Originally Published 2014-04-21 06:45:33 Published on Apr 21, 2014
South Sudan does not possess the political leadership to resolve the current crisis of citizenship and governance. But it is time for an unbiased state to step in and address vital issues and questions that it did not address immediately after independence for the collective sake of all South Sudanese.
Ethnic violence in South Sudan viewed through a political lens
"The African continent's newest country, divorced from Sudan after much political strife, has placed itself in the international community as a nascent nation with a fledgling government. South Sudan, under the leadership of President Salva Kiir Mayardit, is undergoing rapidly growing complexities which has led to the disruption of almost half a million lives. It is essential to understand the current situation with a backdrop of a post-conflict environment.

Sudan fought two civil wars between 1955 and 2005, which resulted in serious neglect, lack of infrastructural development, and major destruction and displacement. The second civil war came to an end with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 between the Government of Sudan and the rebel forces. The treaty provided for a referendum on South Sudanese independence which was held on 9 January 2011, six years after the original signing. It also gave way to the North-South divide of Sudan.

Southern Sudan became an autonomous region consisting of the ten southern states of Sudan between its formation in July 2005 and independence as the Republic of South Sudan in July 2011. Another consequence of the CPA was the interim Government of South Sudan (GoSS) that took to the political front- a semi-autonomous political body that governed this region up until the independence of South Sudan from Sudan. Salva Kiir, belonging to the Dinka ethnic tribe, was elected as the president of the GoSS. He retained his post, now as president of the Republic of South Sudan, under a transitional constitution after independence, for a four-year term beginning July 9, 2011, with Riek Machar as his Vice-President.

Machar, due to alleged political ambitions, began questioning Kiir's presidential course of action, which he claimed was fast moving towards a dictatorial state of affairs. In July 2013, President Kiir made major changes to his government in a stated effort to not only address governance concerns and to crack down on state corruption, but also as a response to perceived threats to his leadership. He removed Vice President Machar from office as well as his entire cabinet. In December 2013, Kiir ordered Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) Major General Marial Ciennoung, commander of the Presidential Guard (The Tiger Battalion) to disarm all troops at the barracks. After disarming all ethnicities within the guard, Marial ordered that the Dinka members be re-armed. His deputy, from the rival Nuer ethnicity, began to question this order and a fight ensured when surrounding officers saw the commotion. The Nuer soldiers also re-armed themselves, leading to an armed conflict between the Dinka elements of the Presidential Guard and the Nuer elements.

Simultaneously, Machar was accused by the President of a failed coup d'état. Although Machar denied being involved, he praised the rebels for standing up against the ethnic biases carried out by the President. He is now being called the leader of the rebel movement. Kiir's presidential orders and Machar's reactions to the same has had a trickle-down effect on the peoples of South Sudan. The circumstance is a manifestation of a political crisis which has led to ethnically driven violence.

Brutality in the region seems to know no bounds, due to which recent reportage of the crisis by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) cites growing refugee influxes in neighbouring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Sudan. According to UNHCR reports, South Sudan itself provides asylum to 13,600 refugees from the DRC, 6,000 from Ethiopia and 1,600 from the CAR, which is adding to peoples' turmoil.

In the newly independent country, pending the implementation of the "Four Freedoms" agreement between Sudan and South Sudan which allows citizens to enjoy freedom of movement, residence, freedom to undertake economic activity and to acquire and dispose of property, parts of the population remain at high risk of becoming stateless by virtue of being a mixed Sudanese-South Sudanese parentage, originating from border areas, or having resided in Sudan for an extended period of time. Thus, under the 2014 UNHCR operations, the main peoples of concern are refugees, people at risk of becoming stateless, as well as internally displaced people and returnees.

The Dinka-Nuer conflict has resulted in a national food crisis, and with the rains fast approaching may culminate into a "health and hunger catastrophe", noted an UN official. The conflict torn region is susceptible to deadly water-borne diseases. Further, missing the planting season will lead to an increase in food insecurity, which could result in famine levels of malnutrition.

The pressing issues of violence, hunger, and health security in South Sudan are closely linked with political tussles. It has been noted during UN peace talks on South Sudan that the quest for national reconciliation and justice for the victims in the aftermath of political violence is always a political process. In January 2014, a ceasefire was signed between the warring factions in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, but broken several times over subsequent weeks failing to halt fighting on the ground, with both sides accusing each other of violating the terms of the agreement. A second round of peace talks scheduled to take place in March however was delayed due to the issue of who can participate, with the government opposed to including dismissed officials as a part of the process. The regional bloc called Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has been mediating these talks, and has excluded certain rebel factions from participating, but has allowed them to engage in the final stage of the process. IGAD has given the two warring parties -- the government under Kiir and rebel forces allegedly led by Machar -- two weeks before the new round of talks resumes on 22 April.

However, political leaders of both factions have shown little commitment to negotiate political settlements, and are far from restraining their hardliners. South Sudan does not possess the political leadership to resolve the current crisis of citizenship and governance. But it is time for an unbiased state to step in and address vital issues and questions that it did not address immediately after independence for the collective sake of all South Sudanese, leaving aside their petty political differences, which as is being witnessed, fall prey to ethnic violence. Given the prevailing context of crisis, the need of the hour is reconciliation between political adversaries in the country.

(The writer is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.