South Sudan: Spiralling Strife

South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, gained independence on 9 July 2011 following decades of war, lengthy negotiations and a referendum to secede from Sudan. But the jubilation over this new-found freedom was fleeting, and internal strife has marred much of its short life as an independent state. An armed conflict that erupted in December 2013 still rages on today, and has proved devastating for millions of civilians. 

The conflict pits President Salva Kiir and his allies against his former deputy, Riek Machar, and forces loyal to him, who were accused of plotting a coup in the capital Juba in late 2013. An array of militias and armed opposition groups in different parts of the country have also joined the fray. Several ceasefires and attempts to broker peace deals have foundered, leading each time to renewed fighting.

The fighting has had a devastating impact on civilians, bringing political violence, the threat of famine and warnings of potential genocide. It has also resulted in Africa’s largest refugee crisis – the fastest growing and the third-largest in the world after Syria and Afghanistan.

The ethnic dimension

The armed conflict that began in December 2013 has taken on an increasingly ethnic dimension, with the leaders of the two main opposing factions belonging to the two largest ethnic groups – President Salva Kiir a Dinka and former Vice President Riek Machar a Nuer – and drawing much of their support from members of their own ethnic groups. The Government is increasingly perceived as using its armed forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA/M) to pursue a Dinka-centric agenda, including by using Dinka militia. The armed opposition, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO), a largely ethnic Nuer movement, has sought to broaden its support base to include other ethnic groups.

All parties to the conflict have carried out atrocities, including war crimes. They have tortured and killed civilians, abducted and raped women, destroyed and looted civilian property, and deliberately attacked humanitarian workers. Tens of thousands have been killed or seriously injured; millions have been displaced, and the violence has caused food insecurity and loss of livelihood on a massive scale.

Millions uprooted and at risk

Civilians bear the brunt of South Sudan’s brutal conflict, with more than two million people now uprooted from their homes and livelihoods.

As of June 2017, more than 1.9 million people had fled to seek refuge in all of South Sudan’s neighbouring countries – Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Central African Republic – several of which are also experiencing internal armed conflicts. Uganda, directly to the south, has seen the largest influx: some 950,000 South Sudanese refugees, around half the total, have ended up there. In early 2017, more than 2,000 refugees a day were streaming across the border into Uganda, with as many as 6,000 recorded in a single day in February. At least 86% of these new refugees are women and children. But funding shortfalls mean that many of them are not receiving basic humanitarian aid such as food, water and shelter.

The situation is extremely dire for many civilians who stayed in South Sudan. Around 220,000 fear for their lives and have sought protection in camps patrolled by UN peacekeepers, who sometimes struggle even to provide safety.

Across the country, upwards of 5.5 million people rely on humanitarian assistance just to stay alive. Malnutrition is increasingly widespread and large sections of the country affected by the conflict remain vulnerable to famine.

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