South-Sudan, ethnic civil war

By | 10/01/2014

Map South Sudan in the globe    South Sudan geographics

Formed from the 10 southern-most states of Sudan, and with its capital in Juba, the Republic of South Sudan is a land of expansive grassland, swamps and tropical rain forest straddling both banks of the White Nile. It limits south of Sudan, north of Uganda and Kenya and west of Ethiopia. It is also bordered by Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

South Sudan is highly diverse ethnically and linguistically. Among the largest ethnic groups are the Dinka (35.8%), Nuer (15.6%) and Shilluk. South Sudanese speak English, which is the official language of the country, but also Arabic (including Juba and Sudanese variants) and regional languages such as Dinka, Nuer, Bari, Zande or Shilluk.

Unlike the predominantly Muslim population of Sudan, the South Sudanese follow traditional/animist religions, while a minority is Christians.

South Sudan has the 3rd population growth ratio in the World, and it is sadly the country where maternal mortality rate is higher. The literacy ratio is low and HIV/AIDS and other major infectious diseases risk is very high.

        Dinka     South Sudanese citizens wave their flags as they attend the Independence Day celebrations in the capital Juba


Political system

The President is both chief of state and head of government, and since the independence, Salva Kiir Mayardit, from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement or SPLM, holds the position, having been previously, since 2005, Vice-President of Sudan and President of southern Sudan. He comes from the Dinka community, the largest ethnic group in the south.

               Salva Kiir Mayardit        South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni at the mausoleum of John Garang. Celebrations marking 3 years of independence (Juba on 9,7,2014)

The president is elected by popular vote for a four-year term. The last election was held on April 2010 (Kiir having a 93%, vs. 7% Akol, from opposition party SPLM-DC), and the next are to be held next year, in 2015. The National Council of Ministers is appointed by the president and approved by a resolution from the Legislative Assembly.

The last one consists in a bicameral National Legislature; the National Legislative Assembly, on the one hand, with 332 seats and the Council of States, on the other hand, with 50 seats. Its members serve four-year terms.


South Sudan flag

South Sudan, the World’s newest country, gained independence from Sudan 9th July 2011, with an overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voting to secede in a referendum, as the outcome of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war.

Egypt attempted to colonize the region of southern Sudan by establishing the province of Equatoria in the 1870s. Afterwards, Islamic Mahdist revolutionaries overran the region in 1885, but in 1898 a British force was able to overthrow the Mahdist regime. An Anglo-Egyptian Sudan was established then the following year, with Equatoria being the southernmost of its eight provinces.

The isolated region was largely left to itself over the following decades, but Christian missionaries converted much of the population and facilitated the spread of English. When Sudan gained its independence in 1956, it was with the understanding that the southerners would be able to participate fully in the political system.

When the Arab Khartoum government reneged on its promises, a mutiny began that led to two prolonged periods of conflict (1955-1972 and 1983-2005) in which perhaps 2.5 million people, mostly civilians, died due to starvation and drought.

During the first civil war, the southern separatist movement Anya Nya fought the north, and socialist and communists, lead by Col Yaafar Muhammad Numeiry seized power, conceding a measure of autonomy for southern Sudan.

                                Anya Nya    Col Yaafar Mohammed Numeiry

Then again, in 1983, fighting broke out between north and south Sudan, under leadership of John Garang‘s Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), after Sudanese President Numeiri abolished South Sudan’s autonomy. The military seized power in 1989, and in 2001 Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan Al-Turabi’s party, the Popular National Congress, signed a memorandum of understanding with the southern rebel SPLM’s armed wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

After 22 years of Civil War that cost the lives of an estimated four million southern Sudanese, the ongoing peace talks finally resulted in a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in January 2005. As part of this agreement the south was granted a six-year period of autonomy to be followed by a referendum on its final status. The result of this referendum, held in January 2011, was a vote of 98% in favor of secession. Independence was attained on 9 July 2011, as said.

Since the independence, South Sudan has struggled with good governance and nation building and has attempted to control rebel militia groups operating in its territory, intensely fighting even since the 2005 peace deal. Economic conditions have deteriorated since January 2012 when the government decided to shut down oil production following bilateral disagreements with Sudan.

Today’s situation

Soon after the end of the Second Civil War, the country slid towards civil war amid a power struggle, between the President and his deputy whom he had sacked. In June 2013, President Kiir dismissed Finance Minister Kosti Manibe and Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor over a multi-million dollar financial scandal, and lifted their immunity from prosecution. Soon after, he dismissed the entire cabinet and his former deputy Machar, from the Nuer community, in a power struggle within governing SPLM.

Rebel leader Riek Machar, who was on the run, was charged with treason, as some of his allies. They point that this accusations are “baseless” and threaten a ceasefire signed in late January 2014.

                 New recruits for the SPLA train in a secret camp in the Nuba mountains     South Sudan army today

Since December 2013, when Kiir accused Machar of plotting to overthrow him, violence has spread into a full-scale conflict, with reports of ethnic killing, as rebel fractions seized control of several regional towns. Foreigners were then evacuated and Uganda’s troops intervened to support the government.

Beginning of 2014, a ceasefire was signed, but broken several times, and by July, the UN Security Council described the food crisis (with more than a million displaced, slaughter of thousands and five million in need of humanitarian aid) as the worst in the World.

