South Sudan: Reflections on Crisis

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South Sudan: Reflections on Crisis

AfricaFocus Bulletin
January 13, 2014 (140113)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Negotiations and fighting are both continuing this week in the conflict in South Sudan which erupted into open violence on December 15. It may be that coordinated international pressure will soon bring about a ceasefire. But both South Sudanese and foreign sources stress that any long-term solution must deal not only with the political competition between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, who was dismissed at Vice President along with others in the Cabinet last July, but also with fundamental issues of the South Sudanese state.

Strikingly, many news reports as well as virtually all political analysts agree that the root of the current conflict is not "tribalism" or ethnic rivalry as such but rather internal political conflict in which political leaders have sparked an escalation of violence playing out along ethnic lines.

[Any attempt to generalize about what "the media" say is inevitably subjective. But it is interesting to note that a Google news search for "South Sudan" and "political" turns up far more hits than "South Sudan" and "tribal." And, in recent coverage of both South Sudan and the Central African Republic, many news articles specifically caution against the common tendency to regard such conflicts as based on "age-old rivalries," noting previous peaceful relationships across ethnic or religious dividing lines.]

It is less often noted, however, that portraying the conflict as one between the two top leaders ignores the fact that those dismissed by President Kiir in July, and the political prisoners now held in Juba, include many who support neither Kiir nor Machar, and come from Dinka, Nuer and other ethnic backgrounds. The release of these political prisoners, and their involvement in future dialogue on the future of Sudan, has been one of the key elements in negotiations to date, and is essential to any long-term solution.

So too, stress many analysts, is involvement in the dialogue of not only diverse political voices but also of civil society, which has been bypassed both in previous peace negotiations and in the postindependence Sudanese state.

One of the most prominent Sudanese voices pressing for a more inclusive dialogue is Jok Madut Jok, of the Sudd Institute, and a former deputy Minister of Culture. This AfricaFocus Buletin contains excerpts from his analysis from last week, the full version of which is available on the Sudd Institute website (

Additional analytical articles particularly worth reading include the following:

"Breakdown in South Sudan: What Went Wrong -- and How to Fix It," By Alex de Waal and Abdul Mohammed, Foreign Affairs, January 1, 2014 / Direct URL:

"The way forward for South Sudan," by Mahmood Mamdani, Al Jazeera, 6 Jan 2014 - Direct URL:

"An integrated response to justice and reconciliation in South Sudan," by David Deng and Elizabeth Deng, African Arguments, January 8, 2014 / Direct URL:

Several additional articles of interest appear in the latest issue of Pambazuka News

U.S. Senate Hearings on South Sudan, January 9, 2014
The statement by former U.S. envoy Princeton Lyman has a particularly clear statement of the background (

For ongoing news coverage and commentary, see particularly and

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

South Sudan and the prospects for peace amidst violent political wrangling

Jok Madut Jok

Sudd Institute Policy Brief, January 4, 2014

[Excerpts only: full text available at and at]

[The Sudd Institute is an independent research organization that conducts and facilitates policy relevant research and training to inform public policy and practice, to create opportunities for discussion and debate, and to improve analytical capacity in South Sudan. Jok Madut Jok is a cofounder of the Sudd Institute.]


The unfolding unrest in South Sudan, beginning with the events of December 15, 2013 in Juba when fighting broke out within the presidential guard and spread to Greater Upper Nile within two days, may not have been exactly predictable, but it was not entirely surprising. Surely, the abrupt nature of it, the scale of violence within a single military unit, the rapid spread to other branches of the armed forces in other states, the speed at which it begun to take on ethnic overtones and the death toll of over 1,000 people, many of them civilians, has shocked the population. How South Sudan seemed to have gone from one day of confidence that it would weather the political disagreements within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the country's ruling party, to the next day of near total unraveling was definitely terrifying for Juba residents. It has also caught the international community within the country - represented by the United Nations, European Union, African Union and various diplomatic missions - totally off guard.

