Three years after gaining independence, the rebel movement that propelled South Sudan into statehood has degenerated into ethnic bloodletting verging on civil war.
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has agreed to form an interim government with his political adversary, Riek Machar following pressure from the United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, who visited the capital, Juba, on May 6. However, any short-term solution proposed by politicians is unlikely to prevent further violence. Nor is it certain a cease-fire deal will stick, now that Kiir and Machar may have lost control of the combatants they initially manipulated. The signs are not looking good: in an interview on the BBC, Machar has already accused the President’s troops of violating the ceasefire, saying that Kiir is not in control of some of them.
Over the past several decades, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has fought a long, bloody battle against the Islamist government in Khartoum, which for decades has tried to purge ethnic groups it perceives as non-Arab and non-Muslim. Millions died in what was the southern part of Sudan until its secession in July 2011.
However, since the separation, things are not much better in Sudan as the remaining minorities continue to be killed by Khartoum and its militia proxies in the Darfur region in the west, and in the Nuba Mountain region in the south. On May 1, a Catholic hospital in the Nuba hills was bombed by the Sudanese military, causing minor injuries but sending otherwise bed-ridden patients running into the countryside. Bishop Macram Gassi, who built the hospital five years ago, told a news conference in Nairobi that the attack is an affront to both Christian and Muslims who use the hospital.
Under international pressure, Khartoum permitted southerners vote for independence. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement took power in South Sudan, and many unresolved conflicts within its own ranks emerged.
In mid-2013, the new nation’s President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, sacked most of his government, including Vice President Machar, ethnically Nuer. By December, the political disagreement had escalated into violence that Kiir regarded as a coup attempt. Kiir’s supporters, largely Dinka, went on the rampage in the new capital Juba, killing ethnic Nuer. What had begun as a political power struggle took on an ethnic character, displacing an estimated 1 million people. Fighting continues in the oil-producing areas near the Sudan border, crippling an already economically challenged nation.
In April, Machar’s rebels used radio to incite Nuer to target Dinka in the town of Bentiu, slaughtering unarmed civilians hiding in a mosque — a chilling echo of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The Dinka retaliated at a UN base in Jonglei, where thousands of Nuer had sought refuge. They killed an estimated 500 civilians before the UN peacekeepers repelled them.
The UN estimates as many as 10,000 may have died since December, and aid groups warn many more will starve from a food shortage since many are unable to reach their fields during the current planting season. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, expressed disgust that South Sudan’s leaders are unconcerned for the civilians affected by the conflict, a sentiment echoed by the humanitarian group Medecins sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.
The UN Security Council has voted to send more peacekeepers, and Ban’s pressure on Kiir has brought Machar back into the government. Still unknown is whether the forced political arrangement and deal will translate into reconciliation of the deeply-felt grievances within the shattered Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the population at large. Some suggest the Church is best placed to conduct a national dialogue. It already has begun a process under the backing of the National Commission for Healing and Peace in South Sudan. The process will take months, if not years.
Meanwhile, experts seek a comprehensive constitutional settlement, and a culturally relevant form of justice that serves South Sudan’s people.