Fractured Politics and Ethnic Tension Fuels South Sudanese Civil War
Updated: Apr 5, 2019
The blood spilt in South Sudan’s fight for stable government drips in vain. Conceived in 2011, the world’s youngest country has since failed to establish a legitimate government capable of shaping a cohesive national identity. For nearly half a century, Christian South Sudan and its Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) existed solely to oppose the Islamic Northern half of Sudan. Ethno-religious divides drove cycles of civil wars between the two, resulting in famine, mass displacement, and millions dead. With the advent of independence, the young country fell victim to its own historic inertia; perpetual war between the North and South carried over to form a new civil war in South Sudan, driven by political paranoia and ethnic mistrust. South Sudan must change its emergency wartime government of the previous half century into a functioning civil government to the violence already ingrained in the nation’s short history.
Fragmented politics, however, will make the search for civil government difficult. The onset of independence brought with it a fractionalized group of military generals turned politicians, each of whom held high standing within the SPLM and its military wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Generals derived political power through the military. In a country as young as South Sudan, devoid of strong institutions to check the power of the military, this was not surprising—the military was, after all, provided a semblance of stability during decades of war. Each general carried a different vision for post-war South Sudan, including the extent of the SPLM’s political influence. Some believed the SPLM should inherit the post-war government, assuming a strong, centralized, militaristic role in creating national unity. Others saw the SPLM as a transitional wartime government whose duty was to achieve independence.
President Salva Kiir revealed South Sudan’s dismal level of fragmentation when he sacked his cabinet in 2013 under suspicions of an attempted coup and alleged corruption. Blatant opposition from his vice president, Riek Machar, further created an internal power struggle over the extent of presidential power. Machar feared South Sudan would resemble the northern government it fought to overthrow, where a strong central government and bloated presidential power maintained overreaching power. Civil war erupted following Kiir’s purging. Machar has since formed the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition, or SPLM-IO, an anti-government guerrilla group.
Ethnic tensions among the Dinka and Nuer peoples color the violence. Incipient fighting and marginalization among the groups tear apart an already fragile national identity and threaten the political unit. This is significant because in other regions of Africa where nascent governments exert little power over their citizens, politicians prefer aligning themselves with their respective ethnic group, not the governing body as a whole. Ethnic groups agree to a single set of pre-existing laws and customs, whereas nascent governments struggle to find acceptance and establish a national order amid numerous identities. Kiir, a Dinka, and Machar, a Nuer, use their competing ethnic backgrounds to garner militia support. Thus, as long as ethnic loyalties precede unity, consolidating a national identity will prove difficult. These tensions have also caused a spike in ethnic-based hate speech, pitting the Dinka majority against the Nuer and other minority communities. Because Kiir and Machar rely on ethnic militias for political authority, the potential for genocide continues to increase. Intentional food scarcity further complicates this conflict; Kiir’s government blocks humanitarian aid as a weapon to starve Machar’s Nuer forces. Innocent civilians caught in the middle flee to surrounding refugee camps; one million of these refugees face famine.
The United Nations Security Council and UN Secretary-General António Guterres ruled out a military solution. They made a wise decision as brazen military action disregards the root causes of the conflict. Instead, Guterres advocates for an immediate ceasefire to establish a lasting peace process and provide much needed aid for displaced citizens. In a statement released last April, Guterres expressed “deep alarm at the numerous and ongoing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, and recruitment and use of children in violation of international law.” Together with the help of the United Nations, African Union, and Intergovernmental Authority for Development, the statement continues, a solution can potentially be found through national dialogue.
Even if Kiir and Machar reach a peace settlement, however, South Sudan still faces a formidable future. The current governing structure suffers from endemic corruption and has connections with the SPLM, which is unwilling to relinquish the exorbitant power it held during fifty years of war. In a country where war serves as the only constant, political legitimacy must be removed from a military context to prevent repetitive civil wars. A national dialogue headed by Machar and Kiir must also address ethnic tensions. Without mutual respect between the Dinka and Nuer peoples, the country’s social and economic growth will be severely stunted. Kiir and Machar need to put aside ethnic loyalties and promote open reconciliation for the sake of South Sudan’s survival. If the two fail to do so, another half century of war may plague a population still recovering from the latest chapter in a cycle of violence.