Fighting in South Sudan: An explanation


Fighting erupted in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, on Sunday 15 December 2013 within the presidential guard. What followed was a rapid descent into widespread ethnic violence. This is no mere hiccup as this crisis has been brewing for some time. The violence has its roots in decades of unresolved ethnic tensions, in painful memories and wounds buried for the sake of peace. However, buried wounds do not disappear but they fester. Unless there is an immediate cessation of hostilities followed by deep and honest reflection and healing, South Sudan could disintegrate.

All through 2013 tensions were escalating in Juba between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his Vice-President Riek Machar, a Nuer. Long-time a divisive and ambitious figure, Machar had been agitating for regime change in Juba all year, playing the ethnic card to rally his Nuer tribesmen behind him. In April Kiir reined in Machar, stripping him of some of his powers and limiting him to only those powers defined in the constitution.

Meanwhile, tensions were escalating also in Khartoum, Sudan, between the cash-strapped Government of Sudan (GoS) and its disillusioned citizens. Short of funds, the GoS has had no option but to remove the government subsidy on oil. As the price of fuel and food escalated, so too did the people's anger, especially that of Islamists who blame the economic crisis on the secession of South Sudan, which they blame in turn on the government of President Omar al-Bashir. During 2013, with the crisis in Khartoum deepening, the GoS embarked on an unprecedented military build-up, purchasing combat aircraft, upgrading and expanding southern bases and recruiting foreign mercenaries. Khartoum has been preparing for war, a war intended to solve its political and economic problems.

On 8 June 2013 Sudan's president suddenly and unilaterally blocked the flow of oil from South Sudan, violating both international and bilaterial agreements and threatening to cripple South Sudan's economy. On 30 June President Kiir sent Vice-President Machar to Khartoum. However, instead of securing Juba's rights, Machar -- a one-time ally of Islamist Khartoum -- negotiated in such a way that Khartoum reportedly told Arab diplomats that it would dialogue with Juba if the government was run by Machar (Strategic Policy 7, 2013). Machar not only failed to get the oil flowing, he presented Juba as weak and divided. The GoS responded on 3 July by launching aerial attacks and ground invasions in South Sudan's Unity and Upper Nile states. Yida refugee camp, where Samaritan's Purse is caring for many thousands of Sudan's Nuba refugees, was targeted. Whilst the SP LA (South Sudan's army) was able to repulse the invading Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), the political damage was done. Machar -- who created the crisis -- demanded Kiir stand down. Opposition to Kiir mounted; the government became paralysed. On 23 July Kiir issued a presidential decree, removing Machar and dissolving the government. Machar's Nuer allies and all other opposition were purged. Tensions soared.

Tensions were soaring also in Sudan where by September 2013 protesters were calling openly for a change of government in Khartoum. A military crackdown over 28 and 29 September left around 150 dead, 750 wounded and saw 2,000 arrested.

In the midst of the 1991 Sudan civil war, Riek Machar split from SPLA leader Dr John Garang (a Dinka), accusing him of being a dictator. Playing on ethnicity, Machar built his own army of ethnic Nuer. He wanted power but believed the Dinka were in the way. On 15 November 1991 Nuer fighters under the command of Machar massacred some 2000 Dinka in Bor, the capital of Machar's home state, Jon glei. Years of Nuer versus Dinka ethnic violence followed. In 1997 Machar allied formally with Islamist Khartoum. Khartoum happily supported Machar in his fight against the Dinka-dominated SPLA which was resisting Khartoum's Islamisation of the predominantly African, Christian southerners. This alliance resulted in the most violent fighting of the war, particularly in Unity and Upper Nile states. After the civil war Machar was absorbed into the government of South Sudan and his various Nuer militias, mostly untrained, undisciplined ethnic fighters, were drawn into the Dinka-dominated SPLA. Whilst this was supposed to foster reconciliation, in the absence of truth and justice it did the opposite.

Fighting broke out in Juba on 15 December 2013 after Kiir ordered that the Nuer members of the presidential guard be disarmed. Nuer soldiers allied to Machar subsequently attacked army headquarters. Dinka soldiers -- with memories of 1991 -- then went on a fear- and revenge-fuelled rampage killing ethnic Nuer. As news of this spread, Nuer in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states responded by killing Dinkas.

Riek Machar appears to be less interested in peace than in power. Consequently, he might not negotiate until he has acquired leverage through the seizing of oil fields or of Juba itself. However, unless hostilities cease immediately, South Sudan's future will be bleak. As reported, Khartoum has been preparing for war. Chaos in South Sudan would present Khartoum with a perfect opportunity to invade and seize the oil fields of Abyei, Unity and Upper Nile.

The duplicitous GoS, which is blocking humanitarian aid to the persecuted Nuba in Sudan, is reportedly sending humanitarian aid to South Sudan. On 6 January 2014 Sudan's duplicitous president Omar al-Bashir met with President Kiir in Juba. According to Sudan's Foreign Minister Ali Karti, South Sudan has requested talks with Sudan on deploying a joint force to secure oil fields (i.e. Kiir might invite the Sudan Armed Forces into the oil fields). However, many observers, including SPLA spokesman Phi lip Aqueir, believe the GoS has already struck an alliance with Machar. As explained in Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today, any alliance with duplicitous, Arab-supremacist, Islamist Khartoum can only ever be a 'covenant with death' (Isaiah 28). May God have mercy on the long-suffering, mostly Christian peoples of South Sudan.

Please pray specifically that God will:
• give wisdom and authority to those who mediate this crisis: politicians and community leaders, religious leaders and regional leaders, especially the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

• turn the hearts of South Sudan's leaders, changing their direction from self-interest to national interest; from personal power to peace; from revenge to healing; from personal glory at any cost to life and hope for the long-suffering citizens of South Sudan (Proverbs 21:1).

• redeem this crisis for his glory; may it lead to an awakening in the nation for the need of transformational renewal and spiritual revival that leads to genuine reconciliation and long-lasting peace (Isaiah 2:3,4).