South Sudan is a country in northeastern Africa roughly the size of Texas. It is the youngest country on the continent, having achieved independence from Sudan in 2011. Despite the presence of important oil deposits, the lack of infrastructure and on-going conflict have hampered economic development. South Sudan’s violence stems from three main causes: unresolved border issues with Sudan, infighting within the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and tribal sectarian conflict.
The tension between both Sudans stems largely from ethnic and religious differences. South Sudan is comprised mostly of Christian, indigenous peoples that felt marginalized and persecuted by a northern government dominated by Muslim Arabs. The ensuing struggle over the independence of the South lasted several decades, and claimed an estimated 1.6 million lives. The eventual peace agreement allowed the South Sudanese people to determine their own fate through a referendum, which resulted in over 99% of voters choosing independence.
But the region of Abyei, an area at the border of Sudan and South Sudan, remains in limbo. Its residents were scheduled to vote in the South Sudanese independence referendum in 2011, but a dispute over whether nomadic pro-Sudan tribes who seasonally graze in the region can vote stalled the efforts. Plentiful oil reserves in Abyei further complicate the situation, which prompted a Sudanese military operation to occupy the region. The ensuing fighting has displaced many residents of the local pro-independence Dinka tribe.
Unfortunately, the conflict has not been exclusive to these “disputed” regions. Enclaves of pro-south tribes continue to fight the Sudanese government in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and the neighboring Blue Nile State. These regions were not included as part of the agreement for independence referendums, and have effectively become home to an orphaned wing of the SPLM. This new group, which calls itself the SPLM–North, continues the long civil war against Sudanese forces. As a result, Sudan routinely conducts operations against civilian and military targets in the area with air strikes and artillery barrages. The United Nations estimates that over 80,000 civilians have fled the area of fighting.
The SPLM, now the governing party in South Sudan, has further split along tribal lines. In 2013, president Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his deputy, a Nuer, of leading an attempted coup. Violence first broke out between Dinka and Nuer members of the Presidential Guard, and quickly spread across the South Sudanese capital of Juba, resulting in reprisal killings of civilians from both tribes. Nuer members of the armed forces eventually formed a rebel group called the SPLM – IO (In Opposition), and the country plunged into sectarian violence. The ensuing civil war has resulted in at least 10,000 deaths and displaced over one million civilians.
Conflict between the South Sudanese tribes has not been limited to the government elite. In Jonglei State in the northeastern part of the country, the Nuer people have been fighting with the nomadic tribe of the Murle over a series of cattle raids. The skirmishes have gradually escalated, with rival militias burning entire villages, and even threatening attacks on UN peace keepers in the region. At least 20,000 civilians have been displaced – most of the Murle tribe – fleeing South from Nuer militias.
Peace is elusive in this young nation, and much work is left to be done to stop the violence. A UN peace keeping force has been given stewardship of the disputed region of Abyei, while the details of the referendum are worked out. Although President Kiir recently signed a power sharing agreement with SPLM-IO to end the fighting, some of the rebel fighters have split off, vowing not to honor this agreement. Tribal violence over cattle also continues, with international groups warning of a heightened risk of genocide, as Nuer militias have declared an intention to “wipe out the entire Murle tribe”. Recent United Nations estimates suggest that the fighting has resulted in 2.25 million displaced people.