South Sudan

Widespread conflict between Dinka and non-Dinka in the Equatorias

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Since July 2016, the security situation has significantly deteriorated in the Equatorias, which now form the new frontline of the conflict between the government and the opposition. Longstanding local grievances between Dinka and non-Dinka are becoming bound up with more strategic concerns, raising the risk of widespread inter-ethnic violence.


The Equatorias are of strategic importance for a number of reasons: Western Equatoria is the main area of agricultural production for the whole of South Sudan; Juba, the capital and economic hub of the country, lies in Central Equatoria; and the main trade route between South Sudan and neighbouring countries crosses Central and Eastern Equatoria, running from Juba to the town of Nimule on the Uganda border. This is the only all-weather land access connecting South Sudan with any other country.

However, the Equatorian population, made up of different ethnic groups, have long been at odds with the majority Dinka government in Juba. While the Equatorias hosts the country’s largest agriculturalist population, in 1991 700,000 Dinka pastoralists were displaced by conflict with the Nuer from Jonglei state, and most came to the Eastern and Central Equatoria and never left. Pastoralists and agriculturalists frequently dispute land, which often results in violence.

Antagonism between Equatorians and Dinka contributes to a decades-long push for greater autonomy in the Equatorias. Having been sidelined in the peace process following the first civil war of 1955–1972, they did not participate in the second civil war, from 1983–2005. Equatorians have repeatedly advocated for a federal system, and in 2015 the three governors of the Equatorian states presented a separate position from others to the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional body leading mediation efforts in South Sudan.

However, the government sidelines officials and politicians who advocate for more independence of the Equatoria: Western Equatoria’s governor was sacked and detained in September 2015 and Central Equatoria’s governor Clement Wani Konga was dismissed in August 2015 for speaking in favour of federalism.


Since mid-2016, there has been heavy fighting between government and opposition forces across the Equatorias, after the SPLM-IO was pushed out of Juba. The government has been conducting security operations in Central Equatoria and parts of Western and Eastern Equatoria. It has adopted a policy of targeting any person suspected to be aligned to the opposition. The SPLM-IO is mainly made up of Nuer, South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic group. This policy has resulted in the targeting of non-Dinka. In one of the most recent incidents, a raid by government forces on a village on the Juba–Nimule road led to accusations of the forces raping at least six women and arresting and torturing 42 men.

Since July 2016, the political situation has been highly unstable amid increasing concerns about government attempts to target non-Dinka and promote Dinka domination. President Kiir has dismissed a number of government figures, including Equatorians. And there have been regular defections from Kiir’s government to the opposition, and from the opposition to the government. Defections to the opposition and resignation from the government over its ethnicisation of state institutions increased in February. On 11 February, the Deputy Head of Logistics of the South Sudanese army, who originates from the Equatorias, resigned and accused President Kiir and the military leadership of promoting Dinka domination. He claimed that the army has been targeting non-Dinka. In the two weeks that followed, another three high-ranking military officials, as well as the South Sudanese Labour Minister, resigned and criticised Kiir’s government for bias and crimes based on ethnicity.


There have been periods of mutual support between the SPLM-IO and local Equatorian armed groups, and the relationship has strengthened since the SPLM-IO left Juba in July 2016. The SPLM-IO has armed and supported local Equatorian armed groups against government forces in the past, and Equatorians have for short periods joined the SPLM-IO against the government. When conflict broke out between Dinka cattle herders and Western Equatorians over January–August 2015, this escalated into violence between government forces and Western Equatorians. Then in July 2016, when the SPLM-IO withdrew from Juba, many Equatorians left with them and fought alongside the SPLM-IO.

In addition, the SPLM-IO needs more support. Riek Machar is isolated by neighbouring countries and its members continue to defect to current Vice President Taban Deng. In November 2016, Riek Machar appointed Henry Odwar, an Equatorian, as Deputy Chairman and Commander-in-Chief of SPLM-IO.

Government and opposition forces have clashed regularly in Central and Eastern Equatoria since February 2017. Government security operations continue in the Equatorias, and an increasing number of ambushes of civilian convoys have been reported since January.