Most alarmed by these developments were neighboring countries in East Africa and the Horn. Uganda scrambled to intervene and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Haile Mariam Deslaigne and the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta descended on Juba on December 26 to explore any possibilities of mediating a dialogue between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his wayward Vice President, Riek Machar Teny, who is now heading what is increasingly referred to as a rebellion, which the government says followed a failed coup attempt. The Inter-Governmental Agency on Development (IGAD), a regional grouping that has been central to peace negotiations of Sudanese conflicts before South Sudan's Independence and understands the complexities of the conflicts more than few other bodies do, convened a summit in Nairobi on December 27, 2013 in order to explore how to end the mayhem that has already caused huge casualties in revenge attacks by the Nuer on the Dinka in Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile states for the attacks against the Nuer that were orchestrated in Juba by government soldiers.

[Talks are now ongoing in Addis Ababa] ... Whether or not this situation was triggered by a failed coup attempt is now a mood point. The priority now is how to get the country out of this mess and back onto its path to stability and development. Peaceful dialogue is the only viable approach, but what is to be discussed at such talks, what could possibly end the violence immediately and what the role of the international community beyond east Africa should be are some of the questions that remain unclear at this stage.

What caused this crisis?

Many former politicians turned analysts and critics in Juba were quick to deny that this was a coup attempt. [But the story seems more complex than that.]

It is perhaps important to explore the above-mentioned squabbles within the ruling party as part of the genesis of the current crisis, especially the reaction of Kiir's government to the calls for reforms that were made by the party leaders he had fired from both the party leadership and the SPLM-led government. These party officials, many of whom had been members of the party's highest organ, the Political Bureau, and had been demanding that President Kiir, himself the chairman of the party, convenes a meeting of the Political Bureau to sort out the differences between the chairman and over two-thirds of its members. These leaders held a press conference on December 6th, 2013 in which they accused the president of running the party in ways that violated the party constitution. The press conference called for convening the Political Bureau in order to organize the agenda for the meeting of the National Liberation Council, the party's legislature. But instead of responding to what seems like a legitimate constitutional right of the people who held the press conference, the president instructed his deputy, Vice President James Wani Igga, to issue a very crude response in which he dismissed outright their claims and accused them of being "disgruntled" for their loss of power. When the current crisis began, the president did not help the situation and the image of his government when he appeared in military fatigue to deliver his statement in the wake of the revolt, signaling his readiness for a military confrontation. So it is fair to say that the demand for reforms within the party and the president's frustration of these demands was a clear factor in this crisis.

But did these political differences have to turn violent?

Our investigation shows that there were two streams of thinking in this quickly forming opposition body, with multiple aspiring leaders. The first stream is the one involving Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior (the widow of the SPLA/M former leader, the late John Garang de Mabior), Pagan Amum Okiech, the sacked Secretary General of the SPLM, Deng Alor Kuol, the former Minister of Cabinet Affairs and few others, all of whom seem to be committed to a civil political battle to replace the president, whether through some sort of a deal within the party or through the 2015 general elections. The second stream involves the former Vice President Riek Machar Teny, Taban Deng Gai, the former elected governor of Unity State, who was fired by the president in May 2013 and who is extremely angry for the unconstitutional presidential decree that removed him, and a number of senior military officers commanding divisions in Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal. While Taban Deng Gai, an ardent loyalist to President Kiir then, was a recent recruit to this group, Riek had been planning to depose the president by force for quite some time, and was ready to take action if his political alliances with the other group did not bear fruit. Each of the two groups participated in the alliance without revealing what each had in mind, as they were both joined together by a common goal, the removal of President Kiir, but with varying approaches. They were bound to fail given multiple competing leadership aspirations, however.

In the hours leading up to the night of the revolt, these personalities were all still together, deciding to boycott the last day of proceedings of the NLC, with the political action to depose the president looking rather unlikely. So Riek Machar made his move without telling the others, as he was unsure all along if the rest would support him to become the head of the pack. One of the officers who was in on the uprising within Tiger Battalion lined up a number of his immediate officers and executed them by himself and the fighting broke out inside the main military command center, known to locals as al-Qayada, located to the southwest of Juba town. By 11 PM, hell broke loose and Juba residents could not hear anything else but gun and artillery sound for the rest of the night, all day and all night Monday and all the way until about 3:30 pm on Tuesday when the government forces finally neutralized the revolting forces. Meanwhile Riek Machar had slipped out of the town on Monday morning around 4 AM ... On Tuesday Riek Machar went from denying knowledge or any involvement in any coup to being the leader of the rebellion, almost overnight, which would have been quite an about-face if he had indeed been truthful about being unaware of a coup plan.

