For the next two months, ReadCONTRA founder Rajiv Golla will be living in Juba, South Sudan, working with the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms, local journalists, and a number of local politicians, professors, and community leaders to paint a picture of the Third South Sudanese Civil War. This is the second in a series of articles about his travels.
The only South Sudanese history you’ve read, probably at the bottom of a BBC article, goes something along the lines of this:
Through a series of protracted civil wars after Sudan was finally given its independence from the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in 1956, South Sudan seceded after a landmark referendum in 2011 that saw 97% of voters choosing to secede from the North, despite the rallying cry of the ruling southern party for unity. In 2013, the single-party government split along ethnic lines and sunk the world’s youngest nation into yet another civil war between the two largest ethnicities, the Dinka and Nuer.
But this doesn’t even come close to describing the situation on the ground. The wars mentioned above are rife with dynamic alliances and vengeances that were suppressed rather than resolved under a post-9/11 American-lead diplomacy that lead to independence of South Sudan. And when America washed their hands of the situation after the referendum took place, the country fractured on those previously unresolved fault-lines.
South Sudanese history is something that isn’t easy to reduce, isn’t easy to explain, and isn’t easy to understand. There are rarely angels without blood on their hands and devils acting without revenge in their veins. That’s why it’s so rare to see S. Sudan covered in mainstream news which demands a story be understood in a few hundred words or even characters. It’s difficult for American foreign policy to take a strong stance on anything in the region, especially after fiascos in Somalia (Black Hawk Down and the TFG) and China’s dominance over local resources. We can’t even get targeted sanctions passed on officials that have killed thousands of civilians and recruited hundreds of child soldiers. And more than anything, the world is tired of hearing about African strife. We’ve become inured to images of starving people exploited for their exposed ribs and swollen bellies. We’ve become desensitized to the idea that children barely old enough to play little league baseball are given guns and told to murder their communities. And perhaps, worst of all we think its normal in Africa, the way it has been and only way it can be, and in believing so, absolve ourselves.
Since the political systems in places like South Sudan are so weak and the parties are so prominent, it is easiest to examine the situation through the people creating and perpetuating the violence. This is by no means an exhaustive or even complete portrait of the current war in South Sudan but will give us some footing as we build up the last 60 years that led to the conflict today.
Dr. Riek Machar // Vice-President of South Sudan // Nuer ethnicity
The affable and English-educated Riek Machar took office in 2011 as Vice-President of South Sudan only to be accused of a coup attempt in 2013 and forced to flee into the bush along with his personal security forces. Since then, he has been leading the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/ Army – In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO), first from the centrally situated town of Malakal, then from hotel suites in Addis Ababa, and now in Pagak, on the border of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Dr. Riek is considered by his followers as the fulfillment of Nuer prophet Ngundeng Bong’s prophecy that a left-handed, gap-toothed man will lead South Sudan.
Despite his ethnic background as a Nuer, a group of people long heralded for their fierce and relentless fighting and will for independence, Dr. Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon has been overwhelmingly accepting of western culture and diplomacy, even going so far as to marry a British aid worker in the 1990s, when he was a high ranking military officer with the SPLM. On multiple occasions, he has even been undermined by his military leadership in his rebel party for his desire to pursue a diplomatic, rather than armed, end to the current war. He is most well-known for The Nasir Split, when he and several other military officials in the SPLA splintered to form their own army in protest of increasing human rights abuse and dictatorial management within the SPLA. This splinter group was responsible for the massacre of thousands of Dinka civilians in 1991, one of the most commonly cited causes for the animosity between Dinka and Nuer today.
Salva Kiir // President of South Sudan // Dinka ethnicity
Salva Kiir served initially as the deputy of Dr. John Garang, who established the SPLM in 1983, before taking over his post after a helicopter crash ended Garang’s life in 2005. Though he doesn’t claim anything past an elementary education, Kiir claims an incredible memory and military tact. He has been a lifelong and devout supporter of the SPLM since its early days and ordered many of the high level killings under Garang.
His hat stands testament to the view of the Dinka as a people dependent of outsider intervention, harkening back to the days of the English invasion when the Dinka surrendered almost immediately while the Nuer fought fiercely. Though he has not made strong inroads with the international community, he has sided consistently with Ugandan forces (Museveni has long sought to be the power broker in the region and has taken every opportunity to inject Ugandan forces in local conflict), and been friendly to Omar al-Bashir, despite Khartoum’s constant subversion of South Sudanese stability.
The Third South Sudanese Civil War // December 15, 2013- Present
On December 15, 2013, shots were fired in army barracks in Juba after the president ordered troops to disarm Nuer soldiers. Nuer soldiers resisted and war broke out between the two ethnicities, led by their respective ethnic leaders.
Six months prior Sava Kiir had dissolved his entire cabinet, including Riek Machar, after it became evident that they intended to form an opposition party to contest the 2015 elections (now postponed until 2018 despite constitutional limits to this action). The dissolved members had held a press conference while the president was out of the country announcing their opposition and were summarily dismissed. But rather than pick up arms (at least immediately), Riek took his dismissal in stride and began prepping for his opposition campaign with a few other prominent politicians including his old colleague from The Nasir Split, Lam Akol, and the wife of Dr. John Garang.
But when the opposition boycotted a meeting of the National Liberation Council, Kiir ordered the disarmament of the Nuer soldiers in SPLM ranks as they posed the largest threat to his tribally predicated government which exclusively placed Dinka in high office. Nuer soldiers resisted and shots were fired, setting off the Third South Sudanese Civil War.
Over the next three days over 20,000 civilians, Nuer and sympathetic Dinka, were killed in their homes and in the streets of Juba. Militias comprised of SPLA soldiers, local civilians, and youth hailing from and trained in Salva Kiir’s home region –outside the jurisdiction of the SPLA—led the killings. Nuer were targeted in their homes and pulled out of their cars, forced to speak the Dinka language, and when they couldn’t, were executed. In the Gudele neighborhood, near the contested army barracks, hundreds of Nuer were rounded up and forced into the local prison. They were made to stay there for hours until soldiers came in and sprayed the room with bullets killing all but one person, who survived because he was covered in the bodies of those around him which absorbed the bullets. Had the UN not opened its doors to fleeing Nuer, a genocide would have taken place.
Riek Machar fled into the bush immediately along with his personal guard and other fleeing Nuer. He made his way to Malakal, which had been taken by opposition forces that heard of the Nuer killings and set up his basecamp.
Kiir traded his ten gallon and pinstripe suit for tiger-print camouflage military fatigues and a Castro hat. He went on national TV and gave an address accusing Riek Machar and his cronies of a coup on his ‘democratically elected’ administration.
And the war has been raging since, killing tens of thousands, starving millions, and forcing even more from their homes into the protection of UN camps or neighboring countries.
(Title image via).