An Unstable Peace in South Sudan

Photo Credit: Insight on Conflict

By Anthony D’Amato, Columnist

South Sudan is one of the many places in Africa where internal stability remains an elusive goal, and the danger of conflict is always present. When President Salva Kiir dismissed his cabinet in 2013 and accused first Vice-President Dr. Riek Machar of planning a coup, the world’s newest country quickly became engulfed in a civil war that has been marked by “massacres, rape, torture, child recruitment and the destruction of villages.” [i] The intense fighting in the area, which was primarily between the Dinka ethnic group supporting President Kiir and the Nuer ethnic group loyal to Dr. Machar, has displaced millions from their homes and sparked widespread food shortages. Although the warring parties signed a peace agreement in August 2015, it was not until the international community threatened to expand sanctions and enforce an arms embargo on the parties that implementation of the deal finally began last month. News that President Kiir and Dr. Machar formed a Transitional Government of National Unity on April 29th is certainly a positive development, but it is by no means a guarantee that the estimated 12 million citizens of South Sudan will live in peace and prosperity.

A significant obstacle that may stymie reconciliation efforts from moving forward is the culture of revenge in South Sudanese society. [ii] In a country where vigilantism is common and defending the honor of the community is considered a sacred duty, it is hard to imagine how the Transitional Government of National Unity can smoothly integrate the security forces of the Dinka and Nuer after tens of thousands of people have been killed. Non-governmental organizations and the African Union have accused both sides of committing gross human rights violations, and, if the accusations are proven true or at least perceived to be true by a majority of the population, some soldiers might be willing to jeopardize the peace process to right what they think is a clear wrong. [iii] [iv] [v] The risk of infighting between subordinates is not the only concern, though; there is also fear that President Kiir and Dr. Machar will not work effectively together because of their history of disagreeing with each other. Without a strong and united government, the peace accord’s requirement to create a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing might not get the resources or the freedom it needs to impartially investigate the numerous crimes that are believed to have occurred during the civil war.

Other potential issues that can further destabilize South Sudan revolve around the distribution of economic assets and the lack of border controls to prevent terrorists from entering the country. According to the peace agreement signed in August 2015, President Kiir is required to share custody of the country’s highly coveted oil fields with Dr. Machar and his forces. Hesitation on President Kiir’s part to fulfill this requirement, or an attempt by Dr. Machar to gain possession of more oil fields than were originally agreed to might once again cause war. If the new government fails to diplomatically resolve any disputes over its most valuable commodity and preserve the peace accords, then the issue of terrorists crossing South Sudan’s porous borders may worsen. The government has already acknowledged the “potential presence of Al Shabaab and other Islamic organizations,” and “the usage of South Sudan by Islamist fighters as [a] route to Sudan – and eventually to the Middle East.” [vi] A renewal of violence between the Dinka and the Nuer will only exacerbate this issue and create a power vacuum that terrorist organizations can take advantage of. [vii]

Although South Sudan faces serious problems that range from famine to fierce fighting, there is still a possibility for peace in a country that so desperately needs it. The best chance of avoiding a vicious cycle of violence is for the international community to continuously apply pressure on the government to fully implement the peace accords. There is also an important role for the United States, a country that was essential in creating an independent South Sudan, in encouraging tribal leaders and local religious groups to promote harmony and build a national identity. If all of the major actors on the ground work towards lasting peace, there might be some hope for a bright future.

[i] Jehanne Henry, “Dispatches: Action, not Words, Needed to End Abuses in South Sudan,” Human Rights Watch, April 27, 2016, accessed May 5, 2016,

[ii] James Copnall, “South Sudan: Obstacles to a lasting peace,” BBC, August 26, 2015, accessed May 5, 2016,

[iii] “South Sudan’s New War: Abuses by Government and Opposition Forces,” Human Rights Watch, August 7, 2014, accessed May 6, 2016,

[iv] “Amnesty International Report 2015/16,” Amnesty International, February 23, 2016, accessed May 6, 2016,

[v] “AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan,” African Union, October 15, 2014, accessed May 6, 2016,

[vi] “South Sudan arrests 76 suspected Islamist fighters,” Sudan Tribune, October 23, 2015, accessed May 6, 2016,

[vii] Bill Owns, “In the war on terror, we must not forget South Sudan,” The Hill, March 25, 2015, accessed May 6, 2016,


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