John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Is South Sudan’s SPLA Breaking Up?

by John Campbell
January 3, 2014

An internally displaced man holds his son inside a United Nations Missions in Sudan (UNMIS) compound in Juba, December 19, 2013. (Goran Tomasevic/Courtesy Reuters)


South Sudan president Salva Kiir and ex-vice president Riek Machar have sent delegations to the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa to try to negotiate a ceasefire to the recent outbreak of hostilities. In the meantime, a humanitarian crisis looms, with hundreds of thousands displaced persons. There are fears that the conflict is spiralling down into a civil war.

What is going on here?

Salva Kiir claims that the crisis was provoked by an attempted coup by Machar. Machar denies there was a coup attempt, and claims that Kiir has been moving against his supporters. Machar is demanding that Kiir step down.

Commentators are seeing the conflict as one between the Dinka and the Nuer, the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan. Salva Kiir is a Dinka, while Riek Machar is a Nuer.

Perhaps the focus should be on Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). This was the liberation movement that led South Sudan’s separation from Sudan’s Khartoum government. It included Salva Kiir and Riek Machar and Dinka and Nuer in a context of constantly shifting alliances and betrayals. But the SPLA was a liberation movement, not a political party. Beyond independence and “development,” it has no coherent political program. With little capacity to absorb it, the country is awash with cash from oil and development assistance, and corruption is reported to be ubiquitous. Against this background, and with separation from Khartoum achieved, the SPLA appears to be degenerating into something approaching warlordism, with warlords appealing to ethnic identities.

Many, including other African nations, enthusiastically supported the independence of South Sudan from Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist and racist Khartoum government. Yet, beyond getting out from under Khartoum and with a nominally Christian majority, South Sudan has little internal coherence. Perhaps it is a misnomer to call it a nation-state.

What might be the next steps forward? First, of course, must be an end to the fighting. That will require patching up relations between Kiir and Machar, perhaps involving some type of power sharing arrangement. There are signs that African leaders are prepared to bring pressure to achieve this. Once a ceasefire is in place, the international community must move to address the horrific humanitarian consequences of this latest round of fighting.

Over the longer term, allies of the young nation should prepare themselves for extended involvement with South Sudan, with many bumps in the road as it seeks to transform itself into a nation, a process likely to take generations and made no easier by oil riches.

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