How Did South Sudan Go from Celebrating Independence to Near Civil War?

Juba, South Sudan

On December 17, 2013,  South Sudan erupted in violent chaos after what their government’s website reported as a “failed coup” two days prior. At least 1,000 are feared dead and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. A good chunk of the displaced are holed up at United Nations bases in the capital Juba, as well as in the towns Bentlu and Bor.

The UN has authorized dispatching 12,500 troops and 1,323 police to the country to stem the violence even as peace talks between President Salva Kiir and his chief rival, former Vice President Riek Machar were to begin in Ethiopia on January 2, 2014. But the conflict continues, with the latest reports indicating that armed Machar supporters were advancing toward Juba.  

Just two and half years ago, the mood in South Sudan was markedly different as its citizens celebrated their independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, after almost six decades of on and off war. What happened?

1. South Sudan’s leaders haven’t been able to agree on how to run the government. 

For one, they don’t have a final constitution yet. In a post published just one day after the reported coup, a representative of the human rights advocacy group Justice Africa described the ongoing process of working toward a permanent constitution for South Sudan as riddled with bias, including initial exclusion of opposing parties.

In a candid interview with Ugandan news outlet, New Vision, Mabior Garang blamed President Salva Kiir for stymying democratic process long before the current violence. The son of former Sudanese People’s Liberation Army leader Dr. John Garang de Mabior elaborated, “After independence there was a lot of euphoria that many people of South Sudan failed to see the subtle moves towards stifling democracy.”

He added, “President Salva Kiir, frustrated efforts to review the current constitution, rules of procedure and how the national convention would be held.  For instance, in the convention, one of [the] points of contention is the system of voting for the Chairman by show of hands rather than through secret ballot. …Dr. Machar rejected this among other provisions, because people could be intimidated by security during the voting process.”

2. Political actions & rhetoric may have exacerbated preexisting ethnic tension. 

South Sudan’s government website insists tribalism has nothing to do with the violence. Governor of Upper Nile State Simon Kun Pouch is quoted as saying: “There are people out there saying what has happened is between the Dinka and the Nuer tribesmen. We the leaders of this country would want [to] state here that this is not true.” But AllAfrica.com describes a complicated and contentious relationship between all of the nation’s different ethnic groups that dates back to the decades of civil war and has spilled into the current conflict.

Writers Andreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone explain: “The violence has its origins in a stand-off between different factions of the presidential guard. This fault-line quickly spread within the armed forces, as the fighting over key strategic locations in Juba pitched members of the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups against each other.”

Mabior Garang says the President, a member of the Dinka tribe, “wanted to foment tribal violence” when he fired his former Vice-President, who is Nuer, in a cabinet sweep this summer. Garang explained, “Salva Kiir has now achieved through this alleged coup what he wanted to achieve through the sacking of the vice president because this draws attention away from the problems. He can now declare martial law and suspend civil liberties.” 

3. The President and Former Vice-President have marshaled troops against each other.

President Kiir accused Machar of leading the suspected coup and in response has arrested 10 suspects, including former members of his cabinet, and designated Machar and others “at large.” Now in hiding, Machar told the BBC he is leading forces fighting Kiir’s government and in the same interview claimed to have wrested control of the oil-producing state, Unity, from the government. Oil accounts for 95% of South Sudan’s economy.

So can the two leaders resolve their clash quickly with no more bloodshed? How will they address these tensions, and others that have built over the last six decades, to prevent widespread violence from happening again?

As of December 21st, South Sudan’s government said they were “ready for ‘unconditional dialogue’ with Machar.  On the 26th, from an “undisclosed location,” Machar told the Sudan Tribune he was also open to talks with Kiir.. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn also travelled to the embattled nation to encourage Kiir to seek peace.

Mabior Garang is confident reconciliation will come, largely because the nation has been able to achieve peace before. “[South Sudan] did not just fall from the sky. We were in a liberation movement that had liberated territory bigger