The world’s newest country, South Sudan, has been convulsed by serious violence between rival ethnic groups. Fighting at the turn of the New Year in Jonglei state left dozens, possibly hundreds, of people dead and caused as many as 50,000 residents to flee their homes. The violence, between members of the Lou Nuer and Murle, underscores the fragile security situation in South Sudan and exposes the continued inability of the fledgling state to protect its own citizens.
Q1: Where is Jonglei and what’s been going on there?
A1: Jonglei is the largest of South Sudan’s 10 states, covering an area roughly the size of South Dakota. Its approximately 1.3 million people represent a patchwork of ethnic groups, including South Sudan’s two largest tribes, the Dinka and Nuer. The state is very remote and difficult to access, particularly during the rainy season. There are only approximately 100 miles of roads in the whole state, none of which are surfaced.
More than 1,000 people have died in violence between ethnic groups in Jonglei since South Sudan became independent last July. That was before the latest incidents, over the New Year period. A column of approximately 6,000 armed youths moved southward from the town of Akobo, bent on avenging an earlier attack by members of a smaller ethnic group, the Murle. They rampaged through the town of Likuangole, burning it to the ground, before closing in on Pibor, the main Murle settlement. By the time they arrived, most of the population had fled into the bush, replaced by a detachment of government troops, backed by UN peacekeepers. The fighters finally pulled back following a tense standoff, taking with them tens of thousands of cows stolen on their travels. Given the remoteness of the region, an accurate picture of the numbers of people killed and injured has been slow to emerge. The best estimate the United Nations could give was between “tens and hundreds.” This death toll is at odds with reports from Pibor County, whose commissioner, a Murle, claims that more than 3,000 people were killed and more than 1,200 children abducted. Other local elders say that hundreds of women died when they were chased into a river by their attackers. For the time being, it is impossible to verify these claims.
Q2: What caused the fighting?
A2: This is only the latest episode in a long history of conflict in Jonglei involving multiple groups. Each episode of violence is followed by a retaliatory response, making it extremely difficult to break the cycle of conflict. The increasingly common practice of abducting children from rival groups during episodes of violence is another aggravating factor. Ethnicity is an important cleavage in South Sudan, and the Lou Nuer and Murle are traditional rivals. At times, their animosity has been stirred up by local and national politicians who have mobilized their grievances for their own ends.
However, it would be wrong to blame ethnic chauvinism alone for the violence. Other factors set the conditions for conflict. Competition for scarce resources is at the heart of tensions between different ethnic groups. Cattle are the main currency in South Sudan. Cows are a measure of wealth and status, not least because they are used to pay dowries and settle disputes. The need to find pasture and water for cattle in a region of variable rainfall brings ethnic groups into frequent contact with their neighbors. Conflicts are common. This is particularly the case for the Lou Nuer, who do not have immediate access to water and grazing land during the dry season. Given the fact that cows are such a prized asset, cattle raiding has long been a feature of life in this region, and rustling is often a rite of passage for young men. A proliferation of small arms in recent years means that these raids have become more deadly. The ever-increasing bride price in South Sudan has added an extra motivation for youth to take part in cattle raiding.
The breakdown of traditional authority structures in recent years means that when conflict does occur, negotiating an end to hostilities is more difficult than before. During the latest outbreak of violence, interventions by senior government officials, including South Sudan’s vice president—and the country’s most prominent Nuer—Riek Machar, failed to calm tempers.
Q3: Why wasn’t the United Nations able to intervene successfully?
A3: The UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) has a mandate to protect civilians from violence. Clearly it failed to do so in this instance. Reports from Jonglei suggest that the best it could do was to raise the alarm about the advancing force of Lou Nuer, advising people to run for their lives. However, it is important to set realistic expectations for a peacekeeping force that currently numbers only 4,900 troops nationwide and lacks air support. Only 400 peacekeepers were on the ground in Pibor town to try to repel the Lou Nuer attacks. Given that numerical disadvantage, it is surprising that the fighters withdrew at all.
Q4: What are the implications for the government of South Sudan?
A4: Barely six months on from independence, the scale of the challenge facing South Sudan is painfully clear. The government is struggling to establish control of its vast, chaotic, and underdeveloped territory while meeting the demands of its citizens for public services. Establishing security is its greatest challenge. Given its history of conflict with the government in Khartoum, the focus has been on deterring external threats from its northern neighbor. But internal insecurity is perhaps an even greater threat. Inter- and intra-ethnic clashes and low-level insurgencies are features of life in parts of the country. This is particularly the case in the Greater Upper Nile region, closer to the border with Sudan, where the government is struggling to put down a series of rebellions by renegade militia groups. Jonglei has been the center of one of the most deadly uprisings, led by a disgruntled former general, George Athor, until his death in December. One of the most striking findings of a recent survey of public attitudes, conducted by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, was that a majority of South Sudanese living in the Greater Upper Nile region felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. The latest violence in Jonglei needs to be placed within this context of persistent public unease about security. For the moment, these incidents do not pose an existential threat to the state and have not linked up with national-level grievances, but the cumulative effect of insecurity dents citizens’ faith in their government and holds back the process of consolidating the state.
The state apparatus for confronting this chronic instability is extremely limited. The South Sudan Police Service is still in an embryonic stage of development. It is inexperienced, under-equipped, and with just 3,000 officers in Jonglei, hopelessly overstretched. The onus for maintaining internal security continues to rest with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), whose heavy-handed interventions have a tendency to enflame the situation. Civilian disarmament is a pressing priority but previous attempts have led to hundreds of deaths and accusations of ethnic favoritism. Unless rival groups are disarmed concurrently, they may be left vulnerable to attack from their enemies. Understandably, people are unwilling to surrender their weapons in the absence of any evidence to suggest that the state is able to protect them. In addition, the inability to establish rule of law in many parts of the country has allowed a culture of impunity to flourish, which makes the task of achieving lasting peace and reconciliation even harder to accomplish.
Q5: Why should the United States care?
A5: The United States has an understandable desire to prevent violence being perpetrated against civilians. More broadly, it is heavily invested in helping South Sudan establish itself as a functioning nation in a region scarred by instability, poverty, and poor governance. The United States was instrumental in helping negotiate the end of Sudan’s civil war. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement began a process that ended with South Sudan achieving independence in 2011. The United States is engaged in development activities ranging from training government officials, to providing assistance to civil society and media, to reforming and professionalizing the security sector. Last month, Washington hosted an international donors’ conference on South Sudan that provided a forum for the Juba government to lay out its development goals and unveil grand plans to transform South Sudan into a prosperous, productive, and democratic country by the year 2040. Persistent insecurity in places like Jonglei state threatens to derail these ambitious goals.
Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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