“A Prophet of Doom”
Background on the Situation in South Sudan
I was planning to post some information about the crisis in South Sudan but I was initially unable to access the internet on my laptop. It turns out that the lack of connectivity was what I needed to enjoy my Christmas vacation. I have received all types of comments regarding the situation in South Sudan and in response to some of my posts on Twitter. One comment that caught my attention was posted on Twitter in response to my celebratory comments of being evacuated out of Juba. The person asked – What about the South Sudanese who gave you happy times in their country? It is a valid question and I can tell you that it is a sad feeling leaving friends in hostile territory. But there is very little that I can do to change the situation in South Sudan. The realization is that the government of South Sudan has failed its citizens. The leaders were elected to implement a vision and sworn to protect and serve the people of South Sudan. However, the leaders are now engaged in a battle over political power that has reopened ethnic wounds that the country has been trying to healed since becoming independent two years ago.
The situation in South Sudan is very complicated. Most news articles have tried to sell the situation as ethnic unrest. In some aspects, this is true but it does not get to the bottom of the crisis. As I have mention before, the people of South Sudan spent nearly half a century engaged in a civil war with the Government of Sudan. The country finally gained independence in July of 2011. Independence only brought an unofficial end to the conflict with Sudan; it did not heal the ethnic and tribal wounds that had been a causality of war.
South Sudan is made up of various tribes of which the Dinka and Nuer tribes are the two largest groups. The current President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir is a member of the Dinka tribe and the former Vice President and current leader of the rebel forces, Riek Machar is a member of the Nuer tribe. In July of 2013, President Kiir issued several decrees shrinking the size of the government and dismissing Riek Machar as Vice President of South Sudan. After being relieved of his office, Machar made his intentions known that he would challenge President Kiir for Chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a move that if successful would make him the SPLM candidate for President in 2015. Since that time, Machar has made numerous statements regarding the President’s leadership style, his ability to work with leaders from the SPLM and what Machar calls Kiir’s flagrant abuse of the party’s constitution. While these comments may sound harsh, they were made within the “limited” political space that exists in South Sudan. Machar even held a press conference with other leaders of the SPLM calling out the actions of the president.
On the night December 15 clashes broke out in a barrack close to the city centre of Juba shortly before midnight and spread across the city. Soldiers loyal to Machar refused to be disarmed and attacked. Residents locked themselves in their homes or tried to flee to safer areas. President Kiir held a press conference on Monday, December 16 and blamed troops loyal to former vice president Machar for what President Kiir described as a “failed coup attempt.” The president used the opportunity to take out his political opponents by labeling the conflict as a coup. Machar was able to escape from Juba and as the conflict has spread he has mobilized his network of supporters, mostly people from the Nuer tribe. Fighting throughout the country has broken down by tribal lines. There were reports that Dinka soldiers were going house to house searching for Neur soldiers. Unconfirmed reports stated that Dinka soldiers were killing any Nuer people they came across in their search in Juba. In response, Nuer soldiers began attacking various cities and targeting Dinka soldiers. The cycle of violence has engulfed the entire country.
History has a way of repeating itself and President Kiir has deemed Machar a “prophet of doom.” In a speech before the crisis started, Kiir stated that the government will “not allow the incidents of 1991 to repeat themselves again.” Kiir was referring to the 1991 Bor Massacre. This is an analysis of what happened in 1991 as described by Professor Phillip Roessler.
In 1991, Machar launched a failed bid to overthrow the then-leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), John Garang. The failed coup triggered an intra-SPLA civil war and large-scale violence along ethnic lines. Machar was prominently involved, mobilizing support from his co-ethnics and targeting Dinka co-ethnics of John Garang, including in the notorious Bor Massacre in November 1991, in which it is estimated at least 2,000 perished. Over the next decade, Machar would ally with the central government in Khartoum and continue to fight against the SPLA until he reconciled with Garang and rejoined the SPLM in 2002. The reunification of the SPLA was integral to the rebels’ ability to win the right to independence.
The reports that continue to trickle out of South Sudan are both depressing and disappointing. The senseless killing of citizens, the deepening of ethnic conflict in the country and the selfish leaders that are willing to drag the country into a civil war to protect their political power has taken the country in the wrong direction. Progress was always going to be slow in South Sudan because of the enormous challenges that the country faces but the actions of the last three weeks makes going forward very difficult.