South Sudan crisis: From power struggle to ethnic killings

Civilians in the world’s youngest country are continuously slaughtered based on their ethnic groups, like it happened in Rwanda and Bosnia 20 years ago. South Sudan experienced more than two decades of war to seek self-determination against the Khartoum government.
Eddy Kalisa Nyarwaya (left)and Justin Nyanshwa.
Eddy Kalisa Nyarwaya (left)and Justin Nyanshwa.

Civilians in the world’s youngest country are continuously slaughtered based on their ethnic groups, like it happened in Rwanda and Bosnia 20 years ago.

South Sudan experienced more than two decades of war to seek self-determination against the Khartoum government.

The hostilities were ended by the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) between the government of Sudan and the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement).

Ever since, political leaders have made full independence their priority, leaving unresolved core issues dividing SPLM top leaders and compromising the unity between Dinka and Nuer, the two dominant ethnic groups in the country. Hence, the fall out between President Salva Kiir from Dinka ethnic group, and his former Vice-president Riek Machar, of Nuer ethnic group, causing a conflict among South Sudanese people. 

Scholars analyzing the current crisis in South Sudan advance two major explanations; the first links it to ethnic power struggle between the Dinka and Nuer. The second is seen as purely a power struggle between individuals within the SPLM, who, after defeating their common enemy, and failed to build and consolidate inclusive governance.   

For whatever causes of the crisis, South Sudanese civilians are increasingly being massacred on the basis of their ethnicity. The recent attack on UN base in Bentiu, shelter to 12,000 civilians who sought refuge where they expected to find protection, is one among many others targeting civilians since the crisis erupted last year.

Prior to the horrible attack, UNMISS said rebels had taken over the Radio Bentiu FM Station and at times broadcast hate messages declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against  women from another community.

On the other side, after the rebels seized Bentiu, Dinka residents of Bor town in Jonglei state attacked a UN base where about 5,000 of people mostly Nuer were sheltered. History tends to repeat itself; South Sudan civilians are experiencing atrocities reminiscent of what happened in Rwanda during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Yet, as it occurred in Rwanda, from RTLM hate messages inciting Interahamwe for violence, the silence of the international community and the inaction of the UN forces to protect civilians in danger are very similar.

The ambiguous mandate of UNMISS that   lacks capacity to stop killings through defensive and decisive action to neutralize attacks on thousands of civilians sheltered inside  its six bases is a duplicate of the 1994-1995 UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) failure in Bosnia.

In this country, when Serbs (Orthodox Catholic Christians) waged war against Bosniaks (Sunni Muslims) in order to force them back to Serb Nationalism of Greater Serbia led by Slobodan Milosevic, UNPROFOR undertook to protect 6 safe areas hosting Muslim Bosniaks fearing killings. However, each so-called safe area, except Sarajevo, fell to the Serbs and was ethnically ravaged. It is unimaginable that UN has not learnt from this weakness to set up efficient mechanisms to protect civilians.  

The scale of massacres in South Sudan after around eight years of the signing of the CPA ending hostilities with Sudan, shows gaps in country’s post-conflict management. The country put its efforts in paving way for full independence and left behind core issues dividing top leaders and to some extent, affecting people’s livelihood.  

The split between top leaders within SPLM and fuelling disagreement between two major ethnic groups is not a new issue. It has been simering. Machar’s presence in the upper echelons of power was seen as vital in promoting ethnic unity between Dinka and Nuer. His unilateral dismissal by President Kiir in July 2013 along with his entire cabinet was seen as Kiir’s strategy to consolidate his power and exclude potential rivals for the upcoming 2015 presidential elections. 

Following the political and military events of mid-December when targeted  violence erupted in Juba, the conflict has steadily escalated. Now more than four months later we are witnessing events that have hallmarks of a genocide.

The SPLA split has been largely along ethnical lines, primarily between the Dink the largest tribal in S.Sudan and the Nuer, the second largest tribal group. As a consequence of this split ,what was initially a demand for institutional reforms, and accountability, has developed into a war-military rebellion, with violence scatting into same like  a Symmetric warfare between two forces that  are comparablely trained and equipped .

Unlike asymmetric warfares such as in Afghanistan, Darfur, it ensures heavy causalities in military confrontation. But victories and defeats  have more ominous impact; but in S. Sudan, the military victors is justifying slaughtering of  civilians by the predominant ethic group of the opposing force. However, the situation is not hopeless; there could mechanisms to address to prevent full scale of genocide which can be advanced ;appropriate International forces need to be deployed to protect civilians, regional forces should  deployed to protect thousands of internally displaced civilians who are at risks of targeted.

Thirdly international diplomatic pressure should be maintained on both sides by respected international figures from the region.

Fourth; sanctions will be needed to be imposed by all coalition states collectively, and this should look into all region actors’ complicity in the war crimes or obstraction of aid deliveries.

Twenty years ago Rwanda was engulfed in the flames of hatred, and genocide, as well as Darfur, CAR. Thousands died because no international actions were taken. South Sudan threatens to escalate into a full scale ethno- killings in an ever-expanding cycle of revenge. The legacy of international failure must be reversed, otherwise thousands will die on watch as its has been the norms of  international community.

To address challenges that the country is facing, the political class in South Sudan must find efficient responses to build sustainable peace.

Why can’t South Sudan borrow Rwandan models and approaches in order to secure its population? The country needs inclusive governance/power sharing and establishment of platform for dialogue in the spirit of promoting discussion to consensually find responses to country’s key problems.  

It also needs policies to promote unity and reconciliation among South Sudanese people. There is need for political will among top leaders that can endow citizens with capacity for forgiveness, tolerance and the culture of fighting impunity.

Eddy Kalisa Nyarwaya (left) is an International Politics Analyst and Researcher, while Justin Nyanshwa (right) is an International Relations & Conflict Resolution researcher

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