South Sudan: An Explainer

Update: December 2017

A peace agreement was signed in December 2017 between the government, led by President Salva Kiir, and the rebel group led by former Vice President Riek Machar. The agreement includes a ceasefire and access to conflict-affected areas for humanitarian assistance. The war has now been going on for over five years, killed tens of thousands of people, and forced over a million refugees out of the country (New York Times).


There is a civil war going on in South Sudan. The war is being fought between two ethnic groups, which puts it at risk of turning into a genocide. The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, is from the Dinka ethnic group, while former Vice President Riek Machar is from the Nuer ethnic group. These two men lead the factions that are fighting each other and thousands of civilians who have gotten in the way. President Kiir rose to power in 2011 after a referendum liberated South Sudan from Sudan to the north. Riek Machar was his vice president until July 2013, when Kiir fired him. Civil war broke out in December 2013 and lasted until a peace agreement signed between Kiir and Machar in August 2015. Violence broke out yet again in July 2016 between the government and opposition forces and has continued since.


A History of the Conflict

The conflict between the northern and southern regions of what used to be Sudan began before the country had even gained independence. Egypt and Britain gave up their joint rule in 1956 and a new government was established in Khartoum. While the north embodied a Muslim/Arabic identity, the south continued to follow traditional beliefs of its 64 ethnic groups. The north ruled according to its Muslim/Arabic identity, and the south fought back in a civil war that lasted from 1955 to 1972. The Addis Ababa Peace Agreement of 1972 awarded Sudan’s southern region some autonomy, but that autonomy expired in 1983. As a result, another civil war broke out and lasted until 2005. This war was fought by a group from the south called Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), of which Salva Kiir is now the leader. 1.5 million people were killed in the conflict. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought an end to the civil war and scheduled a referendum vote for secession of the south in 2011. The new nation of South Sudan was created as the outcome of this referendum in July 2011.

Civil War in the New South Sudan

The country’s president, Salva Kiir and vice president, Riek Machar did not get along and fell out in July 2013 when Machar was officially fired. Civil war broke out a few months later in December between Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group and Machar’s Nuer ethnic group. The violence was bad enough for the UN to make a rare decision to authorize peacekeepers to use force in order to protect civilians. The violence also prevented farmers from harvesting crops, which led to the worst food crisis in the world by July 2014. One third of South Sudan’s population (4 million people) were affected, and 50,000 children faced death by starvation.

The Latest Developments – As of December 2016

It seemed the conflict might end in August 2015 when President Kiir and Vice President Machar signed a peace agreement. Machar returned to the country in April 2016 and was once again sworn in as vice president. Unfortunately, violence erupted yet again in July 2016, Machar fled after he claiming that Kiir’s forces attempted to assassinate him, and Kiir replaced Machar with an army general as the new vice president. The fighting has spread into the southern region of the country. Kiir’s government is seemingly mobilizing militias to target civilians from particular ethnic groups there and throughout the country. The United Nations has sent in expert observers who have warned of an impending genocide.


Adam Dieng, the UN Special Advisor on Genocide Prevention suggested an arms embargo to the UN Security Council as a measure to keep weapons out of the hands of the fighters. In December 2016, Samantha Powers from the US put forward an arms embargo proposal to the Security Council, but the proposal failed with eight abstentions. Other possible solution are sanctions against South Sudan, a regional protection force in addition to the UN’s 14,000 forces, and a hybrid court to hold those involved accountable for crimes committed.


Before South Sudan was even created, all of Sudan had endured Africa’s longest running civil war. Today, things are as bad as ever in the 5-year-old South Sudan. 200,000 people are seeking safety in UN emergency protection camps. 3 million South Sudanese in total have been forced from their homes. 600,000 of these have fled across the southern border to Uganda. It is estimated that 17,000 children are fighting in various militias. The unrest has led to very poor health outcomes, with 10% of children dying before the age of five. Rape has been recorded on a massive scale, with 1,300 cases documented between April and September 2016 in Unity State alone. There have been 50,000 total deaths since 2014.

Side Issue –  UN Peacekeepers’ Failure

When the fighting broke out in July 2016, there was a particularly gruesome attack on Terrain Hotel in Juba. On July 11, government troops entered the hotel and began killing, torturing, and raping victims inside. Victims included western aid workers, UN staff, and other civilians. There was a UN peacekeeping camp less than a mile away, but the UN troops never came to the rescue. The failed response led to the firing of the Kenyan commander of the UN troops after less than six months in charge.