By today, peace talks are being held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Territorial disputes

The final sovereignty status of Abyei Area is still pending on negotiations between South Sudan and Sudan, being now a “special administrative status” by the 2004 Protocol on the Resolution of the Abyei Conflict, which was part of the comprehensive Peace Agreement that put an end to the Second Sudanese Civil War in 2005.

The conflict is rooted in a dispute over land between farmers of the pro-South Sudan Dinka Ngok people and cattle-herding Misseriya Arab tribesmen.

Abyei’s rich oil reserves make the region economically desirable to both Sudan and South Sudan. Its border location has also led to conflicting ethnic, cultural, and linguistic claims. Resolving the status of the Abyei Area is one of the essential steps Sudan and South Sudan need to take to ensure long-term peace in the region.

In July 2009, North and South Sudan said they accepted ruling by arbitration court in The Hague shrinking disputed Abyei region and placing the major Heglig oil field in the north.

                                     Abyei Conflict                 Ilemi Triangle

Likewise, Ilemi Triangle is another disputed land bordering Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan, at the north-western corner of Lake Turkana.Despite use and raids by tribes within Ethiopia, the Ethiopian government has never made an official claim on any of the Ilemi and in fact agreed that the land was all Sudanese in 1902, 1907, and 1972 treaties, but Kenya now has de facto control of the area.

Families displaced by bombing and fighting live in caves near Kurchi

Another border conflict zone is the Nuba Mountains region of Sudan’s South Kordofan state, where violence continues between the largely Christian and pro-SPLA Nuba people and northern government forces. The Sudanese government maintained heavy military presence in the region and even prospective “popular consultations” on their eventual were seen likely to be barred.

UNHCR suspends returns to Sudan's Jonglei state

Inside South Sudan, a cattle-raiding feud between rival ethnic groups in Jonglei state, declared a disaster in January 2012, has left hundreds of people dead and some 100000 displaced since independence. Aside from the intense tribal infighting, it has also been heavily influenced by the broader South Sudanese conflict since December 2013.



South Sudan has one of Africa’s least developed economies. After several decades of civil war, the country’s industry and infrastructure are severely underdeveloped, for instance, the country has only 250 paved roads.

Poverty is widespread, and subsistence agriculture provides a living for the vast majority of the population. South Sudan depends largely on imports of goods, services, and capital, mainly from Uganda, Kenya and Sudan.

Property rights are insecure and price signals are weak, because markets are not well organized.

Oil and other natural resources, however, account for almost all of government revenues (oil representing almost 98%), but relationship with Sudan complicates the industry. Since the conflict began, oil production fell drastically. At independence in 2011, South Sudan produced nearly three-fourths of former Sudan’s total oil output of nearly a half million barrels per day. In January 2012 South Sudan suspended production of oil because of its dispute with Sudan over transshipment fees (GDP declined 48% that year).

                             Oil exports       South Sudan annual Consumer Price Index (CPI)

Donors South SudanOil is exported through two pipelines that run to refineries and shipping facilities at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. That links South Sudanese economy inevitably. A deal in March 2013 provided for Sudan to resume pumping South Sudanese oil in May, and created a demilitarized border zone.

The outbreak of the conflict by the end of 2013, combined with a further reduction of oil exports, means that GDP growth forecasts for 2014 are being revised downwards again, and poverty and food insecurity are rising, in the country which presents, by far, the highest GDP real growth rate* (*comparing GDP growth on an annual basis adjusted for inflation), being 24.70%.

Also, the increased military spending implies that the country is currently burdened by considerable debt, having received more than $4 billion in foreign aid since 2005.


The March 2013 agreements between Sudan and South Sudan to resume pumping oil after a bitter dispute over fees that saw production shut down more than a year earlier, and the withdrawal of troops from their border area to create a demilitarized zone, are both signals of a bettering relation between the countries.

The role of Sudan and other neighboring countries should be of support for the return and reintegration of hundreds of thousands of refugees, as well as cooperation with the UN three-year South Sudan Development Plan, which heavily relays on its collaboration.

                   Displaced family in South Sudan          UN mission in South Sudan

More than 50.6% of South Sudanese live below the poverty line. Long-term economic challenges include diversifying the formal economy, alleviating poverty, maintaining macroeconomic stability, improving tax collection and financial management and improving the business environment.

This is not easy to attain, as conflicts buffer constantly South Sudan; with the fighting in Abyei between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the SPLA in May 2011, the clashes between the SPLA and dissident militia groups, the inter-ethnic conflicts over resources and cattle, the attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army and natural disasters such as floods and drought..

Another important issue in South Sudan not to be forgotten is that UNICEF reported 250 confirmed cases of the SPLA’s association with children at the end of 2012. The Government of South Sudan signed a revised action plan with the UN in March 2012 to demobilize all child soldiers within the SPLA, but it has not demonstrated evidence of increasing efforts to address other forms of trafficking.

An International response should be heard to make the ceasefire effective. A good media coverage and presence of the conflict might be the first step towards a caring International Community on South Sudan crisis.

Targeting sanctions, as the Security Council had been doing so far, to make the UN respected, will only hold aid to needy people. An active effort to try to bring the two sides together is necessary, and maybe the US Diplomacy, who had such an active role during the independence progress (hosting the Africa’s Summit), should lead the cause.

There is a lot of work to do; some of the challenges the country faces are, above all, ending political instability and inter-tribal conflicts, but also bettering the infrastructure, diversifying and developing the economy and having a higher human capital (by improving the literacy ratio, poverty and sanitation).

One thought on “South-Sudan, ethnic civil war

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