People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 05

February 02, 2014




South Sudan: Descending into a Civil War



Yohannan Chemarapally


BARELY two and a half years after South Sudan joined the community of independent nations, the bloody sceptre of a civil war has once again cast its shadow. The latest cycle of violence erupted on December 15. According to reports, the trouble started when a clash took place between two sections of the presidential security guards. The fighting was said to be on ethnic lines, with the Dinka clashing against the Nuer. The Dinkas constitute around 15 per cent of the population and the Nuer around 10 per cent. The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, is an ethnic Dinka while his former vice president, Riak Machar, who has emerged as the leader of the rebellion, is a Nuer. President Kiir had put under arrest many of Machar’s allies serving in the government, including senior ministers.




The initial clashes escalated into bloodletting on a massive scale, with the two major ethnic groups pitted against each other in the capital Juba and other towns in the country. Much of the capital Juba has been reduced to rubble. By the end of December, international agencies reported that more than a thousand people were killed and tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes. UN bases have been overwhelmed with refugees seeking protection. A base near the border with Ethiopia was attacked, resulting in the deaths of two peacekeepers, one of them an Indian. Many civilians who had sought refuge in the base were also killed. In the last week of December, the UN took a decision to double the number of peacekeepers in the country to 12,500. The US has mobilised its forces stationed in Djibouti to intervene in South Sudan if the situation gets out of hand. The American media have reported that the Obama administration is prepared to send forces at six hours notice. President Barack Obama has warned against “any effort to seize power through the use of military force.” He had earlier said that South Sudan “was on a precipice.”


President Kiir has alleged that his former vice president had tried to stage a coup to dislodge him. Machar has strongly refuted the claim but is now demanding the resignation of the president. He said that the president “repeatedly violated the constitution and was no longer the legitimate president.” Machar was removed from the vice president’s post along with the entire cabinet in a surprise move by the President Kiir in July 2013. The president also removed some elected state governors. Trouble has been brewing since then. The African Union (AU) and the regional, eight-country trading bloc in East Africa, called the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have only chosen to describe the situation as a “crisis.” The AU brokered a tenuous ceasefire agreement in the third week of January but clashes between the opposing forces are being reported. President Kiir has gone to the extent of accusing the UN peacekeeping force and humanitarian agencies of siding with the rebels.




Some of President Kiir’s decisions have been erratic. Six months after independence, the president unilaterally closed the pipeline that carries South Sudan’s oil to the international market, following a dispute over pricing with Khartoum. South Sudan’s oil is transported to world market through the North, with the Republic of Sudan getting a share of the revenues. South Sudan is Africa’s third biggest exporter of oil but remains one of the poorest in the continent. With its economy on the verge of collapse, South Sudan reopened the pipeline after 18 months.


Barely one per cent of the people have access to electricity and South Sudan’s economy still has to rely on international aid. Corruption is all pervasive. In 2012, a survey revealed that half of the police force consisted of fake names. President Kiir has admitted that more than four billion dollars were misappropriated from the treasury by 75 officials.


There were serious military skirmishes with its northern neighbour over the disputed oil producing area of Abyei. Kiir had ordered the South Sudan army to forcibly take the oil producing town. The Sudanese army retaliated with force but, before the fighting turned into an all-out war, a ceasefire was negotiated. Khartoum has also accused South Sudan of encouraging secessionist movements in the Blue Nile and Kordofan states. Relations between the two countries have been normalised in recent months but the unrest in the south could adversely impact on the beleaguered economy of the Republic of Sudan. Much needed oil revenues could soon dry up and cause further hardship for the people there.




The international communities, especially the country’s main backers, the US and neighbouring countries like Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, have been working overtime to bring about a negotiated settlement to the fighting that has now enveloped most of the country. The Ethiopian prime minister and the Kenyan president rushed to Juba in an effort to defuse the situation. President Kiir then offered a truce along with the release of eight of the 11 senior politicians who were arrested on charges of plotting a coup. All of them are Nuers and held senior positions in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which led the fight for independence from the Muslim and Arab dominated north of the country. Machar wants all the eleven released and has asked for formal peace talks before negotiating a ceasefire. As of now, the government forces want to arrest him on various charges, including that of planning a coup. The US as well as the regional leaders have also made it clear that they will not accept any violent overthrow of the government.


As the year ended, most of the oil producing areas of the South were under the control of forces aligned with Machar. The oil producing Unity state is in rebel hands, but the government is amassing troops to capture the state’s capital, Bentiu. The country’s army, owing allegiance to the president, has recaptured the towns of Bor and Malakal but the rebels are massing militias to confront the army. The “White Army,” comprising Nuer youth who are supporting Machar, has entered the fray and is marching towards Bor. The army got its name due to the practice of covering their bodies with white ash made out of burnt cow-dung. The involvement of the White Army now threatens to plunge the country into a full scale civil war, pitting the majority Dinkas against the Nuers, the second biggest ethnic group in the country.


Many senior Dinka politicians, including Rebecca Garang, the widow of John Garang, are vocal critics of the president. She was among the ministers sacked by Kiir earlier in the year. Machar has also been a divisive figure, even among some of his own ethnic compatriots. Kiir described him as a “prophet of doom” and has been making references to his collaboration with the government in Khartoum in the nineties. Machar has retaliated by accusing the president “of inciting ethnic killings and tribal divisions.”


Fractures along ethnic lines in South Sudan were evident long before the country became independent. Machar himself had at one time aligned himself with Khartoum during the two decades long civil war that ended only in 2005. The faction of the SPLM owing allegiance to Machar had split from the main movement in 1991. There was serious infighting that led to the deaths of thousands of Dinkas in the city of Bor. The massacres of 1991, which were blamed on Machar and the Nuers, have evidently not been forgotten. Machar then formally joined the government in Khartoum following his differences with John Garang, the SPLM’s towering leader at the time. Machar returned to the SPLM only in 2002. After the death of Garang in a helicopter crash, Kiir, his second in command, took over.




Both Garang and Machar held doctorates from western universities while Kiir has very little formal education. The differences between Kiir and Machar were out in the open almost as soon as the new government of South Sudan came into being. In 2012, Machar had openly said that he would seek the leadership of the SPLM. Soon after that, he openly started questioning Kiir’s style of leadership and his general political acumen.


In April 2013, Machar was stripped off many of his powers and later fired from office along with the entire cabinet. The South Sudan president also fired many senior office bearers of the SPLM, including the popular secretary general Pagan Amum. The critics of the president accused him of trying to consolidate all power in his hands so that he could run for another term in office unopposed. His opponents, alluding to Kiir’s ethnic roots, accused him of fostering “Dinkocracy” instead of democracy.


In the first week of December, Machar, along with other top SPLM officials like Amum, accused the president of having authoritarian tendencies and that he had “immobilised” the structures of the ruling party and was driving the country into an “abyss.” Soon after this, the high level arrests followed, along with the sudden large scale eruption of bloodletting. A former South Sudanese minister, Jok Madut Jok, had presciently told a television network at the time of independence that his country was like a four-legged animal “but with all its legs broken.”


He went on to explain. “The first leg of any government is a disciplined army. We have problems with how our military functions today. That’s a broken leg. We have a civil society. That is very weak now. The third leg is delivery of services. It is hard to deliver security. The fourth leg is political unity — we have been having difficulty uniting our ranks,” Jok had said. Two and a half years after independence, South Sudan seems set to implode once again. All the four legs necessary for running a successful state now have multiple fractures.