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What Is the Context of the Violent Crisis in South Sudan?
If you are confused about Sudan and South Sudan, join the club. We in Africa, even next door to Sudan and its new neighbor South Sudan, a new nation created only three years ago, are often baffled by the strange happenings that only appear in sporadic, dark and strange press accounts.
Clearly, part of the deeper problem with the crisis in Sudan is that the world’s media is covering it without the resources it would devote to a human tragedy of this magnitude in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas. Sadly, we are used to Africans dying by the thousands, and it doesn’t make headlines. It is likely, according to UN officials, that thousands have already been killed in South Sudan, but no one has accurate figures for the body count.
Although much blood has already been spilled in South Sudan, things have gotten much worse in the last ten days. The focus of violence has increasingly fallen on civilians. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has ordered as many as 7,000 international police and military personnel to be added to a similar number already stationed in the Juba area, but this may not be enough to counter the forces of the two South Sudanese factions who fight for the war. supremacy of the two main political heavyweights of South Sudan, Salva Kiir and his former collaborator and political ally Riek Machar. United Nations human rights officials on the ground said there is no ceasefire in sight. Until Kiir or Machar wins decisively, the conflicts and deaths will continue.
A very simplified (but always useful!) way of understanding the context in which the current violence erupted in this arid, east-central part of Africa is based on ethnicity and religion. There were two steps in the process that created the current mess, the first involving a conflict between Muslims and Christians that created South Sudan as a new nation in 2011, and now the current conflict, which arose solely within South Sudan when political figures rivals compete for supremacy.
Back in the days of the ancient nation of Sudan, by far the largest country in all of Africa before it broke away, Sudanese in the north and south often had fights based on religion and ethnicity. The northern Sudanese, centered in Khartoum, the magnificent ancient capital on the Nile, are largely light-skinned Arab Muslims. The people of South Sudan are predominantly black African Christians. Muslims for decades considered southerners as second-class citizens and did not hesitate to brutalize them. And so it was these black Christians who voted overwhelmingly (98 percent) to secede from Sudan as a new nation in 2011. This new nation was named South Sudan.
Greater Sudan’s wider problems came to public attention in a bright spark of explosive global prominence a decade ago, when Hollywood movie stars tried to focus charity donations on the human misery in Darfur. Actor George Clooney lent his great personal charisma and popularity to raise money for refugees. But then Sudan disappeared from the news, and now we find that the slaughter and horror have resumed.
About three hundred American citizens were evacuated from the city of Bor, capital of Jonglei province, a geographic focus of instability in South Sudan. Bor is an area of newly discovered oil wealth, and this complicates everything significantly.
The U.S. Navy’s massive and heavy Osprey planes, those magnificent airships that can move their engines to point skyward upon landing to act as helicopters, have drawn fire in the past ten days as they try to extract fleeing Americans. Meanwhile, thousands of citizens of other Western nations, including Canada, the UK and Australia, have chosen to stay in South Sudan and tough it out, hoping a peace plan can be worked out before the violence worsens. There may be some reason to wait.
US Secretary of State John Kerry pressed President Salva Kiir’s administration this week for a Christmas ceasefire (ironically, the celebration of Christmas used to be banned by the former government in Khartoum), albeit with mixed results. . The fight continues as I write this, according to most reports. Refugees are fleeing to neighboring countries to the east, mainly Uganda and Ethiopia.
20,000 people are reportedly displaced in Juba, South Sudan’s dusty capital. The international airport was closed, perhaps to stem the tide of departures. There are another 15,000 refugees in Bor. All these people fear for their safety despite dusk to dawn curfews.
Some background history may be helpful in understanding the new wave of fighting that has intensified so dramatically in the last fortnight of December: President Salva Kiir is the head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which is the organ politician organization that led South Sudan to independence from Khartoum. Since taking power, even Kiir’s supporters have accused him of becoming despotic and paranoid, and more concerned with his personal wealth and status than providing stable leadership and governance.
Under Kiir’s rule as supreme leader, corruption in South Sudan was much worse than it was when Khartoum was in charge. In a comical incident a few weeks ago, Kiir even asked recalcitrant friends, some of them cabinet ministers, to return money they had stolen for personal use. Kiir’s government, in short, is not governing.
The result is that the war-weary citizens of South Sudan are now perhaps even less happy than when the Muslim Arab rulers of Khartoum called the shots. Kiir is one of their own, and yet he is oppressing them even more than the Muslims. This breeds anger and frustration.
The violence began nearly six months ago in July when Salva Kiir dismissed the entire executive level of his government and closed several key ministries. But the fighting has gotten much worse in the past six weeks, centered on the capital Juba.
Ten days ago, President Kiir ditched his usual black summer business suit in favor of a khaki military uniform, the first time he has appeared in such a suit. It was a successful theater, if not successful in bringing peace and the laying down of arms.
Kiir blamed his closest political associate, former Vice President Riek Machar, another founding member of the SPLM and a man of equal status and charisma to Kiir, of fomenting a coup d’état directed against him. Kiir removed Machar from his position. Riek Machar has now formed his own military units to wage war against Kiir. Machar may well be an acceptable successor to Kiir, both in the minds of foreigners and the South Sudanese people. Many observers are now rooting for Machar.
But it is difficult even for seasoned observers from neighboring countries to gauge the true depth of the political divide between Kiir and Machar, who have clashed before but have usually managed to become friends. However, there may be a new factor in the mix, which bodes ill for the conflict. This was the clearly visible deterioration of Kiir’s health, which seems to manifest itself in fits of anger, violence and terrible cruelty against former trusted collaborators.
Salva Kiir’s inability to lead effectively suggests the conflict will get worse before it gets better. Meanwhile, the flood of refugees into Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia continues. And the killing of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, continues in urban areas. And many of the remaining Europeans, taking a cue from the Americans, are packing to leave for London, Paris and Sydney to hope for better and safer days in Africa.
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