Africa

South Sudan conflict: What chance of peace?

Dinka children with cattle Image copyright AFP
Image caption Children have been among those who have suffered most in the conflict

The soldier lying face down in a puddle of his own blood, the child caught in the lethal crossfire, the female patient raped and then shot in her hospital bed - nobody is counting the dead in South Sudan.

No-one can accurately predict when the fighting will stop, or how the proposed power-sharing deal between the warring parties would repair the many fractures created by a year of bloodshed.

And who can truly estimate the trauma enveloping families hiding in the bush after their village was burnt, or consuming the teenagers forced into military service as they pull the trigger for the first time?

One thing is clear, however - the civil war which began in South Sudan a year ago has been a disaster for the country and its people.

The conflict is the result of many factors.

At independence in 2011, South Sudan was desperately underdeveloped, a militarised society run by old antagonists who often fell out in the long liberation struggle against Sudan.

The political ambitions of the divided ruling class exploded in the face of the people.

Image copyright AP
Image caption South Sudan quickly descended into civil war after gaining independence

On 15 December 2013, shots rang out in the capital, Juba.

President Salva Kiir announced that he had overcome an attempted coup, but few around the world believed him.

Over the next few days, a large number of civilians from the Nuer ethnic group of former Vice-President Riek Machar were killed in Juba.

Nuer military units deserted, and Nuer civilians grabbed their guns and rallied to a new rebel army - led by Mr Machar.

They, in turn, carried out massacres of civilians in Bor, Bentiu and Malakal.

Chased out

Both the government and the rebels have been accused of horrifying human rights violations, often against civilians from perceived "rival" ethnic groups.

Ethnicity is only one of the elements of the war, but 12 months of fighting have exacerbated tensions between the country's two biggest ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka, President Kiir's group.

In the early months, the military balance rocked back and forth like a palm tree in the wind.


Conflict in numbers:

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The World Food Programme has been working to help internally displaced South Sudanese people
  • At least 50,000 killed
  • About 1.9 million displaced
  • About 235,000 children suffer from acute malnutrition
  • About 2.5 million people risk severe food insecurity next year
  • About 180 health facilities destroyed or no longer functioning

Sources: ICG; OCHA


The rebels took several major towns, as well as oilfields in Unity state, only to be chased out of many of their conquests.

The town of Malakal, a major trading hub on the White Nile, changed hands six times.

The fighting has cut South Sudan's oil production in half, halted development, and left people all over the country scrabbling to find their next meal.

The UN warns that renewed heavy fighting could lead to famine.

South Sudan's civil war is a regional affair too.

Ugandan troops and a Sudanese rebel group have fought for President Kiir, while Sudan is accused of supporting Mr Machar's rebels.

Nearly half a million people have fled into refugee camps in neighbouring countries, and another 1.4 million are displaced within South Sudan.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The conflict has created hundreds of thousands of refugees

Once the rainy season started the intensity of the conflict diminished, but it has never stopped, despite the cessation of hostilities agreement both sides signed.

The mediation efforts of the regional body Igad brought the warring parties to the table, but they have yet to commit to peace.

They are squabbling over the powers a rebel prime minister - presumably Mr Machar - would have in the proposed transitional government.

Trust is a real issue.

'Not sincere'

Mr Machar blames Mr Kiir for the war.

"If he turns against his own population, why would he still retain legitimacy?" Mr Machar told the BBC in May.

"He is destroying South Sudan, he is dividing South Sudan, he's discrediting the whole nation."

President Kiir, in turn, told the BBC that Mr Machar had created the chaos - and could not be trusted.

"If he was sincere to his words, I can trust him, but if somebody is not sincere it will be very difficult… to trust such a person."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The rivalry between Mr Machar (l) and Mr Kiir (r) goes back decades

However, South Sudanese history is full of enemies who eventually agreed to work together - including Mr Kiir and Mr Machar after they fell out in 1991 during the liberation war against Khartoum.

A power-sharing peace deal is a possibility.

But that alone would not resolve the country's problems.

South Sudanese rights groups, and international organisations such as Human Rights Watch, have warned that the belligerents must be held accountable for their crimes.

"The unaddressed abuses and bloody cycle of ethnic revenge killings in the South Sudan conflict create an urgent need to hold those responsible for atrocities to account," says Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.

There has been almost total impunity throughout the decades of conflict in what is now South Sudan.

In part this is because of the obvious difficulty of persuading military men to sign peace deals which could result in them facing trial for abuses committed by their troops.

A major national programme to restore trust between divided communities will be needed too.

'No clear future'

But many South Sudanese wonder how the country can be peaceful as long as Mr Kiir and Mr Machar are at the forefront of political life.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Many children, like these from the Nuer ethnic group, are now living in camps

"Between the two there is no clear future for South Sudan," says Mawan Muortat, a political analyst.

"Until these two guys go, things are not looking great.

"But it is very unlikely that the two will go, because they represent very strong constituencies in South Sudan."

For the moment, though, the main priority has to be stopping the war.

So will Mr Kiir and Mr Machar still be fighting in 12 months' time?

"In a year, probably," says Mr Muortat. "But in five years, no."

For those mourning the uncounted casualties throughout the country, even a day more of conflict seems too long.

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