Many local analysts and people in the media have been reflecting on these events and have been able to tease out some of the signs that the intense competition for political power within the ruling SPLM was bound to spark violence, as it was likely to touch the wounds of the last three decades of liberation wars during which South Sudanese had turned guns against one another over leadership of the movement. Those moments of violence during the liberation period, though often extremely destructive, particularly to ethnic relations, were often patched up or swept under the rug in the interest of keeping the eyes on the common goal, but they were never sufficiently resolved and far too many communities were left wanting for justice. One of such moments was the 1991 split in the SPLA, in which Riek Machar and Lam Akol Ajawin, then senior deputies to John Garang, attempted to depose the latter and sparked massacres in Jonglei state. This revolt happened in the midst of war against the government in Khartoum, and led to a prolonged and destructive conflict. It saw Machar ordering massacres against the Dinka of Jonglei state, which gave rise to a protracted Dinka-Nuer conflict for the subsequent seven years. In the end and despite the reunification of the SPLA, no one was held accountable to this incident, and many others similar to it, and there was no recompense to the affected citizens. This set the precedent for the kind of politics whereby the political ambition of the individual or small groups of individuals translates into efforts to gain power by force. It is this history that has the whole country standing on edge, as the risks of a repeat of 1991 are written all over the current row and are all too scary to fathom.


Also related to this confrontation is another aspect of the liberation wars that brought the independence of South Sudan in 2011. This aspect concerns the failure of the post-war development programs to meet the dividends that the citizens highly expected going into independence. Poverty and dashed aspirations are linked to this; and so are the security situation, isolation of various communities from one another due to poor infrastructure, denying them the opportunity to interact with one another at market places or travel across ethnic lines with ease. Negative stereotypes that various ethnic nationalities harbor about one another have also created a barrier to social interaction, cross-ethnic marriages and sharing of space. When small disagreements happen between communities that are separated, these stereotypes become the only references upon which to base their reactions.

It is evident that the Juba incident that eventually ushered in what seems to be a Dinka-Nuer killing and counter-killing has exposed the fragility of the new state that many had been pointing out since long before independence. It has also shown serious challenges regarding social cohesion and national unity across ethnic lines, something the stability of the country cannot be ensured without. It has shown fragility of the democratic processes, the result of which is that when some politicians fail to get a path to office, they still have the capacity to resort to violence and attract their tribesmen to their side. This was unsurprising due to the absorption of large militia forces from the many rebellions in Greater Upper Nile into the SPLA, the liberation army now turned national defense force.

... Striking peace deals with these militias was the only immediately viable way forward. But on the other hand, inviting all of them into the national army meant compromising on the endeavors to professionalize the armed forces, as many members of these militias were hardly ever disciplined enough to be part of a professional national defense force. Instead, they simply saw the army as the quickest way to salaried employment and joined even without proper training as soldiers.

The result was that the army was made up of an amalgamation of previously warring factions, with no institutional culture or common ethos to which all soldiers subscribe. There was no coherent or unified command hierarchy and no respect for a central command. An additional side problem was that many young people who had not even been part of the militias were able to join some of them right on the eve of absorptions, taking advantage of the opportunity to get themselves absorbed into the army without prior background in military discipline.


These issues may not have caused the violence currently underway, but they contributed to its escalation, and have not been given the attention so many people had been calling for over the past two years. The Sudd Institute has been ringing alarm bells since its founding in 2012 about the poor management of the security situation of the country, lack of reckoning with the history of ethnic relations that had been wrecked by long liberation wars, limited attention to the swelling ranks of unemployed youth and the urban bias that had left the swath of rural populations unable to share in peace dividends. ...

Power politics or tribal wars?

The question that has recently bedeviled the media and various analysts covering the tragically unfolding situation in South Sudan is the question of whether or not this has anything to do with ethnicity or tribal hatreds. My answer to this question is that, while ethnic politics in South Sudan is complex and is undeniably part of everyday sociopolitical life, there is no doubt that it has sometimes been overplayed in analyzing the recent developments. But the real question is not so much about ethnic identity fueling violence but rather the mechanisms by which ethnic relations get deployed in the contest between politicians that are vying for control of the state and the services it provides. ...

