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

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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.

Download our South Sudan Fact Sheet (PDF).

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.

After nearly two years of horrific violence, and a number of signed and subsequently violated ceasefire agreements, the two sides signed the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan. Significant pressure from the United States and regional powers helped push the two sides to sign the agreement. The agreement sets out a plan for the creation of a transitional government, power sharing between Kiir and Machar, transitional justice and reconciliation, and a timeline for the creation of a permanent constitution.

Challenges Ahead

Despite the signing of the peace agreement, there are still major challenges to achieving a lasting peace in South Sudan. Splinter groups that did not sign the peace agreement threaten continued violence, and it remains to be seen whether Machar has full command and control over the majority of the forces that were loyal to him. Human rights abuses continue and serious humanitarian challenges persist.

UN Photo/Isaac Billy - Riek Machar and Salva Kiir

Riek Machar & Salva Kiir. Photo by Isaac Billy/UN.

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.

One of the biggest questions that remains is whether Kiir and Machar, who fought a brutal civil war against each other, can work together to create a truly durable peace. The current challenge is that the transitional government and the international community must respond to both a grave humanitarian crisis and support long-term sustainable programs that will facilitate good governance and prevent future conflict.

JWW will continue to push for long-term solutions to conflict prevention in South Sudan, as well as international aid being contingent on benchmarks of peace and the respect of human rights. Follow our Blog for updates on South Sudan.