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South Sudan’s conflict could spread across border

By By LUKA BIONG DENG | Dec 23rd 2013 | 4 min read


South Sudan came into being because of the struggle of its people and the commitment of international community to the peace agreement with Sudan.

Some analysts painted a bleak picture of the world’s newest country and described it as a failed state before it was born on July 9, 2011. Some had an optimistic vision for this country not only because of its enormous natural resources, but also because of the determination of its people.

Now it appears, though, that the former group were correct and South Sudan may be heading towards a catastrophe. This month fighting erupted in the capital, Juba, which is now developing into a civil war that may engulf most parts of the country.

The conflict arose from a split within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling political party. On December 6, a group headed by Dr Riek Machar, the SPLM’s deputy chairman, accused President Salva Kiir, the party’s leader, of dictatorship. They planned a rally on  December 14, but the SPLM’s national liberation council was rescheduled to take place on the same day.

After pleas by religious leaders for reconciliation within the SPLM, Machar’s group called off its rally; but the SPLM council proceeded as planned, leaving Machar with no other option but to attend the opening session. Feeling that Kiir’s speech failed to address the concerns they had raised, they walked out.

The mistrust spread to Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers, with those from the Nuer ethnic group feeling particularly targeted in the process of executing the order of disarming the presidential guards. Fighting began in this unit before spreading to the SPLA headquarters north of Juba and then across the city.

Various sources suggest that the forces of presidential guards who were not disarmed and sent to control the situation in Juba are mainly Dinka and from the Bahr el Ghazal region. Machar described these forces in his press conference as the personal army of President Kiir in the guise of presidential guards.

Although the death toll is officially given as around 450, other sources put the figure at over 600, with over 1,000 wounded. And there have been quite appalling atrocities. One person called after having seen a child crushed to death by a tank. Another person called to let me hear the gunfire near a neighbour, who was found dead the following morning. “The situation in Juba is turning into ethnic violence,” another person emailed me. “Individuals are asked by armed men whether they are Dinka or Nuer. If the person asking is from the other tribe then the one asked is subjected to physical abuse and sometimes killed.”

Now most members of Machar’s group have been arrested – with the exception of Machar himself and Taban Deng, the former governor of Unity state – for their link to the alleged failed coup d’etat. However, their supporters claim there was no planned coup and say the arrests are due to their criticism of the president.

However, the SPLA general Peter Yak Gadet, a Machar supporter, reacted to events in Juba by capturing the entire Jonglei state, around 100km north of the capital. And other forces allied to Machar are said to be in control of garrisons north of Juba. Gadet, who lost many members of his family in the fighting, now poses a real threat to Kiir’s troops, as many SPLA soldiers are joining him.

Similar developments are likely in Unity state and Upper Nile state where oilfields are based. These oilfields will be immediate targets as a way of strangulating Juba economically, and the fear is that this may lead to the conflict spreading across the region. North of the border, Khartoum will be extremely worried about any action in the oilfields and it may attempt to intervene militarily to protect them if Juba cannot. This will certainly anger the people of the south, particularly those in Juba.

However, there is still the chance that these developments may prove an opening for dialogue and reconciliation within the SPLM. This may include the acceptance of the new reality over the balance of forces, and the formation of a government of national unity ahead of the next elections in 2015, with the release of all detainees.

As for now: instead of celebrating Christmas, the people of the south will be mourning for lost ones and the lives that have been shattered. President Kiir has always spoken of his commitment to unity and reconciliation. Many are praying that both he and Machar can rise above the current challenges and put the country on the path to peace and stability.

The writer is a member of the National Liberation Council of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and a former minister in the office of the President of South Sudan. He is currently a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. This piece was first published by The Guardian.


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