South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has known very little peace since a 2011 referendum created its independence from Sudan. Within a year of the country’s beginning, Sudan and South Sudan fought over their disputed border. At its birth South Sudan was also involved in intrastate conflicts as the new regime in Juba was challenged by two rebel groups (SSDM/A and SSLM/A). The government signed a peace agreement in 2012 with SSDM/A, and with a continuing faction in 2014, ending fighting in this dyad. However, despite the end of this particular conflict, fighting continues in various forms, meaning that in 2016 over 10,000 people had been killed in several conflicts.
At the end of 2013 the country plunged into civil war when long-simmering disputes exploded into a war between forces loyal to President Kiir and those loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar, who leads The Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-In-Opposition (SPLM/A-IO). There was an ethnic dimension to the fighting, with Kiir belonging to South Sudan's largest ethnic group, Dinka, and Machar emerging from the second largest group, Nuer. However, seeing the violence from a purely ethnic perspective disregards the high complexity of ethnicity in this context, and some rebels fighting against Kiir were Dinka, whereas some rebels fighting within government ranks were Nuer. Fighting also concerns the orientation of political power and control over South Sudan’s vast oil resources.
Resource-driven conflicts exist independent of the civil war, with various ethnic groups fighting over arable land and cattle, and comprising largely of ambushes, looting, and large-scale abductions.
Peace talks have made little progress, and despite President Kiir initially announcing elections mid-2015, parliament voted in April to extend the presidential and parliamentary term until 2018. The failure of a 2015 peace agreement led to an escalation in fighting in 2016, prompting the UN to voice its concerns over potential ethnic cleansing and genocide, including systematic rape. There have also been allegations of the use of chemical weapons, and over 20 percent of the population has been displaced. This conflict has also led to a severe food crisis, with the UN declaring a man-made famine in certain areas of the country in February 2017, affecting 100,000 people, with a further one million said to be at risk. Over 40 percent of the country’s population – around 4.9m people – are in need of urgent food.
The country is also plagued by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), with several hundred people being abducted by the group in 2016.
Hopes for peace in South Sudan are fragile. While the border dispute with Sudan was resolved with a peace agreement in 2012, South Sudan’s intrastate conflicts are even more complex.
SPLM/A-IO and the government of President Kiir signed several ceasefire agreements during 2014, all of which were broken. The UN has threatened sanctions and criticised both leaders of favouring a military solution – despite neither gaining ground.
In 2015 the government accepted the involvement of the Trioka countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway), in direct negotiations and the latest accord was signed in May, 2015, with both parties agreeing to a ceasefire and outline of power-sharing in an interim government. The two sides need a transitional government in place by July, 2015, when Kiir’s presidential term runs out.