be clear that the dispute was over governance in what has been described as a kleptocracy. That Kiir is an ethnic Dinka and Machar an ethnic Nuer has meant that ethnicity became a major factor in how the sides have divided and has had a significant influence on the progression of the violence, which has drawn in other ethnic groups. Last year, the UN Special Advisor on Genocide warned that the conflict had transformed into an ethnic one with potential for genocide. Both sides have been accused of serious human rights violations, including sexual violence, the recruitment of child soldiers, the targeting of civilians, and attacks on UN staff and peacekeepers. Access to food has become a weapon, in a country where famine has been declared in some regions.

Mediation between the two sides has been attempted since the violence started with the regional Inter-Government Authority on Development (IGAD) concluding eight peace deals with the aid of other countries and the African Union (IGAD-PLUS). In August 2015 the two sides ceased violence and attempted to work together with Machar back as Vice-President but this agreement broke down in July 2016. Fighting between the two sides is ongoing and there have been splits in the opposition forces, leading to infighting and an increase in the number of warring parties. The UN has had a peacekeeping force in South Sudan since independence (UNMISS) and while this has proved unable to contain the violence it has provided witness to the conflict and may have prevented it from being worse. The deployment of a Regional Protection Force (RPF) in agreement with the South Sudan Government has begun and will bolster the strength of UNMISS. The African Union has previously deployed into Sudan and Somalia and is poised to deploy a mission to South Sudan.

A more robust force geared towards peacemaking over peacekeeping may be needed to prevent outright ethnic cleansing taking place or even a genocide. Historians may note that there was a UN presence in Rwanda in 1994 at a time when people had been disarmed. Next week we will look at the protagonists involved in South Sudan’s civil war.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator


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