South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013 with ethnic cleansing in the capital, Juba, committed by a government put in power by external brokering aimed at paving the way for the world’s newest nation.
This South Sudan political experiment lasted two and a half years. Its bloody collapse continues, a slow-motion calamity on a par with any crisis in the world.
Last week, the UN special adviser on preventing genocide, Adama Dieng, declared South Sudan at risk of genocide. The sudden focus is warranted but tardy. Some estimate that South Sudan’s death toll rivals Syria’s. But the atrocities described now in South Sudan’s Equatoria region — charred bodies in torched villages, gang rape, depopulation as a tool of war, and political violence waged against perceived ethnopolitical blocs — has characterised the war since its inception.
In the beginning, many observers performed mental gymnastics to downplay the ugly ethnic nature of South Sudan’s war. The new concerns over genocide risk reversing that mistake, casting the violence as chiefly ethnic, not political. Both miss the mark. In a South Sudan where political might flows up from mobilised ethnic enclaves, politics is ethnopolitics, and the ethnic tension is politically driven by the “King of the Hill” logic of a crude state formation.
This year I witnessed a Shilluk ethnic defense militia march new graduates to war with songs against the Dinka, after the government annexed traditional land to a neighboring Dinka state. I landed in Wau, a historically diverse provincial town, to emptied streets patrolled by Dinka soldiers after a Dinka militia avenged a Fertit rebel attack by torching a Ferit neighbourhood. At an abandoned medical research facility deep in the forest of Western Equatoria, a Zande rebel leader derided the Zande governor, simply, as “Dinka” — the height, for the rebel, of all insults.
South Sudan’s ethnopolitical war is rooted in the flaws of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which installed a non-representative and ethnically fractured party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, in charge of a future country it never won over. Many South Sudanese militias, some more representative of political constituencies than others, successfully resisted the SPLM throughout the war. But peace brokers crowned SPLM the winner.
The SPLM’s lack of monopolised or legitimised rule rendered South Sudan a failed state before birth. This is the origin of South Sudan’s derided “gun class”: without a state, politics is war. Rather than address this structural timebomb head-on, the 2005 CPA peace accord perversely incentivised SPLM leaders to latch hold of external sovereignty instead of legitimising its rule. Patchwork patronage coupled with crude collective punishment held the state together, but reinforced South Sudan’s ethnopolitical lines.
This fractured state did not withstand its first power dispute. Riek Machar, South Sudan’s vice president, a Nuer, challenged President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, for SPLM leadership, and Kiir sacked him.
Riek’s “antics”, Justice Ambrose Riny Thiik, who leads an influential Dinka nationalist lobby, told me, “sent waves through the Jieng (Dinka) community”. Anyone who wants to lead South Sudan “must be someone that can win [the] support of our community”, South Sudan’s largest, he maintained. “So we joined together, all the Jieng communities of Bahr el Ghazal and Greater Upper Nile.”
A Dinka paramilitary force secretly arrived in Juba, and its sudden ethnic cleansing campaign forced the ethnic Nuer out of South Sudan’s political space and into armed rebellion and exile. South Sudanese got the message: In South Sudan, ethnicity trumps citizenship. If so, one could barely construct an entity more ripe for mass atrocities than South Sudan’s weak ethnocratic rule over militarily fractured zones of ethnopolitical control.
The Nuer mobilised in vengeance, raiding towns and slaughtering Dinka in retaliation. Kiir relied increasingly on Dinka nationalism to wage the war and mobilise recruits. Political patronage dried up. Kiir’s political base narrowed further.
The war widened with the August 2015 peace deal, which granted Machar an official opposition army. National recruitment into Machar’s force surged in new strongholds, a perverted but predictable effect of the accord’s provisions. Unaligned militias, like the Arrow Boys in Western Equatoria, loosely joined Machar’s now-official opposition, and mobilisation efforts in Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal picked up.
A similar descent into war repeated itself across the country: rebel mobilisation sparks government hostility. Dinka security officers detain young men; some disappear. Civilians flee the garrison towns to the countryside. Broad retaliation follows rebel raids; more Dinka reinforcements arrive, reinforcing a sense of ethnocratic occupation. Isolated garrison towns suddenly float in seas of hostility. The government, increasingly, resorts to draining the sea.
This sea is now lapping up to the shores of Juba, which is within Equatoria. South Sudan is not Sudan or Syria; no rump state exists. The war is increasingly existential. If the history of mass atrocities should tell us anything: beware the desperate, not just the strong. Thus far, in the brutal logic of South Sudan’s war, all sides become weaker and weaker, more and more vulnerable.
South Sudan’s ethnopolitical crisis requires an ethnopolitical solution. The solution to the winner-take-all struggle is not a new winner-take-all election between armed parties. Nor will South Sudanese give up their arms until the political crisis is resolved. This only appears a chicken-or-egg predicament if one assumes South Sudan must be built top-down in a repeat of failed statebuilding models. South Sudanese voted for liberation. Instead, they are stuck in the violent spiral of a state collapse into bloody ethnopolitics waged over a centre created by peace brokers and statebuilders. Many flee. Others won’t, or can’t. The world will watch.
When Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk first sought shelter with the UN in Malakal, violence raged between the ethnic groups inside the camp. The UN head called a meeting and John Chuol, a community police volunteer, stood to speak. “I told her to divide us up, so we’d stop fighting. She did. And it worked,” he told me. Tensions calmed, allowing Chuol to start a youth league bringing the groups back together as South Sudanese.
Chuol invited me to the youth meeting. Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk mingled. Days later, government forces torched the camp, including Chuol’s home, while evacuating the Dinka inside.