Kiir is likely to push to regain full control of the region Conflict is likely to escalate between the Dinka and non-Dinka, including Equatorians and self-defence groups of other ethnicities who have been victims of government operations.

Contrary to the established areas of conflict and active fighting there, conflict broke out in the Equatorias relatively recently and is still unfolding between the actors. This, coupled with its strategic significance, makes it likely that President Kiir will push to regain full control of the region. The government is therefore likely to scale up security operations. Since government forces are mostly Dinka, and the opposition is not an easily recognised group of fighters, security operations will likely target non-Dinka without further discrimination. The government will likely carry out large-scale raids against people perceived to support the opposition, such as in Yambio in Western Equatoria, a site of opposition during the South Sudanese civil war, and intensify arrests and detention of young men and boys of fighting age who are not collaborating with the government. This is expected to result in widespread human rights abuses from government forces, and is likely to trigger similar actions from opposition forces.

Local groups are likely to target civilians, for lack of capacity to target the military

Equatorians’ grievances are likely to deepen. Existing local armed groups are likely to retaliate by targeting civilian convoys like the incident in October 2016 when 21 Dinka were killed, and local Dinka in areas of strategic importance, as they lack the capacity to attack military targets. The SPLM-IO is likely to capitalise on local armed groups’ grievances and support these groups. The Juba–Nimule road is likely to be a flashpoint of the conflict. Ethnically targeted violence is likely to become widespread.


Human rights abuses are likely to be widespread. Both government and opposition forces will likely target civilians through gender-based violence, random killings and burn down villages. Child recruitment is likely to increase, notably by local armed groups who have limited capacity to perpetrate attacks. IDPs are likely to be especially vulnerable to abuse as lack of shelters in the Equatorias will further expose them to violence.

There are currently over 450,000 IDPs across the Equatorias. Conflict escalation is likely to displace thousands more. Non-Dinka IDPs will probably not try to reach UN Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites in Juba, as areas around the capital are controlled by the government. Lack of camps means that humanitarian response will be more difficult. The refugee influx to Uganda, DRC, Central African Republic and Kenya will likely increase. Since the beginning of 2017, 161,830 South Sudanese refugees have arrived in Uganda, most of whom are from the Equatorias.

Food security is likely to be significantly impacted as fighting spreads across the region. People will likely keep being unable to plant their crops. Reduced access and availability are likely to lead to soaring food prices. Imports will remain limited, as trading routes to Uganda run through the Equatorias. Areas in Central and Eastern Equatoria already facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) food outcomes will likely face Emergency (IPC Phase 4). People are likely to be increasingly reliant on seeds and wild roots for food.

Access is already limited in and around conflict-affected areas such as Yei in Central Equatoria, and is likely to be further restricted by violence. An increase in road blocks and checkpoints, mostly set up by the government, but also other armed groups, should be expected. The delivery of aid into non-Dinka areas is likely to become even more politicised and harder to negotiate.

Houses will be destroyed and entire villages are likely to be burned down. IDPs will set up makeshift shelters, hide in the bush, or shelter in run-down buildings, which are likely to be overcrowded.

Global acute malnutrition (GAM) doubled in Central Equatoria from 4.2% in 2015 to 8.1% in 2016. Conflict escalation is likely to complicate access to both quantity and quality of food, which will result in higher levels of malnutrition across the Equatorias.

Intense fighting is likely to further undermine the state of health facilities in the Equatorias, which are already dire in conflict-affected areas. Medicine shortages are expected to be acute. The lack of sanitation facilities, limited access to safe water, and the overcrowding of makeshift shelters is likely to accelerate the spread of communicable diseases.

Access to water pumps in the Equatorias is already limited, and people have to walk long distances to reach potable water. With restricted movement, access is likely to decrease further. Displaced communities are expected to have severely restricted access to sanitation facilities.

The majority of schools in the Equatorias were not functional as of November 2016 and insecurity accounted for 90% of non-functional schools. Those still functioning may be used for sheltering IDPs, or occupied by armed groups. Shortages of teachers are reported as a result insecurity in the area. Student attendance is also likely to decline as a result of ongoing violence and consequent displacement, as well as due to the lack of adequate infrastructure.