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Ceasefire aborted: secession, rebellion, and bloody conflict in South Sudan

By Benjamin Hale - posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The secession of South Sudan in 2011 was greeted with much fanfare throughout the globe, with some commentators labelling it as a new beginning for the war ravaged country. This mood of optimism would quickly dissipate. Within three years the newly founded country would be plunged into a vicious civil war which has already claimed over 10,000 lives and displaced over half a million South Sudanese citizens according to UN spokesman,Farhan Haq. The rapid spread of violence throughout the country followed armed clashes between rival tribal groups within the presidential guards in the capital of Juba on the 15th of December, 2013.

The clashes began when South Sudanese President, Salva Kiir,accused Vice President, Riek Machar, along with 6 other senior politicians, of attempting a military coup, which quickly developed into a full scale conflict between forces loyal to the president and those loyal to Machar. The conflict has since taken on an ethnic dimension between the two dominant tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer peoples, which have sided with the president and the rebel forces, respectively. Although a ceasefire was officially reached last week it has been ineffectual in quelling the violence, as armed conflict quickly resurfaced throughout Unity State, Upper Nile and Jonglei State.

Despite protestations of surprise and dismay by many commentators about the breakdown of the ceasefire, I argue that it was doomed to fail from the very beginning. The ceasefire's failure to address the underlying causes of the conflict, together with Sudan's ethnic divisions, made lasting peace under those terms untenable. Many of the problems still plaguing South Sudan, such as ethnic tensions, regional resistance to state power and the states' inability to effectively govern its remote provinces are a legacy of the colonial and post-colonial administration of Sudan. The blundering attempts by the various northern-based Sudanese administrations to reign in and control Southern Sudan militarily further exacerbated regional underdevelopment and increased resistance to state influence, resulting in the two Sudanese civil wars. These conflicts fought between 1962 to 1972 and 1983 to 2002 were fought along ethnic/religious fault lines and created very real ethnic and religious grievances which continue to divide not only North and South Sudan but tribal groupings within Southern Sudan.


These wars along with the brutal repression carried out in Darfur recently were not only an expression of long-standing tensions between North and South Sudan, but also reflected the growth of peripheral autonomy and widespread resistance towards central government throughout the Southern populace. Additionally, Khartoum's social and ethnic marginalisation of groups in Sudan's remote provincesduring this period created regional underdevelopment and structural problems related to both controlling and providing for the populace in its periphery. Although the succession of South Sudan in 2011 effectively liberated the region from northern administrative control, many of the problems created during this period still linger on and threaten to undermine the legitimacy of democracy in the fledgling nation. Much like its predecessor the government of South Sudan lacks the capacity to provide basic utilities for much of the population and faces resistance from many regions in the periphery especially those dominated by rival tribal identities.

Although the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army enjoyed overwhelming popularity during the Second Sudanese Civil War and the period immediately after, many factions within this paramilitary force were unhappy with the shape of the South Sudanese constitution and especially the dominance of Dinkas within the state apparatus. The South Sudanese government quashed dissent with brutal efficiency, burning down 7,000 homes in Unity State in 2011, and thereby further undermining its legitimacy as a democratic government. In addition, tensions between the Nuer and Murle tribes stoked by the previous Khartoum administration, has led to prolonged but intermittent conflict in the region, with the Neur White Army threatening to "wipe-out" the entire Murle tribe. The ethnic tensions throughout Southern Sudan between the Dinka and Nuer tribes amongst others led the CIA to issue a warning in 2010 that "over the next five years,...a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan", a prediction which has been fatefully fulfilled.

The utterfailure of the ceasefire to end the ongoing conflict is also unsurprising considering the lack of interest either party has in accepting the terms of a temporary ceasefire and the difficulties of restraining ethnic violence once it has been released. At first, both sides vacillated, pushing back signing the ceasefire for weeks in an attempt to capture more territory and thereby gain more leverage. However the success of government forces in retaking a number of major towns has disincentivised a peaceful solution, as the government is gaining steam to decisively put an end to the insurgency, whilst the rebels are desperate to regain the upper hand. Furthermore, the lack of military discipline amongst Mr Machar's forces which consists of loyalists, local militia and other autonomous groups makes the realities of a ceasefire unsustainable.

Resistance to state power and regional underdevelopment among peripheral regions, alongside ethnic tensions between the Dinka and Nuer peoples and other tribes, presents a formidable challenge to lasting peace in South Sudan. Furthermore, so long as the rebel forces and South Sudanese armed forces lack the will to cease hostilities, a peaceful solution is simply not attainable. In addition, the escalation of the conflict along ethnic/tribal fault lines has unleashed a terrible impetus to civil war which may be unstoppable. As such, in my view the only way to end this conflict before it escalates further is through sustained international pressure on both factions to accept a comprehensive political deal.

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About the Author

Benjamin Hale is an honours graduate and PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University in the field of politics and international relations with a specific focus on Africa.

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