IDP Camp in Bentiu South Sudan. Photo by JC Mcllwaine/UN. 

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Overview

In December 2013, South Sudan was plunged into civil war. This conflict quickly took on an ethnic dimension, pitting ethnic Dinkas loyal to President Salva Kiir (a Dinka) against ethnic Nuers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar (a Nuer).

The conflict resulted in widespread mass atrocities (crimes against humanity, war crimes, and possibly even genocide), the deaths of at least 50,000 South Sudanese, the displacement of over two million, and over five million people at risk of severe food insecurity at near famine levels.


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After decades of civil war with northern Sudan, South Sudan became the world’s newest country on July 9, 2011. The fledgling country struggled with issues of corruption, poor governance, tensions with Sudan, intrastate conflict, and fractures within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The initial cause of this conflict was political tension between the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, and his Vice President, Riek Machar. Political disagreements led Kiir to sack his entire cabinet, including Machar, in July 2013, creating a rift between key members of the ruling party.

UNMISS Photo/Staton Winter

South Sudanese celebrate independence day. Photo by Staton Winter/UNMISS.

On December 15, 2013, fighting along ethnic lines broke out between members of the presidential guard of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The exact circumstances of the fighting remains unclear, but President Kiir accused Machar and others of a coup attempt against Kiir, an unsubstantiated claim. The government arrested many of the ex-cabinet officials while Machar fled the capital city of Juba.

The next day targeted killings of Nuer men and boys occurred across the capital and continued throughout the following days. In response to the targeting of Nuer, many Nuer soldiers and civilians rallied behind Machar to launch an armed rebellion against the government, essentially making Kiir’s claim of a coup attempt a self-fulfilling prophecy. Shortly after the full-scale rebellion by the SPLM in opposition (SPLM-IO) was underway, Uganda provided its northern neighbor with significant military support, including heavy weapons, ground troops, and attack helicopters. Without such support, it is unclear whether or not the SPLA would have been able to hold off the rebel forces.

As the conflict has raged on, multiple attempts by the international community to broker a peace have failed. The peace agreement brokered in 2015 was intended to resolve the conflict and create a government of national unity, but the agreement has failed to be implemented. Since 2013, the conflict has grown from a clash between the SPLM and SPLM-IO to include various other armed and political factions that are vying for political and economic power. Some of these groups arose due to frustrations with the status quo; others emerged in response to threats (both perceived and actual) against their communities. The increasing number of factions will make any future attempts at peace negotiations much more difficult.

Violence from all sides has caused the deaths of at least 50,000 people, with some estimates as high as 300,000.Millions have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Widespread food insecurity has been a challenge, with millions of people reliant on food aid to survive, and in early 2017 the UN declared famine in parts of South Sudan. The government has been accused of using food as a weapon of war as they block desperately needed humanitarian aid from getting to their citizens, and continue to purchase weapons instead of providing aid. There is zero accountability, and without serious pressures put on South Sudan’s leaders, this conflict will continue.

Challenges Ahead

A woman with her starving child wait in line for food in South Sudan. Photo by Siegfried Modola/Newscom

Most of the challenges facing the country are similar to those faced shortly after independence, only now the fissures within communities have been exacerbated by two years of fighting. These challenges include, but are not limited to: security sector reform including disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR); relations with Sudan; establishing justice and reconciliation mechanisms; corruption; inter-communal violence; political and constitutional reform; determining the division of power between states and the federal government; and small arms control.

Despite media and international governments’ focus on the displacement and food insecurity in South Sudan, the only way to resolve the humanitarian crisis is to end the conflict. South Sudan needs a durable peace, reconciliation, and a government that provides for its people.

The United Nations, African Union, and United States must apply pressure on the key actors continuing to commit mass atrocities and spoil peace. An arms embargo and international sanctions must be applied. The U.S. must incentivize support from regional nations (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan), who have the most influence in South Sudan, to end the conflict, and apply pressure on South Sudan’s warring factions to end the fighting. In October 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley traveled to South Sudan to understand the conflict dynamics and humanitarian situation. Continued high-level engagement by U.S. officials is imperative, especially as the Trump administration plans to close the office of U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan.