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South Sudan – A troubled past and an uncertain future

South Sudan Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa (left) and President Salva Kirr Madjit. Source: Flickr.

When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 many were hoping for a better future. That bright future is yet to be seen. After a 50 yearlong conflict with Sudan, a new civil war in the world’s newest country emerged. After an agreement between the government and the opposition, will the South Sudanese people finally find peace?

In 2011 South Sudan finally gained independence from Sudan, making it the worlds’ newest country. Sudan has been an unstable area since 1956, when Sudan gained independence from both British and Egyptian rule. But, after the independence civil war broke out. The Southern provinces (the area that today constitutes South Sudan), led by the liberation movement SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) rebelled against the government in the capital of Khartoueh. The reasons behind the conflict were many, including ethnical and religious differences, in combination with a battle for natural resources. However, the fundamental issue was the South’s call for autonomy and independence, a demand the Sudanese government was reluctant to approve.

In 1978 oil was discovered in Southern Sudan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the discovery did nothing to lessen the conflict, but rather increased its intensity. The conflict, which had been on the backburner since 1972, broke out again in 1983 and showed an even more brutal face. Finally, a peace deal was signed in 2005 and the South gained autonomy. Six years later a referendum took place, which resulted in a breakaway and on the 9th of July 2011 the area became an independent state. As there were still political and economical disagreements over oil resources and border issues, clashes continued and culminated with the Heglig crisis. The crisis nearly restarted the conflict, before an agreement, with the influence from the United Nations, was signed in September 2012. The war-weary population could finally hope for a better and more peaceful future, after a war that since 1983, had killed 1,5-2 millions of people and forced about 4 millions to flee their homes.

But the joy in South Sudan was short-lived. Even though the conflict with Sudan was cooling off the situation in the newly established country, with a population of 12 million people, was far from stable. Lack of infrastructure and widespread poverty were two major issues for a new and weak government to deal with, as well as corruption. Also, the separation from the North was the main thing that united the people. When that struggle was over it became obvious that the new country would be far from peaceful.

Salva Kiir Mayardit. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Salva Kiir Mayardit. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In December 2013 a civil war broke out after a power struggle between president Salva Kiir Mayardit and Vice President Riek Machar. Machar soon fled the South Sudanese capital Juba and left the country, after being accused of organising a coup to overthrow the president. Machar is from the second largest ethnic group called Nuer and Mayardit is from the largest called Dink. This meant that the original, political conflict re-emerged as an ethnical one. The former liberation movement was split in two camps, supporting either president Kiir or the rebel leader Machar. Uganda has supported the Kiir administration with troops, while Kenya and Ethiopia have acted as mediators between the fighting parties. Even though the main conflict is between Dinka and Nuer, there are about twenty other ethnical groups fighting in the country. This has created a refugee crisis where more than 2 million have been forced to leave their homes. Most of them remain in South Sudan while others have mainly fled to neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda where they settle in huge refugee camps with awful conditions. The civil war has been characterized by horrible assaults including rape and brutal killing of civilians. Human rights organisations have reported about crimes against humanity from both the government and opposition forces, and tens of thousands people are believed to have lost their lives in the conflict. According to the United Nations many children have been used as soldiers in the civil war. UNMISS, the UN forces in South Sudan, have mainly focused on protecting the civilians from the war. Currently they are sheltering approximately 200,000 people, but the operation has been criticized for being ineffective. The awful infrastructure has not made the United Nations task any easier.

Nevertheless, there are glimpses of hope. In August 2015, after more than a year of negotiations, President Kiir Mayardit signed a peace agreement with the rebels. The deal allowed Machar to return to the country and become Vice President in a transitional unity government. As the former peace agreements had broken down the concern was that this fragile deal would do the same. Despite distrust, and both sides accusing each other of violating the terms of the agreement, Machar finally returned in April 2016 and was sworn in as Vice President. It is uncertain how South Sudan will develop in the coming years before the general election in 2018. The country has a ruined economy, damaged even more because of the drop in oil prices. It is essential that the government is able to cooperate in order to make economical and political reforms for a stable future. After 60 years of endless fighting, it is the least the people of South Sudan deserve.

Mårten Randau

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