Blog Article

A Rapid Escalation: Violence in South Sudan

By Christian Stensrud:

South Sudan Soldiers (Flickr/Steve Evans)

South Sudan Soldiers (Flickr/Steve Evans)

According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, the risk of genocide in South Sudan is horribly real. Over one million people have been displaced from their homes in South Sudan since December 2013.[i] While the short time frame is chilling enough, these displacements run parallel with large scale human rights abuses, increasing inter-ethnic conflict, and rampant arms proliferation. Civilians bear the brunt of the fighting, with 4.9 million needing some form of humanitarian assistance.[ii]

Media coverage has presented the situation as a conflict between President Kiir and Vice President Machar, or as a tribal conflict between Dinka and Neur. The battle between the two men is one catalyst for the conflict, however the reasons for the dramatic escalation in violence, to the point where large scale genocide is possible, is more enigmatic. Not only does this view simplify the intricate political environment of South Sudan, but ignores the increasing divisions within the army (SPLA) and the role it has played in the conflict.[iii]

Events Leading to the Violence

The political hostility between President Kiir and Vice President Machar is one of the primary causes of the conflict in South Sudan. Both disagree over who should head the party in 2015; each favouring themselves. The fallout stems from a Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) meeting in March 2013, which discussed many issues including how the upcoming election in 2015 should be conducted. Machar and Pagan Amum announced previously their decision to run for President. In July 2013, President Kiir reshuffled the party; dismissing Vice President Machar alongside most of his cabinet. Dismissed politicians sought to counter the President through decision-making bodies within the SPLM. Kiir retaliated by disabling these institutions.[iv]

During the meeting of the National Liberation Council on December 14th,tensions exploded at the main military command centre at al-Qayada, southwest of Juba. Members of the National Guard turned on each other, exchanging fists and then bullets. The cause of the battle is unclear. President Kiir accuses Machar of attempting a coup; Machar denies this, rebutting that Kiir is guilty of inciting ethnic violence and has publicly called for his overthrow.[v]

What is clear is that Kiir assured the public that the perpetrators would be dealt with. On the night of December 16th the Presidential Guards were given control of the city to root out the perpetrators. Instead of only rounding up political rivals, they targeted Nuer neighbourhoods, rounding up young men and killing them in cold blood; some eyewitnesses claim 1,000 Nuer were massacred in three days.[vi] Many Neur reacted to their families and friends being killed, which spread the fighting all over the country and gave the political conflict an ethnical dimension.[vii]

The Complex Political Reality and Ethnic Tensions

Historically conflicts in Sudan can be categorized in three ways: the liberation wars where the south fought the north for independence; ethnic feuds over resources; and rivalries between political leaders.[viii] The current conflict can be seen as an interlinking of the last two.

The political infighting of 2013 is not new to the SPLM, which has a history of competition for political power. The SPLM first split into two warring factions in August 1991.[ix] Rich Machar, a Nuer, was involved in these very first fallouts, and alongside other SPLA officers broke away from their commander-in-chief John Garang, a Bor Dinka. The political rift resulted in military confrontation between Nuer and Dinka, the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, for the next seven years. Both sides are guilty of human rights abuses, and Machar himself committed atrocities against the Dinka in Jonglei state. The North vs. South dimension of the conflict eroded, and southern groups became increasingly hostile to each other. Southern Sudanese have been blighted by ethicised, South-on-South military violence ever since, and the political turmoil that came to a head in 2013 reopened these old wounds.[x]

The violence during the first split was extremely destructive to ethnic relations, but was swept under the rug in the interest of keeping focussed on the common goal of liberation from Khartoum. The crimes committed have never been addressed and no one has been held accountable. No victims have been offered recompense or justice. The lack of accountability for previous atrocities was one factor in the escalation of the current crisis, with many civilians and militiamen either seeking revenge for previous crimes or scared of what violations may yet be committed. The immunity from recriminations has also created a type of politics where political ambition can be achieved through the use of force.

