Dr. Lawrence Wongo: The Current Crisis in South Sudan

It has been a while since I posted an article on our blog about South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation. I had so much pride and hope in South Sudan. It took almost my entire lifetime for our country to be born and we have overcome so many obstacles that could have easily aborted her birth. My pride and hope seem to have been shattered, since the night of December 15, 2013, when shooting erupted between two groups within the presidential republican guards at the headquarters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the national army of South Sudan. Accounts of precisely what triggered the violence vary but what is clear is that fighting involving troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those backing sacked Vice President, Riek Machar, got out of control and spread quickly across the capital, Juba, and the rest of the country. South Sudan’s states experienced heavy fighting between government forces and those forces allied to the former Vice President, Machar. The fighting was particularly intense in Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states. While the conflict was sparked by political strife, it quickly took on an ethnic dimension, mainly between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. There have been reports of ethnically motivated attacks by armed forces against civilians by both sides, as well as attacks by civilians against civilians, depending on their political affiliation and ethnicity. For instance, members of South Sudan’s organized forces were reported to have targeted civilians on the basis of their presumed allegiance either to Riek Machar, who is from the Nuer Tribe, or Salva Kiir, who is Dinka. These targeted killings resulted in an estimated 10,000 dead according to the Enough Project. Thousands of people, mainly Nuer, turned up at the compounds of the UN peace keepers in Juba to seek protection. As the fighting spread to other states more civilian atrocities, including mass killings, sexual violence and other war crimes were committed by opposing forces, especially in Bor town (Jonglei State) which is located about 100 miles north of Juba on the river Nile. Around 870,000 people are reported to have been displaced by the conflict since mid-December 2013, including 900,000 people within South Sudan and 150,000 who have fled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. 78,000 civilians have sought safety in, or in close proximity to UN bases in South Sudan. President Kiir has accused his former Vice President, Machar, of an attempted coup, which Machar has denied; Machar, in turn, has accused Kiir of having instigated the violence in a move to eliminate any opposition to his Government.

Most of the political and security situation remains very fluid. A cessation of hostilities agreement was signed on January 23, 2014 and led to significant reduction in fighting, although sporadic clashes have since continued in some areas. South Sudan’s Minister of Justice has charged Machar and six other politicians with treason, raising concerns about the fate of the cessation of hostilities agreement and peace negotiations. In addition, demand for the withdrawal of Ugandan troops, fighting along side the SPLA, the release of the 4 remaining political detainees and the recent recapture of Malakal, the capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile State threaten to scuttle the peace talks scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the impact of the fighting on the civilian population has been extremely serious. The combination of targeted atrocities, human rights abuses, displacement, loss of livelihoods and lack of access to basic services has created a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Aid agencies are racing against time and risking the lives of their staff in order to deliver emergency aid to millions of people urgently in need of assistance before the onset of the rainy season when most roads become impassable. South Sudanese communities have been divided by this political crisis and ongoing violence. The U.S. has condemned the violence and the continued violations and disregard of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, which was signed by both parties. Continued military conflict will only prolong the violence and worsen the humanitarian crisis that threatens to consume the country.