South Sudan: When Violence is Necessary, Peace is Nearly Impossible

Over the past few centuries, the world has made vast progress toward achieving higher levels of wealth and stability. As the world as a whole has advanced, however, the disparity between prosperous nations and impoverished nations has grown larger. Why? Because some regions have been left behind. Although the world has improved as a whole, some places have advanced only incrementally–if at all. South Sudan is one of the places that has seen the least improvement. Since its birth as the world’s newest country in 2011, it has been plagued with violence. On Friday, the number of refugees that have fled South Sudan passed one million.

The location of South Sudan within Africa

South Sudan was created as part of a peace plan. It has not, however, brought peace to the people of this war-ravaged part of the world. Since the decolonization of Africa, the region has been devastated by the First Sudanese Civil War, the Second Sudanese Civil War, and the South Sudanese Civil War. The peace deal following the first of these wars achieved autonomy for South Sudan; the peace deal following the second achieved independence; and peace deal following the third has already unravelled. Each war was resolved by a peace deal, but each peace deal failed to address the causes of war: a culture in which it is within the interests of the people and the politicians to remain prepared for war.

The First Sudanese Civil war began immediately before the independence of Sudan. It was driven by conflict between the northern and southern portions of the country. Before independence, the largely Islamic north had been administered separately from the less populous and Christian majority South. As independence neared, it became clear that the two portions of the country would be united under one government. As a result, the less populous and Christian south feared that it would be overwhelmed by the north. For this reason, southern leaders launched an insurgency. Neither the northern government nor the southern separatists could achieve an outright victory, resulting in a stalemate. Eventually, the warring parties signed a peace agreement in 1972 that attempted to solve the conflict with the creation of an autonomous region in the south.

For over a decade, the peace agreement held and Sudan remained relatively stable. In 1983, however, it fell apart. The president of Sudan at the time, Gaafar Nimeiry, declared the entire country an Islamic Republic and abolished the autonomous region. Naturally, the south once again feared marginalization by the north. As a result, it launched the Second Sudanese Civil War. The opposition, however, was fractured throughout the war. At first, it was led by Dr. John Garang, a member of the Dinka ethnic group who established the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and its political arm, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), in 1983. Over time, Garang’s policy of a united but secular Sudan fell out of favor with those advocating for the complete independence of the south. In 1991, a faction led by SPLA commander Riek Machar attempted to overthrow Garang. It failed to replace him, but it created a new militia that became known as the SPLA-Nasir.

As result of the split between the SPLA and the SPLA-Nasir, the Second Sudanese Civil War morphed into something far more complicated than a simple north-south conflict. In order to strengthen its position against Garang, the SPLA-Nasir exploited ethnic divisions. It drew most of its support from the Nuer ethnic group to which Machar belonged. This caused conflict with the Dinka ethnic group, the largest ethnic group the country to which Garang belonged. In 1991, 2000 ethnic Dinka were killed by Nuer forces loyal to the SPLA-Nasir in what came to be known as the Bor Massacre. To complicate matters further, the SPLA allied with anti-government militant groups in the north. At the same time, the fiercely pro-independence SPLA-Nasir somewhat paradoxically entered into strategic alliance with the government in Khartoum. Thus the north-south war had become a nationwide conflict with an opposition that was deeply divided along ethnic lines.

The Second South Sudanese Civil War officially ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The agreement was meant to end the conflict with South Sudan as well as various other armed conflicts throughout the country. It set a timetable for an independence referendum in South Sudan. This was held in 2011, and the people voted overwhelmingly for independence. As a result, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation on July 9, 2011. It was led by Salva Kiir, a Dinka who succeeded Garang as the leader of the SLPA following the latter’s death. Riek Machar was made the vice president. For a few years, the country was not officially at war. In 2013, however, the facade of stability crumbled. Kiir and Machar turned against each other, plunging the country into the South Sudanese Civil War.

In July of 2013, Kiir dismissed his cabinet and removed Machar from the vice presidency. His moves were criticized by many as an attempt to consolidate his own power. In December of 2013, a group of Nuer soldiers mutinied and took over the headquarters of the military. Kiir accused them of staging a coup attempt led by Machar. The country once again fractured along ethnic lines.  Nuer soldiers across South Sudan rallied to support Machar, while Dinka forces remained loyal to the government. Violence continued until a peace agreement was signed in August 2015. It stipulated that Machar would once again be made vice president. In keeping with the pattern of history, however, the peace deal soon fell apart. Kiir once again reorganized the government to ensure its loyalty, and Machar once again was removed from power and fled the country. While the war officially ended in August 2015, the violence never truly subsided.

Although the South Sudanese Civil War is officially over, much of the country (in green) is still controlled by rebel militias.

Decades of civil war have normalized violence in South Sudan. Its residents have come to fear massacre, and its leaders have become used to working within the framework of rival groups backed by ethnically aligned militias. Decades ago, leaders used ethnic divisions to further their political aims. Now, they cannot achieve their political aims without appealing to these same divisions, and they cannot disarm without losing their leverage. The go-to way to increase one’s power became the establishment of one’s very own ethnocentric militant group. In the face of such widespread violence, the people have two options. They can either arm themselves or flee. Such is the culture that has developed in South Sudan. Violence is necessary for survival, both politically and literally.

Peace in South Sudan demands both political and social reform. As of now, war is within the interest of South Sudan’s leaders and its people. To end the war, reform must be achieved on such a scale that the political interests of the leaders and the interests of the myriad ethnic groups all align with each other and with peace. In the past, the leaders and the people have been conditioned to prepare for the next war in order to ensure their survival. As a result, it is within their interests to remain on war footing. It is only through a drastic reengineering of national interests, then, that the culture of violence will subside. How to achieve these drastic reforms, however, is as unclear to me as it has been to the architects of the numerous failed peace attempts of the past. That’s why, despite the fact that the Sudanese Civil War, Second Sudanese Civil War, and South Sudanese Civil War have all officially ended, refugee numbers are still rising. That’s why there are over one million refugees.


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