South Sudan: where now?

Published: 19 Dec 2013
By: Lucy Hovil

South Sudan is currently on the edge. Reports of an alleged attempted coup in South Sudan on Sunday 15 December were followed by days of reports of firefights all over the capital Juba. On December 19, these were followed by the news that the town of Bor in Jonglei state has fallen to rebel forces allegedly under the command of former vice-president Riek Machar. Machar has claimed that there was no coup attempt and that he is merely trying to counter the “dictatorial” tendencies of President Salva Kiir. Either way, two of the most powerful men in the country stand at the centre of a tense stand-off and the possibility of a return to civil war cannot be discounted.

As a woman who had recently returned to Kajo Keji in southern Sudan said in August 2010, “Above all, we need peace forever in Sudan” (see paper here).  The possibility of peace was the basis on which she had made the decision to return to her home area after years of living in exile in Uganda. And at that time, there was much optimism: the southern part of the country was shortly due to become its own state after decades of abuse by a centralised source of power that was, and still is, profoundly unjust. At the time she said this, the majority of people who were legally defined as “Sudanese” had had little, if any, ability to influence political processes in their country, and this political exclusion lay at the root of numerous conflicts: all of the conflicts reflected, at some level, the reality of people living on the peripheries, experiencing a second class form of citizenship, unable to participate meaningfully in the political governance of their country.

But this optimism was also balanced by pragmatism born of the fact that secession had come at a heavy price. It was the result of the longest standing conflict in the country, spanning two civil wars between the geographical south of the country and the central government in which countless lives and livelihoods were decimated. The war officially ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on 9 January 2005 followed by a vote on secession, and the South received independence on 9 July 2011. The optimism of secession was also tempered by an overarching question: would the new state usher in a new era of equal citizenship for those in the South that would override the tensions and divisions of the old Sudan; or would the new dispensation in South Sudan simply replicate the exclusionary tactics of the regime it had fought against, merely replacing the Khartoum elite with a new Juba based clique?

At the heart of recent developments in South Sudan, therefore, are questions over the kind of polity that is emerging. To what extent does the new state continue to emphasise political and social divisions that have created so much violence and destruction in the past? And to what extent has it managed to break with the past and build its future on something more robust – on inclusive forms of citizenship?

Of course, for a state that is officially only two and a half years old, it is far too early to answer these questions. But the recent violence is a worrying signal at a number of levels. First, the country remains politically divided, and the political division between Kiir and Machar is not new. Machar fought both with and against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the civil war and in 1997 signed a separate peace deal with Khartoum. Although Machar returned to the SPLA in 2002, the tensions – and the memory of his wartime behaviour – remained strong. In July, Machar was dismissed as Vice-President along with the entire cabinet after Machar indicated that he might challenge Kiir for party leadership before the 2015 elections. Machar now claims that he is fighting for a more inclusive polity, but his somewhat dubious role in the war undermines his legitimacy in the eyes of many South Sudanese.

Second, the potential to mobilise people along ethnic lines is considerable. Although both Kiir and Machar have made an effort to focus on the political nature of their dispute, they are from different ethnic groups and have strong, though not necessarily exclusive, bases of power among those groups. Troops loyal to Machar are accused of ethnically based killings of Dinka during the civil war and the Dinka are often seen as favoured by the current government, both of which foster tensions among ethnic groups. Reports that members of Machar’s Nuer group are being targeted in Juba following the coup attempt only exacerbate these concerns. It would be a tragedy if the government allowed such ethnic configurations of conflict to become further entrenched, and the media needs to resist the temptation to present this complex conflict through an exclusive lens of ethnicity.

Third, there are numerous armed groups that are still active throughout the country – armed and unemployed. Indeed, Bor, the town now allegedly under the control of forces loyal to Machar, has previously been the sight of fighting with Yau Yau rebels. Fourth, South Sudan’s future cannot be divorced from events in Sudan. Just as the CPA failed to resolve other conflicts in the former Sudan, the outbreak of a reignited conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states (in Sudan) at the point of the South’s secession has created a new wave of displacement to South Sudan, along with accusations that the rebels there are being supported by South Sudan. The government of South Sudan has countered this by accusing Sudan of supporting rebels on their territory.

This toxic combination of factors is deeply concerning, and the very integrity of the South Sudan state is under threat. However, while the recent outbreak of fighting is devastating, particularly for those directly affected by it, a return to war is by no means inevitable. While there is much that is currently working against the creation of an inclusive state, the parties can show restraint and the people of South Sudan can demand much better. At the end of the day, while ethnicity, the presence of arms and the proximity to the Sudanese pariah state are all factors working against stability in the country, the possibility for inclusive citizenship – for a polity built on inclusion rather than exclusion – remains.

Programmes: Causes of Displacement
Regions: Great Lakes Region, South Sudan
Type: IRRI Blog