Making Sense of the Violent Political Crisis in South Sudan

by Gerald Bareebe and Christopher Zambakari

Fewer than three years after a historic vote for independence from Sudan, the world’s newest country is disintegrating into conflict. With an estimated 500 people killed in only a few days, three mass graves discovered, and two Indian peacekeepers killed, the crisis threatens to engulf the new nation. A new civil war can easily be sparked if violence is not quickly contained. The events of December 15, when a dispute and exchange between soldiers quickly got out of control, have led to the internal displacement of an estimated 35,000 to 62,000 civilians.

How did this young country that attained her independence in 2011 amidst massive international fanfare degenerate into chaos so quickly? To understand the genesis of the conflict in South Sudan one must consider the context in which it takes place. The crisis in South Sudan can be seen within several conflicting realms: politics played by the ruling elites, disagreements within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), ethnic tensions, and, finally, the fallout between Salva Kiir, the President of South Sudan and his former Vice President, Dr. Riak Machar. The event of December 15 (which set off the crisis) caries an ethnic dimension, but it is first and foremost a political crisis within the ruling political party and the army. Any attempt to broker a peaceful settlement requires that all the dimensions of the conflict and the inherent issues fueling violence be properly diagnosed, and all the key stakeholders be included in the process.

In July 2013, after he announced that he would run against Kiir in the general election in 2015, Machar was fired as Vice President (see Presidential Decree RSS/RD/J/49/2013). This was followed by a presidential decree dissolving the government and finally the dissolution of all the structures of the political party. The president was likely prepared for a backlash from his opponents, but surely he did not expect dissent to fulminate to the current level of a civil war. Not surprisingly, many of the integrated militias remained loyal to their old commanders and unaccountable to the central government. Thus, when President Kiir chose to fire his vice President, it was difficult for him to contain the fall out. Not only are both men key players in the ruling SPLM party, but each is a skilled guerrilla war fighter with popular support from within the military and from the public.

Any way out?

The process and evolution of a strong, stable state in South Sudan has stalled. It remains in the interest of South Sudanese leaders, regional power brokers, and the international community to bring this process back to a path for peace. Given the decentralized nature of the armed groups in South Sudan and division within the ruling political party, the need for a broad-based framework that brings all stakeholders to the negotiation table is urgent.

Regional leaders must shoulder the responsibility of stabilizing South Sudan. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional body comprised of countries in the Horn of Africa, Nile Valley, and African Great Lakes, has proposed a roadmap to end conflict. A delegation of Foreign Ministers from IGAD countries as well as AU Commissioner for Peace and Security flew to South Sudan for a discussion with President Salva Kiir and Rebecca Garang, widow of former SPLA/M leader, Dr. John Garang. However, the IGAD delegation returned to the Ethiopian Capital, Addis Ababa, with little success since Mr. Kiir rejected some key components of the proposal such as a ceasefire, release of former ministers, and creation of a new government of national unity. Machar has set conditions that he wants Kiir to meet before any significant dialogue can take place, including a demand for Mr. Kiir to release his colleagues, currently in detention, and for Kiir to step down.

On December 24, the UN Security Council voted to nearly double its peacekeeping contingent force in South Sudan. The Ugandan government sources confirmed to the media that South Sudan has requested military assistance. Uganda had deployed a small number of troops with a limited mandate to evacuate civilians, secure the airport and restore normalcy in the capital of South Sudan, Juba.

South Sudan faces a political problem that requires a political solution. This includes a ceasefire to stop the massacre of civilians and the release of political prisoners in order to avoid a return to civil war. Thus, a rational approach to this conflict lies in the hands of President Kiir himself. He should release his political enemies and show willingness to compromise. This will open doors for a genuine comprehensive political solution that can  bring those in power and those out of power to the table to resolve their differences under the auspices of a regional organization like the African Union, UN, IGAD, and other signatory members to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. No durable solution is possible unless the process proves comprehensive enough to address the root causes of the issues responsible for the conflict.

About the Author

Gerald Bareebe is a PhD student in the department of political science at the University of Toronto and a 2013-2014 Trudeau Scholar. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications (Makerere University), a master’s degree in international relations and diplomatic studies (Makerere University), and an advanced master’s degree in governance and development (University of Antwerp). His main area of research includes: the African Union and humanitarian intervention, political institutions and political reforms in Sub-Saharan Africa, and civil-military relations in post-conflict societies.

Christopher Zambakari is Founder & CEO of The Zambakari Advisory. He is is a Doctor of Law and Policy (LP.D.), Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, and a Rotary Peace Fellow (2014-2015), University of Queensland, Australia. His area of research and expertise is policy development that ensures political stability and socio-economic development, and his interests include modern political and legal thought, governance and democracy, the rule of law, postcolonial violence, and nation-building projects in Africa. His work has been published in law, economic, and public policy journals.

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