The recent violence that erupted in Juba, capital of South Sudan, has claimed hundreds of lives. Among them was John Gatluak Manguet Nhial, who was killed in the late afternoon of July 11 2016. He was 32 years old. He was a heroic reporter and served his community through community radio, keeping people informed of events and acting as a watchdog on the politics of South Sudan.
This is dangerous work, but hugely important. Nihal’s expertise meant that he was emerging as a potential new community leader in a place that desperately needs fresh leadership.
The renewed violence in which he was killed has arisen from bitter leadership struggles in a country that has never seen peace in the five years since its independence from Sudan in 2011. All the while, South Sudan’s economy is in crisis; food prices are rising fast, and around 6m people – nearly half the population – are already threatened with famine.
The African Union has now taken the drastic step of approving a regional military force to help pacify the country, something it generally only does with a government’s agreement. The force will be made up of troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda, and will complement a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force already in place.
After independence brought an end to 20 years of guerrilla war against the north, South Sudan has lurched from one outbreak of violence to another, falling into a state of open civil war in 2013 that continues to this day. In 2011, Salva Kiir, known for his trademark black cowboy hat, became president, while Riek Machar, a former warlord and politician who has been labelled as both a resistance fighter and as a collaborator of Kiir’s, took the post of vice-president. In 2013, he was sacked along with Kiir’s entire cabinet – one of the sparks that ignited the civil war.
Both Machar and Kiir lead different factions within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). The two sides map closely onto South Sudan’s ethnic divisions: Kiir’s supporters are largely Dinka people, while Machar’s are mostly Nuer. The conflict between them has been intense and brutal, marked by widespread abuses of human rights and brutal attacks on civilians.
Both men emerged from the Sudanese civil war following the peace agreement in 2005 and when John Garang, the much-respected leader of the SPLM/A, died in a helicopter crash just after the agreement, both men started to argue over his legacy. After the 2011 referendum that led to South Sudan’s independence from the north, they all competed for resources within the country, which include sub-Saharan Africa’s third biggest oil reserves.
But this is only part of the story.
On the run
South Sudan has no dominant culture or religion. The Dinka and the Nuer are the largest of more than 60 ethnic groups, each with its own language and with a mixture of traditional beliefs, Christianity and Islam.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement made peace between the north and the SPLM/A on the premise that the armed groups involved in the long-running conflict could be incorporated in to a new southern state. Instead, the SPLM/A itself split, and the resulting power vacuum has created space for a range of secondary conflicts with smaller armed groups within the country.
The internal conflict has been devastating for South Sudan, killing tens of thousands and displacing one in five of the population. More than 2.3m people have fled their homes; more than 720,000 have fled to neighbouring countries.
In April 2016, Machar returned to the country to take up his role as vice-president in President Kiir’s Unity Government amidst hopes that finally the division within the SPLM/A could be healed.
However, starting on July 8, a day before the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, a fresh wave of violence hit Juba, and more than 300 people were killed in just a few days. While the fighting has been dampened to some extent, the pressures behind it are still there. This threatens the very existence of the South Sudanese state.
The fighting itself is superficially between troops loyal to Machar and those loyal to Kiir, but in reality it’s closer to outright chaos. Both men are reported to have ordered an end to the fighting, but it’s not clear whether the troops are following orders or acting independently of a command structure that hasn’t paid them for some time and are engaging in looting and settling scores.
With Kiir and Machar now blamed for failing to secure and distribute sufficient dividends following independence, new leaders may be emerging. One potentially important player in the current violence is Paul Malong, the SPLM/A chief of staff, who’s frequently ignored the authority of Machar and earned a reputation as a hardliner.
But there are many other people and forces involved, both inside and outside the country. These include neighbouring states such as Uganda, Kenya and Sudan, international players such as the UK and the US, multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and the African Union, the vast international aid industry, and of course, oil companies seeking to exploit South Sudan’s reserves.
This morass of interests has protected a kleptocratic, highly personalised government that ignores the needs of its population and rewards support for individual leaders with access to resources.
As ever, personalised rivalry among leaders and their challengers is terrorising citizens – and claiming the lives of the brave people, such as John Nhial, who stand up for them.