The situation in South Sudan is rapidly deteriorating. While mass atrocities in the form of war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly even genocide have been committed since the civil war first broke out in December 2013, the recent uptick in violence and ethnically charged rhetoric is particularly worrisome.
Since July 2016, widespread violence and insecurity has plagued South Sudan once again. Tit for tat killings and genocidal rhetoric along ethnic lines have become more and more common.
This week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, issued a warning stating that, “rising ethnic rhetoric, hate speech and incitement to violence against certain ethnic groups in South Sudan is highly dangerous and could result in mass atrocities if not reined in….” In his statement the High Commissioner went on to say, “Hateful ethnic rhetoric in South Sudan – particularly if it is exploited for political purposes – can have devastating consequences for entire communities, quickly spiraling into a cycle of revenge attacks.” Unfortunately, these revenge attacks have already begun to take root.
When conflict first broke out in December 2013, targeted killings of ethnic Nuer in Juba sparked a nationwide rebellion that saw many Nuer aligning themselves behind former Vice President Riek Machar (a Nuer), against the government headed by President Salva Kiir (an ethnic Dinka). The conflict quickly took on an ethnic dimension pitting members of the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups against each other. New violence between the Dinka and Equatorian communities is rapidly increasing the rhetoric and violence against one another.
While tensions have been on the rise for quite some time, the recent surge in violence and dangerous speech has come after an ambush along the Yei-Juba road in which 21 people were killed. Some Dinka hardliners have been using this episode of violence to promote a very clear “us vs. them” narrative. Exaggerated numbers and widespread rumors that Dinka are being specifically targeted, in this and other attacks, have been followed by very strong calls for revenge killings. Letters have circulated calling for the “elimination” of Equatorians.
Some Dinka leaders have invoked self-protection as a justification for their calls for targeted killings. They say that Dinka are being searched out by the Equatorians, and they must respond. A senior member of a Dinka youth movement in Juba writes, “Jieng youth is totally disappointed with this inhumane behaviour. To be honest, we have come up with the resolution that we have to embark on such inhumane killings. We will also target enemies of peace in and beyond our areas. We know some tribes in Equatoria who have involved in these killings and we are not going to spare them, our action will be enormous. [emphasis added]”
The Dinka are the largest ethnic group in South Sudan, making up approximately 40 percent of the population. They are referred to by some as “MTN,” for the regional cellular company’s tagline “everywhere you go,” the implication being that Dinka are everywhere. While some say that MTN are being targeted, others have pointed out what it would look like if Dinka begin to target non-Dinka. David Matiop Gai writes, “People know it very well that Dinka is MTN, or everywhere and if MTN turn the same side of this tragic death on whoever thinks what they are doing is good, how [sic] will South Sudan look like?”
South Sudanese friends and colleagues that I am in touch with regularly express their deep concerns about the increasingly dangerous and genocidal rhetoric that is coming out of South Sudan. Many worry South Sudan is approaching a Rwanda-like level of violence, and they fear that not enough will be done to prevent that from happening.
The August 2015 peace agreement is dead, and as of now there is no functioning roadmap toward peace. The longer this conflict continues, the more factionalized and fractured the country will become. In the months since July, a number of groups and individuals previously aligned with the government have broken away. The longer peace remains elusive, the more difficult it will be to bring all of these conflicting parties together.
South Sudan is a failed state. The government mainly functions now to continue the war effort and line the pockets of elites close to the President. While the economy has collapsed and millions of South Sudanese are relying on international aid for food, shelter, limited security, and healthcare, the government is buying up small and heavy weapons.
The current leadership has shown time and time again that it is unwilling and unable to end the conflict and provide for its people. The international community must recognize that peace cannot be achieved with the current leadership. Back in July, after violence first broke out, I wrote that a temporary transitional authority must be established in order to bring an end to hostilities and put the country on a path towards a sustainable peace. A sentiment shared by former United States Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, and the Director of the African Center for Strategic Studies and former director of USAID in South Sudan, Kate Almquist Knopf. In “To Save South Sudan, Put It on Life Support” Lyman and Knopf write, “Given South Sudan’s extreme degree of state failure, temporary external administration is the only remaining path to protect and restore its sovereignty. It would empower the people of South Sudan to take ownership of their future and develop a new vision for their country.”
Implementation of such a plan is a long way off, but in the meantime the United States government can and should do more to turn up the pressure on South Sudan’s leaders. You can take action today by clicking the link below to write your Representative to ask them to co-sponsor the “Halt Arms and Promote Peace in South Sudan Act.” Increasing targeted sanctions and implementing an international arms embargo through the United Nations are steps that should immediately be taken.