South Sudan Civil War: Explained

In the midst of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq and the crisis in Yemen, a civil war in the world’s newest country has been escalating outside of the media’s eye, with the UN warning last month that it could result in a genocide similar to that of Rwanda.

Since it broke out in December 2013, the conflict has already claimed 50,000 lives, left 2.3 million displaced and 6 million malnourished.


South Sudan has had a troubled past, with a long history of conflict. After Sudan’s independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, citizens in the predominantly Christian south of the country objected to being ruled by the predominantly Muslim north. The 60 different ethnic groups in southern Sudan (mostly) put aside their differences to fight against the Sudanese government and to achieve independence. This sparked the 16-year long First Sudanese Civil War, which claimed 400,000 lives. A peace agreement was made in 1972, where the southern portion of Sudan was granted religious and cultural autonomy to the south.

However, the agreement was short-lived as President Nimeiry declared all of Sudan an Islamic state and terminated the autonomy of the south in 1983. What followed was one of the longest civil wars in history, lasting 22 years and leading to the deaths of two million from the conflict, as well as famine and disease.

A peace agreement to the Second Sudanese Civil War was reached in 2005, which granted southern Sudan to autonomy for six years, followed by a referendum on independence. In January 2011, southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence (with 98.83% in favour), and the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation seven months later.


Upon independence, Salva Kiir Mayardit, the President of the region whilst under Sudanese rule, became the President of the new republic. Kiir is a Dinka, the largest ethnic group in South Sudan, making up almost 36% of the population. In an act of unity, he appointed Riek Machar as Vice-President, who is a Nuer (South Sudan’s other dominant ethnic group, which makes up roughly 16% of the population). However, Kiir put warlords in top positions in the South Sudanese cabinet; in one such case, he put a revolutionary commander as Minister of Peace.

With the international community leaving South Sudan to govern themselves, old tensions flared up. In July 2013, Kiir sacked the entire cabinet under the pretext of reducing the size of government. However, Machar claimed that this was a move towards dictatorship and announced plans to challenge Kiir to the presidency in the 2015 elections. Kiir then later Kiir admitted that the next election would have to be delayed, seen as an attempt to cling on to power.

In December 2013, forces loyal to Machar clashed with government forces loyal to Kiir. Both sides exploited the ethnic divides in South Sudan to mobilise more troops, with more than 1,000 people killed within the first week of fighting alone.


By August 2015, the civil war had evolved into an ethnic conflict between the Dinka and the Nuer, a war which had killed tens of thousands of people. With the help of the African Union’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a peace agreement was reached to allow Machar to return to his post as Vice-President. Fearing for his life, Machar brought his fighters to protect him as he returned to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, last year to resume his role as VP, resulting in another clash between both sides and Machar fleeing the capital.

Meanwhile, just months after the peace deal was reached, Kiir sparked a conflict with one of the country’s other ethnic groups, the Equatorians, by redrawing the country’s internal boundaries. Seen as a land grab by the Dinka by the Equatorians, they took up arms and promised revenge against the group.

In addition, intervention by neighbouring countries, including Sudan and Uganda, as well as the flow of weapons into the conflict by China, have exasperated the conflict and led to more bloodshed.


“Aid workers describe gang rape as so prevalent that it’s become ‘normal’ in this warped environment.”

Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

In November, UN officials visited South Sudan and warned that ‘the stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda’, where up to a million people died in a genocide that was ignored by the international community.

Yasmin Sooka, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said: “There is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages. Aid workers describe gang rape as so prevalent that it’s become ‘normal’ in this warped environment.”

The UN Commission also heard accounts of corpses being found along main roads, mass starvation, people fleeing the country, and a majority of the nation’s schools being shut due to the conflict.

Another of the commissioners, Ken Scott, reported: “Large parts of the country literally have no functioning courts and even the traditional reconciliation methods are now breaking down with the result that it’s a free for all.”

Although the UN have called upon the international community to intervene, no country has been willing to get involved in such a proposal. The United States, however, did propose an arms embargo on South Sudan to block weapons entering the conflict, but this failed last month after too many Security Council nations, including Russia and China, abstained on the proposal.


With both President Obama of the United States and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon both reaching the end of their time in office, it is increasingly unlikely that a peaceful solution to the conflict will be addressed in the near future. President-elect Trump has not signalled any interest or even knowledge of the ongoing civil war, let alone a willingness to end the bloodshed.

In 1994, the world pledged to never let a genocide like that of Rwanda happen again. However, with some of the most powerful nations opting against intervention in foreign affairs, it seems that the international community is set to repeat one of the gravest mistakes of the 20th century.


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