South Sudan Post-Independence: Things Fall Apart


Three years into its independence, South Sudan faces multiple crises on political, security, and humanitarian fronts. After almost a decade of relative peace following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with Sudan in 2005, a political dispute within South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), devolved into armed conflict in December 2013. The jubilance and optimism that accompanied the new country’s independence from Sudan in July 2011 were eroded; in their wake, prospects for a peace dividend have become bleak.

This was not the war that many had anticipated following the signing of the CPA and South Sudan’s subsequent independence. That war would have been a reprise of North–South conflict that characterized the first (1956–1972) and second (1983–2005) Sudanese civil wars. Rather, the conflict that emerged in South Sudan could be understood as a continuation of unresolved South–South tensions that were, arguably, never adequately addressed by the CPA. Contrary to its name, the CPA was an elite bargain between Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party and the strongest element of the southern resistance, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

During the post-CPA period, President Salva Kiir adopted a “large tent” approach to government in South Sudan, co-opting those who had fought the SPLM/A during the war against the government of Sudan. This conciliatory approach was not only pragmatic, but also necessary to maintain the cohesion of southern Sudan in preparation for the January 2011 referendum on independence. However, the new political dispensation that came with independence unearthed the underlying fissures within the ruling party.

The shot, so to speak, was Kiir’s decision to sack his entire cabinet last July, including then-Vice President Riek Machar. With Machar having attempted to wrest control of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) by force in the 1990s at a critical point in its struggle against the government of Sudan, many feared that his dismissal might catalyze a new rebellion — this time against the government of an independent South Sudan. But much has happened since. Machar spent the past decade since returning to the SPLM/A attempting to repair his tarnished image and promote himself as a potential successor to Kiir. Therefore, Machar chose to try and gain power through legitimate means.

With the SPLM’s legacy as freedom fighters-turned-political party (hence the acronym SPLM/A), the ruling party’s powerful brand makes them the only show in town. Thus, in order to regain political power in the run-up to elections planned for in 2015, Machar and other disaffected members of the party would have to rely on internal party mechanisms to wrest power from Kiir. By replacing him as chairman of the SPLM, the new party leader would become its presidential candidate in 2015, and de facto future president of South Sudan, since there was limited opposition. However, this scenario was never allowed to play out.

The chaser, so to speak, came on December 15 following a meeting of the SPLM’s National Liberation Council when an attempt to disarm ethnic Nuer members of the Presidential Guard erupted in a gunfight. By the following day, Kiir had ditched his trademark black 10-gallon Stetson for army fatigues, accusing Machar, via televised press conference, of plotting a coup. Denouncing his former vice president as a “Prophet of Doom,” Kiir alluded to the events of 1991 in which Machar, Lam Akol, and Gordon Kong defected from the SPLA, thereby unleashing an ethnic conflict within southern Sudan that occurred as a subset to the broader southern resistance to the government in Khartoum. Meanwhile, Machar was able to evade capture and fled Juba, while several less fortunate opposition leaders were rounded up and held in detention for several months. Having made his way to the bush, Machar denied that he had attempted to oust Kiir by coup. Yet by the end of the week, he was claiming that SPLA commanders who had defected in parts of the Greater Upper Nile and had pledged their support for him in the initial days of the crisis were, indeed, under his command.

The end result was that in a matter of days, the excrement had hit the oscillating unit in South Sudan.

In the weeks and months that followed, the fighting spread from Juba, causing cities such as Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal to switch hands multiple times between the government and anti-government forces. Caught off guard by how rapidly the situation in South Sudan unraveled, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was unable to prevent the situation from deteriorating further, or provide sufficient civilian protection within conflict-afflicted areas. Fortunately for the government (and unfortunately for the rebels), neighboring Uganda deployed its military to evacuate Ugandan nationals and secure strategic installations in Juba. Later, it was revealed that Uganda was actually involved in combat operations in support of the government. This created a rather awkward dynamic in the region, as Uganda was also a member of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development , which was taking the lead on mediating the crisis.

A cascade of signed, yet largely ignored, agreements followed: a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement on January 23, a Recommitment on Humanitarian Matters in the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement on May 5, and an Agreement to Resolve the Crisis in South Sudan on May 9. Upon the release of Machar’s alleged co-conspirators, the former political detainees created the SPLM-G11 (Group of 11) to participate in peace negotiations between the government and the SPLM-in-Opposition, whilst denying any splits in the anti-government camp. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2155 (2014) restructuring the mandate of UNMISS such that it could focus on civilian protection, monitoring and investigating human rights, creating the conditions for delivery of humanitarian assistance, and supporting the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement.

With the rainy season well underway and the fact that peace negotiations have not made much tangible progress, the conflict has settled into a comfortable stalemate — comfortable in the sense that negotiations are being held in luxury hotels in neighboring Ethiopia. However, thousands have died in the fighting; 400,000 have become refugees in neighboring countries; and 1.1 million have been internally displaced. By August, an estimated 3.9 million people will face alarming levels of food insecurity. In the same timeframe, Kiir and Machar have pledged to establish a transitional government, but the prospects for them meeting this deadline appear dim.

The speed and intensity with which the state fragmented makes it difficult to imagine how the situation could deteriorate further. Yet, given the current trajectory of the peace negotiations, South Sudan’s current crises may well be part of the backdrop of the country’s fourth independence anniversary next July.


Lesley Anne Warner is an Africa political-military analyst and a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She blogs at Lesley on Africa and you can follow her on twitter @lesley_warner.


Image Credit: Steve Evans, CC