South Sudan: Strife more about personal power than tribal hate?

With diplomats trying to stop a civil war and more UN peacekeepers arriving, the crisis may be driven by rivalries in the presidency and military ranks.  

Ben Curtis / AP
A forklift truck today moves shipping containers in a United Nations compound which has become home to thousands of people displaced by the recent fighting, in Juba, South Sudan.

A version of this post originally appeared on Africa in Transition blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Editor's note: As this was published Dec. 27 the South Sudan government agreed to end hostilities; however, no word had been heard from the principal opposition figure, Riek Machar, whose group did not attend talks in Juba.

The current crisis in South Sudan escalated on Dec. 15, when President Salva Kiir accused his long-time political rival former vice president Riek Machar of attempting a coup.

Since then, there has been widespread fighting between the supporters of the two, with “thousands” killed and yet more thousands displaced. 

Foreign governments, including the United States, are evacuating their nationals, many of whom have fled to UN encampments. The fighting is likely to impact on South Sudan’s oil production, though thus far it does not appear to have spooked the international oil markets.

Mostly Christian South Sudan’s struggle for independence from al-Bashir’s repressive, Islamist government in Khartoum has long been a popular cause, especially in the developed world but also in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

In the two years since South Sudan’s independence, international donors has greatly expanded their assistance levels, and there are now significant numbers of expatriates working on various aid projects. Accordingly, there has been the usual hand-wringing and official statements by leaders of the UN Security Council and countries that have citizens on the ground in South Sudan calling for a cessation of this round of fighting.

The European Commission is sending a special envoy, Alex Rondos, to South Sudan. He was scheduled to arrive yesterday. Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta are already there. The goal is to organize and facilitate negotiations between the two warring factions.

However, Mr. Machar has said at various times that he will enter negotiations only after Salva Kiir releases the former’s supporters held captive. At other times, Machar insists on Salva Kiir’s resignation as a precondition. Getting genuine negotiations underway will likely be a challenge.

In the meantime, on Christmas Eve, the UN Security Council voted to increase the number of UN peacekeepers from 7,000 to 12,500 and the international police in South Sudan from 900 to 1,300.

The troops and the police, all from sub-Saharan African countries, will be pulled from UN missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Abeiyi, the territory disputed by Sudan and South Sudan.

Commentators place the fighting in an ethnic context, conflict between the Dinka, led by Salva Kiir, and the Nuer, led by Machar.

That there is now an important ethnic dimension to the killing is undeniable.

However, Andreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone, in “South Sudan: What is “Tribalism” and Why does it Matter,” places the ethnic struggle in a sophisticated context. They argue, inter alia, that “ethnicity provides a lens through which power struggles have been framed throughout most of South Sudan’s recent history.”

They show how personal and factional rivalries within the presidential guard spread to the armed forces, and how the threat of ethnic conflict can further an often personal agenda.

As external involvement in South Sudan intensifies, Hirblingier and Simone are essential reading. Their article appeared December 24 in African Arguments.

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