Historically, conflict within South Sudan has taken three forms: the liberation wars in which the south fought the north in the old Sudan; ethnic feuds over resources, especially among cattle herding communities; and rivalries between political leaders. With the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the liberation wars against Khartoum are now over. Ethnic feuds, despite the occasional stamping of politics with an ethnic hue, remain relatively easy to reconcile in the context of traditional cultures, and are often confined to the ethnic groups directly involved and rarely affecting the rest of the country. The most devastating stream is that of political wrangling among various leaders vying for power, whether at the national or state level, as politicians sometimes become desperate, unable or unwilling to make political gains by focusing on ideas, and as a consequence reach for the ethnic card, drawing their kin into conflict by explaining to them that it is the survival of the whole group that is at stake. In this sense, the last two trends, the ethnic composition of the country and the political rivalries, are interlinked, and they are at the root of what happened in Juba on December 15th.


What is the solution to this crisis?

South Sudan is at a crossroads. Either the current efforts by regional powers will persuade Riek Machar and the government of South Sudan to immediately end military confrontations and start dialogue on reaching a peace deal, or they will fail and a civil war might ensue. President Kiir, trying to make good on his usual pronouncements about commitment to peace and avoidance of a return to war, has extended an olive branch to his former deputy. Riek Machar, however, has made mere overtones to do likewise, but on conditions that seem either unworkable or extremely difficult to meet, like the possibility of the president stepping down, the release of political detainees and a power-sharing arrangement. Machar's demands for power-sharing will surely put the government in the same trap as the leaders of armed militias have been doing over the years. To object to it on grounds that politicians should not be rewarded with power after using violence risks pushing Machar toward the civil war route. But to bribe him back with a share in government risks encouraging the trend whereby failed politicians have to revolt against the state, kill people, destroy property, and then get rewarded with power and resources for their deadly actions.

A politically mature and stable country may see Machar's actions as crimes punishable by law and pursue him in that regard, but South Sudan is not such a country. The country is in seriously dire straits, with its two biggest nationalities, the Nuer and the Dinka, severely divided and at each other's throats, its oil production (the country's primary source of revenue) currently under threat, foreign reserves depleted, difficulty in honoring its obligations to its citizens, and foreign lenders and the whole economy likely to buckle at the knees, especially if the current situation becomes a civil war. With all of that needing immediate attention, if the country is to be viable, it might be the case that the government will have to swallow its pride and negotiate a deal that will indeed reward Riek Machar's unconstitutional and deadly political actions. Any temptations that the current government leaders might have to punish Mr. Machar could well be the start of unraveling of the gains the country has made since independence. South Sudan is thus held at ransom by an ambitious politico-military personality. The country might have to pay that ransom in order to save its own life.



We conclude with statements we have heard from various South Sudanese in Juba about the way out of this mess. This situation has also thrown up a lot of questions that we do not have answers for and are presented here. The efforts being made by IGAD heads of states should not just focus on resolving the immediate situation at hand, as if it is a confrontation solely between Riek Machar and Salva Kiir. Clearly the two warring parties and their leaders need to reach a deal that would immediately stop the fighting and contain the continued emotional ethnic retaliations. But when the discussions move into processes of political settlement, the mediators should look at both this fighting and the mediation efforts as an opportunity to take a comprehensive look at all the problems that made the current situation possible in the first place. There is an opportunity here to include all the stakeholders, especially all the political parties, in the spirit of the 2010 all-party conference that was held in Juba to rally everyone behind the independence referendum. ...

What about all the people who did not have to die, but have died because of the political ambitions of a few? Should this fact be buried again in the expediency of reaching a deal, so that victim communities are once again left without justice? What about the ethnic relations that have been destroyed by these actions? Can the country move past these consequences and build a nation where ethnic affiliations can no longer be appropriated by power-seekers? ... Whatever solutions arrived at, they must include some form of justice mechanism built into the final deal so as to ensure that the victims of these atrocities are not just swept aside as collateral damage as they were under the CPA. A peace deal that only focuses on ending the conflict and without exploring complex social, legal, governance, security and historical issues, simply defers the resumption of conflict. This was the mistake that previous agreements had made and it is what has directly led to the crisis of today. Sweeping away the calls for justice for wartime atrocities, as was the case with the CPA, is part of the reason behind the current tragedy, and must not be repeated in the search for a solution to it.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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