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The Tinderbox of South Sudan

Riek Machar (left) and Salva Kiir visit the tomb of John Garang in otherwise happier days. (Photo:

Riek Machar (left) and Salva Kiir visit the tomb of John Garang in otherwise happier days. (Photo:

South Sudan, the world’s youngest state, faces a serious prospect of ethnic civil war. When it gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, after decades of war between north and south, the world’s attention was focused on the disputed territory of Abyei. A declining oil-producing region Inhabited by southern farmers and visited regularly by northern nomads watering their herds, Abyei was seen as a potential trigger for renewed warfare between north and south. Instead, both north and south have been the scenes of internal fighting. Yet, while internal war was not the focus of attention, the deck was always stacked against South Sudan in this regard. Civil war is common in new states, especially those born of long and bloody wars of independence. South Sudan also shows how the solution to one problem can set the stage for the next one.

The main challenge facing South Sudan is a common dilemma in new African states. Political scientist Philip Roessler calls it “the coup–civil war trap.” This occurs in states where institutions are weakly developed—replaced, in essence, by personalistic rulers—and national identity is weak to nonexistent, but ethnic identity is strong and local politics tends to be organized in terms of ethnic groups or their subsets, such as tribes or clans. National elites realize that war between the ethnic groups is a potential threat and that the most effective way to prevent it is for the rulers to coopt their rivals, that is, to bring all the major groups’ leaders within the system and give them a stake in sustaining it. Unfortunately, they also realize that bringing political rivals into the system increases their power and their ability to seize control from within. Hence the dilemma: bringing rivals within the ruling coalition raises the top leader’s fear that they could use their new-found power against him; excluding them from the coalition raises their fear that the top leader has ulterior motives and may plan to eliminate them and their groups altogether, raising the risk of civil war. In either situation, the side that sees itself as threatened could feel pressure to preempt.

The background of ethnic violence is long and deep. Most of unified Sudan’s independent history was taken up by two civil wars between the Arabized, Muslim north and the African, animist/Christian south. The second civil war began in 1983, after a ten-year cease-fire, yet between 1991 and 2002, most of the fighting occurred between southern ethnic-based factions. On one side was the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), led by John Garang of the Dinka people; on the other was a breakaway group of the SPLA led by Riek Machar of the Nuer people.* In 2002, however, the two sides reconciled and reunited into the SPLA. The SPLA, while not particularly effective in a strategic sense, ultimately convinced the national government in Khartoum that the north could not prevail. In 2005 the warring parties signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Also encouraging in terms of avoiding civil war, in 2006 the late Garang’s successor, Salva Kiir, also of the Dinka, reconciled with the South Sudan Defense Forces (SSDF), a southern force that had sided with Khartoum against the secessionists, and incorporated them into the SPLA. Likewise, the South Sudan Liberation Army was incorporated into the SPLA in 2011. (As you see, the frequent assertion that the South Sudanese had been “unified only by their common antipathy toward the north” is not true; they were not unified then either.) Then, in July 2011, after a referendum in accordance with the CPA, South Sudan was granted independence with Salva Kiir as president, Riek Machar as vice president, and the leader of the SSDF as deputy chief of the army (still called the SPLA).

Yet much of life and politics and administration, including army units, remained organized along ethnic lines. Despite the overwhelming problems of poverty, illiteracy, and virtually nonexistent infrastructure, the majority of the state budget went to salaries in the expanded military, to assure stability not by force but by the cooptation of armed forces. The success in coopting rivals also contributed to paralysis in decision making. Factions differed over multiple issues, such as the distribution of power and wealth and whether to confront Sudan over unfulfilled promises or to cooperate with it to assure the free export of South Sudanese oil through a Sudanese pipeline and port. Kiir increasingly bypassed formal meetings of supposedly ruling institutions and restricted the circle of effective participants in decision making. Machar made known his expectation that he would be the party’s presidential candidate in the next election in 2015.

In July 2013, Kiir dismissed Machar and most of his cabinet. In December a shootout occurred between ethnically based units of the presidential guard. Kiir declared that Machar had attempted a coup, which Machar denied. The army began to unravel along ethnic lines, and fighting spread. Civilians of the rival ethnic groups began to attack each other’s communities. To be sure, neither side had appealed to their co-ethnics to take up arms against the others, yet each side freely accused the other of doing just that in an environment in which tensions were high, competition for scarce resources was keen, and ethnicity was salient.

A number of African leaders are sponsoring peace talks in Ethiopia between the warring South Sudanese factions. It is possible, if not particularly likely, that the fighting can be stopped before it spreads too far. The curious thing is that it is not at all clear—from the limited evidence available to date—that either side even sought this war. The case of South Sudan shows how easily a political dispute between mutually suspicious rival leaders can escalate into open warfare given a certain set of historical, social, and political circumstances.

*The name of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army reflects an earlier ambition to rule the entire country even though it was always based in the south. It later became a southern secessionist movement. Officially, it was the armed wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Although the SPLM had little existence apart from the army, it later became the ruling party. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably or in combination (SPLA/M or SPLM/A), especially when referring to the preindependence period.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.