All is not well in the world’s youngest country. So far, at least eighty people have been reported killed, including more than one dozen civilians, amid sporadic skirmishes in the streets of the South Sudanese capital, Juba. As death toll numbers continue to spiral, doctors are scrambling to attend to the wounded, most of whom are soldiers. Meanwhile, thousands of innocents have fled their homes seeking refuge in UN compounds, whilst unlucky individuals looking to leave have been faced with the closure of the city’s international airport. These scenes, as chaotic as they are, have been compounded by the frustrations of government officials, who are left struggling to make sense of a situation that had at first been described as a failed “coup”. So what, exactly, caused the calamity in South Sudan? The answer, like the ongoing events themselves, may not be so straightforward.
The Violence Begins
In the early morning hours of 16 December 2013, residents in Juba, including foreign nationals, could still hear the sounds of heavy weaponry firing into the distance. The barrage of gunfire would have been fearsome enough, if residents had not already noted the increasing build up of South Sudanese military personnel along the city streets. Whilst Salva Kiir Mayardit’s administration initially remained mum on the issue, the head of state later took to the podium to address the nation, and the world, regarding what had just unfolded in his fledgling nation. According to the embattled head of state, the clashes had been the work of Nuer soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, who had tried to overthrow his government the night before. Cognisant of the implications this statement would have for embassies in South Sudan – both the US and the UK missions subsequently issued warnings claiming that staff would be “restricted” in their movements on 16 December 2013 – President Kiir made it explicitly clear: his government was now in “full control of the military situation”. His statement, however, may have been a gross generalisation, as most analysts remain convinced that the violence in Juba may not have been a mere military overthrow failure. Instead, the violence represented years of built-up animosity between two of the country’s largest tribes: the Dinka and the Nuer. According to reports, the fighting began outside the Juba Military Hospital, situated near the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)’s old headquarters, when a soldier who belonged to President Kiir’s Dinka tribe argued with another officer from Machar’s Nuer ethnic group. What began as an altercation, suddenly devolved into full-scale violence, as armed groups from both the Dinka and the Nuer tribes began fighting along major roadways in Juba. It is believed that amid the clashes, forces had brandished heavy weaponry, including mortars and machine guns. Eventually, soldiers of Nuer background assaulted the Ministry of the Defence building, whilst numerous individuals were left for dead. Tribal Rivalries Apparent For his part, Machar, whom President Kiir later bestowed the sinister title, the “prophet of doom”, denied he had any hand in the violence.
Despite Machar’s assertions otherwise, it remains clear that anti-government forces did attempt to destabilise Kiir’s government, a development which forced the South Sudanese President to issue a dawn-to-dusk curfew on 16 December 2013. However, destabilisation does not necessarily equate to an attempt at an ‘overthrow’. To be sure, the ‘coup attempt’ may actually be linked to frustrations on the part of the Nuer tribe, who allege that Kiir is playing ‘favourites’ by consistently siding with his own ethnic group, the Dinka people. Moreover, many in the Nuer community are still resentful over Kiir’s questionable decision to remove their hero, Machar, from his position as VP, along with the rest of the cabinet in July 2013. Whilst Kiir claimed the cabinet’s removal had been a means to “decrease the size of government”, Machar believed the decision had been motivated by dictatorial designs. Of course, even these spats are only the latest in a series of disputes between the largely pastoral Dinka and Nuer tribes, whose hostilities can be traced back to at least 1898, when the British Empire began interfering in the affairs of the region. Captivated by what is now South Sudan’s proximity to the Nile, the British Government later assumed control of Sudan. Using a foreign policy guided partially by racism and a general feeling of superiority, the British Empire began to suppress the area’s inhabitants, either through administrative changes or conversions to Christianity. This would have a profound effect on the Sudanese people, who, before the arrival of the Ottomans – the British Empire’s imperial predecessors in the region – had been used to living along tribal lines, rather than political ones instituted by Westeners. Suddenly, the Dinka, the Nuer, and the more than 500 other communities living within Sudan, had been amalgamated into one government – one that was ultimately led by officials from as far away as Egypt and Great Britain. Although the UK had ostensibly tried to “unify” the region, the British intrusion actually resembled more of a “divide and conquer” policy. Whilst some ethnic groups, such as the Dinka, were generally perceived to be more ‘hospitable’ toward their British colonisers, others, including many in the Nuer community, were allegedly not as accommodating. This deepened the fissures already present among some ethnic groups, whose remarkable cultural similarities belied a sense of competition and distrust.
What Next For a Fledgling Nation?
In the years since Sudan finally gaining independence from the UK and Egypt in 1956, members of both the Dinka and Nuer tribes have continuously engaged in a series of clashes, most of which have centred around cattle raids. Only during the fight for the independence of South Sudan, which was later achieved in 2011, did the two sides seem to come together in the vein of a tired proverb: ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Now that the country has reached more than two years of age, the gulf between the two tribal groups appears to be widening. This should be a frightful turn of events for President Kiir, who had once promised to end his country’s “internal” hostilities. Going forward, the South Sudanese leader may have little choice but to fulfil his earlier promises to bring peace between the tribal groups, or face more threats from Machar and his supporters. Prospects of further assaults against Kiir’s administration should not be discounted. Even before promising to “challenge” Kiir for the presidency in the upcoming 2015 elections, the former VP had already been made famous for his previous “mini-coups” targeting members of the Dinka community. Indeed, amid the battle for independence in 1991, Machar tried to oust Dinka leader, and Commander of the SPLA, John Garang. Whilst this overthrow failed, Machar managed to elicit even more support from his fellow Nuer tribesmen, which eventually led to bloodshed across the south. On the other hand, painting Machar as a ‘menace’ and a man seeking an overthrow may be exactly what President Kiir wants. Machar could be a scapegoat for Kiir’s plans to solidify his hold on the South Sudanese Government, and by deflecting the country’s problems on the former VP, the President could be paving the way for a crackdown on his rival’s supporters. In the end, however, the world may just have to wait and see, and hope that Kiir lives up to his earlier vows of peace and prosperity in the world’s newest nation.