The Role of the SPLA

The structure of the SPLA offers little security in South Sudan, allowing the violence to escalate.[xi] The current SPLA is an amalgamation of several previously warring factions that were integrated into a national army through the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. This union involved incorporating militiamen into the SPLA that were never disciplined enough to be involved in a national defence force, compromising the army’s professionalization and ability to reform.[xii] The result was an army with no shared ethos or centralized command. This loose structure encourages ethnic divisions, with key commanders often remaining loyal to their former militia leaders. During the outbreak of the current crisis many soldiers chose to fight without commanding officers, not wanting officers to direct them or hold them back.[xiii]

Before the signing of the CPA in 2005, the SPLA was not only a guerrilla force, but also conducted civilian law enforcement. One problem with the CPA is that it transformed the SPLA into a national army, based in military encampments, without replacing it with any other form of law enforcement. Civilians have no protection and there is no way to prevent disputes or reduce weapon ownership. This lack of law enforcement twinned with 30 years of war have made the nation awash with accessible weapons.

While it is true that the SPLA is not responsible for causing the violence currently underway, it has contributed to its escalation. The integration by Kiir of militias in 2006 was undone by the first shots fired in December 2013, and the SPLA is unravelling under the new political fallout with militias starting to splinter away and fight each other.


There were roughly 228,000 refugees in late November 2013[xiv] before the political engagement in December, compared to 1.05 million in March 2014. While the fracture within the ruling party has been the catalyst, the causes for its rapid escalation are complex: the lack of recriminations for past atrocities; the security vacuum in rural areas; the ease of acquiring small arms in South Sudan; as well as the lack of a coherent or unified command structure in the SPLA are all relevant factors.

Since the outbreak, violence has escalated dramatically. US Secretary of State John Kerry has warned against the possibility of genocide, and it is becoming clear that some form of international intervention is needed. Before any action is taken, the international community must acknowledge that the conflict is not simply ethnic groups fighting each other; it is more precise to see the violence as politically based; as political leaders mobilizing their military resources and personnel along ethnic lines.



Christian Stensrud has a M.A. in Public Policy from King’s College London. He has also worked at Alive and Kicking, a social enterprise that aims to alleviate unemployment, poverty and promote health awareness in Kenya, Zambia, and Ghana.



[i]Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (2014). South Sudan Crisis: Situation Report No.30 (April 2014). [pdf]. South Sudan: Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs. Available at:
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Jok, J.M. (2014) South Sudan and the Prospects for Peace amidst Violent Political Wrangling. South Sudan: The Sudd Institute. [Online] Available at:
[iv] Gal, K. (2014) The Root Causes of the Current Conflict. South Sudan News Agency. [Online] Available at:
[v] International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (2014). The Crisis in South Sudan. New York: International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect [Online] Available at:
[vi]Gal, K. (2014) The Root Causes of the Current Conflict. South Sudan News Agency. [Online] Available at:
[vii] Human Rights Watch (2013) South Sudan: Soldiers Target Ethnic Groups in Juba Fighting. [Online] Available at:
[viii] Jok, J.M. (2014) South Sudan and the Prospects for Peace Amidst Violent Political Wrangling. South Sudan: The Sudd Institute. [Online] Available at:
[ix] Hutchinson, S.E. (2001) A Curse from God? Religious and political dimensions of the post-1991 rise of ethnic violence in South Sudan. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 39(2): pp. 307-331.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Crisis Group. (2013) South Sudan Needs Respected Outside Mediation. [Online] Available at:
[xii] Waal, A. Mohammed, A. (2014) Breakdown in South Sudan: What Went Wrong, and How to Fix It. Foreign Affairs. [Online] Available at:
[xiii] Jok, J.M. (2014)
[xiv] Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (2013). South Sudan Crisis: Situation Report No.25 (November 2014). [pdf]. South Sudan: Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs. Available at:

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s