Renewed civil war looms in South Sudan

December 18, 2013.

The sickening smell of unfulfilled vengeance hangs over the fighting that broke out among rival clans in the capital of Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, on Sunday and there is an awful predictability about where it will lead.

At least 500 people have been killed so far and there was a sure sign today that this fighting between the Dinka tribe of President Salva Kiir and the Nuer people led by his sacked Vice-President Riek Machar is to settle old scores. Several people were killed when the violence swiftly spread north up the Nile River from the capital, Juba, to Bor, the capital of central Jonglei province.

It was at Bor in late 1991 that Nuer fighters loyal to Machar attacked Dinka soldiers, killing about 2,000 people. However, Machar’s fighters went on to destroy Dinka villages and farms, sparking a famine in which about 25,000 people are believed to have died.

Diplomats and outside observers in Juba are warning that South Sudan, a country the size of France with 11 million people, could easily topple back into the deadly spiral of war and famine that has been the curse of its people for decades.

The United States embassy is evacuating all non-essential citizens and the United Nations is warning of a “full fledged civil war” unless there is dialogue between the two sides. About 20,000 people have fled to UN refugee camps in and around Juba.

President Kiir has said he is ready for dialogue, according to his spokesman, but there are no signs that talks are likely to begin soon.

What is known as the “Bor Massacre” of 1991 came at the height of the 20-year civil war in which the Christian and animist black Africans of southern Sudan fought for independence from their Muslim Arab rulers in the north.

A reconciliation between Machar and Kiir was cobbled together in 2002, allowing a semblance of unity under the banner of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) ahead of independence in July, 2011.

The birth of South Sudan was not an easy one. It came amid continued fighting with the north over ownership of oil reserves along the border region. Much of the border remains disputed, although the Juba government now receives about $400 million a month in oil revenues.

This income has failed to inject any sense of purpose into the Kiir government to develop what remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Instead Kiir has faced mounting domestic and international criticism for his government’s lack of focus, except for how ministers and officials can most swiftly pocket the oil revenues.

Machar publicly apologised last year for the Bor Massacre, but the relationship between him and President Kiir has gone from bad to worse.

Machar has been open about his intention to run against Kiir for the presidency in the next election. He has also repeatedly accused Kiir of dictatorial instincts.

Kiir responded by firing Machar as part of a cabinet shuffle in July. The President also took the opportunity to sideline another rival, Pagan Amum, the secretary-general of the SPLM.

There are now strong suspicions and some evidence that the fighting in Juba and Bor is a continuation of Kiir’s campaign to rid himself of his political enemies.

Kiir has claimed that the fighting was the result of an attempted coup by Machar and his followers.

At least 10 senior political figures have been arrested, including the ministers of the interior, finance and justice, and five other ministers. Arrest warrants have been issued for Machar, Amum and Taban Deng Gai, a highly influential former provincial governor also sacked by Kiir earlier this year.

Machar has vehemently denied to the local online newspaper, the Sudan Tribune, that there was a coup attempt. Kiir, he said, is using clashes over the weekend between factions of the presidential guard to claim there was an attempted overthrow of the government as an excuse to go after his political rivals.

Machar told the news site he is still in South Sudan, but did not say where.

Political rivalries in South Sudan do not fall neatly along tribal lines. Kiir faces contests for control of the SPLM from Dinka and Nuer politicians alike.

As the struggle for power spills from the political platform to the battlefield, however, the tribal divisions are likely to harden.

There has been violence between Nuer and Dinka in Upper Nile, Unity and Lakes provinces for some months. The greatest tribal friction and persistent communal violence, however, is in Bor and Jonglei province.

The fate of South Sudan now rests on how successfully politicians exploit the violence in and around Bor for their own ends.

It should not be forgotten either, that the Sudan government in Khartoum might well use conflict and disorder in the south to forcefully reassert its claims to territory in the border regions.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013