South Sudan Part Two: Who is fighting whom?


The previous week has seen tensions between the US and North Korea and political problems in Venezuela hit the headlines. The first is a longstanding problem dating back to the 1950’s Korean War, which left the Korean Peninsula divided along the 38th Parallel and a permanent US presence in the South. Differences arise regularly between the regime in the North and the US, but the current escalation is alarming due to the bluster coming from Pyongyang and Washington. This is qualitatively different from before and risks triggering a military confrontation and the resumption of the war between the two Koreas. In Venezuela political violence is taking place due to the country’s President moving to consolidate his power in the face of protests from the political opposition. The country has been badly run for years and has collapsed economically, causing its citizens to leave. The government’s response to the crisis has been to crack down hard on dissent and the politicians whom oppose it. Both situations are worrying and potentially catastrophic. It is hoped that they won’t appear on this blog in the near future. It is very likely that they will.

This week we return to South Sudan, its civil war a vicious and unnecessary spate of violence that has been ongoing since 2013. South Sudan covers a significant area and is slightly larger than France but with a much smaller population of between 10 and 12 million. There are up to sixty indigenous ethnic groups in the country and the population identifies strongly with their ethnic groups and there are longstanding minor conflicts over land and cattle. The largest, by far, is the Dinka (36%) and the second largest is the Nuer (16%) and despite the independence of South Sudan in 2011 the various ethnic groups lean towards community elders rather than national political parties. Ethnic differences were not the cause of the civil war, which was due to political rivalry, but as the fighting has worsened inter-ethnic violence has taken place, and the UN has warned of the potential for genocide. The origins of the civil war are unmistakably about political power and the rivalry between President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machir, two former rivals. They also represented the two major ethnic groups, Kiir being Dinka and Machir Nuer, and when Kiir dismissed his entire cabinet, including Machir, in 2013 fault lines within the ruling Sudan’s Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) became clear, with Kiir later claiming that Machir was plotting against him. The Sudan’s Peoples Liberation Movement In Opposition (SPLM-IO) was formed but the conflict quickly became defined along ethnic lines, with the two sides targeting other ethnic groups who supported their opponents. Uganda entered the conflict in 2013 on the Government side. Despite mediation and ceasefires, with Machir briefly returning as Vice-President in 2016, the two sides remain divided, with power and oil at stake. Neither side is free of responsibility for the quagmire that South Sudan has become, a tragedy given the decades of violence that preceded the country’s independence and for which the SPLM fought.

The Opposition began as defectors from the SPLM but it has attracted the support of other political parties and their affiliated armies with splits occurring in the opposition movement since 2014. An example, and major group, is the Nuer White Army, which numbers some 25,000 fighters. It has come into conflict with the Murle ethnic group, represented by the Greater Pibor Forces, formed after a split occurred in the opposition in 2014. Militias have also arisen when ethnic groups are threatened: the Azande Arrow Boys emerged due to attacks by Dinka cattle herders, while the Shiluk Tiger Faction New Forces (TFNF) emerged due to the redrawing of political boundaries. The Government has also seen its forces divide amongst themselves and the latest split occurred in 2017 when a high ranking Officer defected from the SPLM and formed the National Salvation Front (NSF), declaring allegiance to Machar. These are examples from many that reflect Opposition splits, Government defections, ‘self defence militias’, and pre-existing organisations, which have allied with either side. A general picture is of the SPLM and its allies facing an Opposition that has shed off numerous splinters, some of whom are fighting both the Government and Opposition, and other groups allied to no-one. Within this morass of allegiances and counter- allegiances is a complicated patchwork of violence driven by ethnicity that has seen ethnic-cleansing. Regions of South Sudan have become a free-for-all that a beleaguered peacekeeping force has struggled to mitigate, amongst calls for it to respond more aggressively. This force is now growing in strength and capability and is trending towards becoming a peacemaking force.

Next week: Mediation and ceasefires.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator


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