In mid-December 2013, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) went through an internal power struggle over differences in the vision for the future direction of the party. In the aftermath, the armed wing of the SPLM – the Sudan People’s Liberation Amy (SPLA) – was split into two warring factions: those that supported President Kiir and those that supported the Vice-President Rick Machar. The violence quickly turned into a military/political power struggle with an ethnic dimension: the Dinka (Kiir and his supporters) versus the Nuer (Machar and his supporters). Due to international pressure, the two warring factions held face-to-face talks on January 23 and later on the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-led peace talks, but both sides violated all peace deals so far.
Political and Military Power Struggle
The first factor is the military and political power struggles. The current conflict actually has a precedent in the modern history of South Sudan. Today’s internal split in the SPLM/A is very similar to the one that took place in 1991, when Machar challenged the then-leader of the SPLA, John Garang, due to differences over the vision for the future South Sudan country. That split was also along the same ethnic lines: Machar and his supporters from the Nuer tribe against Garang and his Dinka supporters. Now, it is President Kiir who is from the Dinka tribe and his supporters are also Dinka. In both cases, the internal split led to ethnic violence across the country where many civilians were killed by both factions.
To truly understand the conflict, it is important to examine why Machar was able to mobilize such a large number of supporters in a short amount of time. The reason is pre-existing competition and ethnic cleavages between these two tribes, the Nuer and the Dinka, which is another reason for persistent insecurity in South Sudan. They are the largest tribes in South Sudan and are both cattle herding tribes. Since in South Sudan cattle is a crucial source of livelihood, the tribes often participate in cattle raids against each other, which contributes to a never-ending cycle of revenge. The 1991 SPLA split contributed to these pre-existing cultural prejudices and ethnic cleavages thus allowing both sides to quickly gain supporters for their cause.
Furthermore, Machar was also able to mobilize the White Army. This group is composed of mostly young Nuer and was originally created to help protect the cattle and conduct cattle raids against neighbouring tribes, who were often Dinka. As a result, White Army soldiers have great animosity towards the Dinka. This Army played an important part in the 1991 Bor massacre, when it supported Machar and his troops in killing around 2,000 Dinka civilians. After Machar failed to gain leadership over the SPLA in 1991, the White Army returned to its original purpose, but it never disarmed. As a result, Machar was able to quickly mobilize it when the fighting began in December 2013. In addition, South Sudan has been in a state of war for decades and as a result most civilians are well-armed and often have military experience and thus could be quickly mobilized.
Failed Security Sector Reform Process
This rapid mobilization is also an indication of failed security sector reform, which is another contributing factor to the persistent insecurity. Prior to the start of the conflict, the SPLA was guilty of numerous human rights abuses, which contributed to insecurity and civilians’ reliance on arms for protection. To make matters worse, the government increased the soldiers’ salaries in 2011, which made poorly paid civilian work very unattractive, which impeded Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) efforts. In addition, the government failed to trim and professionalize the army. After the SPLA/M came to power, it was decided that the best strategy to control various rebel groups was to absorb them into the SPLA. Unfortunately, military integration is often full of challenges. For instance, this policy compromised government’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force and increased the proliferation of arms. Although the absorption of various rebel groups made the SPLA more ethnically balanced overall, the Nuer soldiers held lower-ranking positions in the army, while the Dinka dominated the top ranks. In addition, no efforts were made to reconcile the soldiers from the two tribes and units often functioned under their former rebel commanders. Lastly, the existing DDR efforts were discriminatory and targeted certain ethnic groups, especially the Nuer who, after being absorbed into the SPLA, represented more than 60% of soldiers. These factors contributed to resentment among Nuer soldiers, created tensions within the army, and facilitated the quick split among ethnic lines when the fighting began.
Corrupt Leadership and Weak Institutions
Another contributing factor to insecurity is corrupt leadership and weak institutions. Granted, after gaining independence, the Government of South Sudan had to build state institutions from almost nothing. Nevertheless, the statebuilding process has been unsatisfactory in the eyes of the people and some members of the SPLA. This is not surprising since Kiir was accused of dictatorial tendencies and his administration was accused of “rampant corruption, inexperience, overt nepotism and tribalism, inefficiency, and indifference to the plight of ordinary citizens.” While the Government allocates much of the budget to a network of dependents and the SPLA, much of the service provision is left in the hands of international NGOs. As a result, South Sudanese are one of the most undereducated people in the world, with poor access to health care services. Unsurprisingly, brain drain is a major issue. Without a better education system, the government will continue to have difficulties recruiting qualified employees to strengthen its institutions. Additionally, without properly functioning state institutions, finding work will remain a difficult issue and crime will be seen as an attractive, or sometimes the only, option. Moreover, the Nuer and the Dinka will continue to rely on their traditional source livelihood, cattle herding, which exacerbates ethnic tensions.
Therefore, South Sudan will have to find a way to address its political and military power struggles, tribal tensions, weak institutions, and failing SSR process before it can find enduring peace. However, it is important to remember that South Sudan is a young country that was born out of decades of war. It is unreasonable to expect it to become fully stable within a few years of gaining independence.