There is no accurate demographic data in South Sudan. The 2008 census was rejected by the then-governing semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan and a post-independence census has yet to be undertaken. South Sudan has a substantial diversity of peoples with more than 70 associated languages, though a number of these are extinct or dying.
Main languages: English (official), Juba Arabic (linga franca), diverse dialects of Nilotic, Nilo-Hamitic and Sudanic languages, including Dinka, Azande, Nuer, Shilluk.
Main religions: Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Islam.
Western Nilotes – Anuak, Dinka, Murle, Nuer and Shilluk – are the largest linguistic group. They traditionally lived in the north and east areas of South Sudan, as well as parts of South Kordofan and White Nile in Sudan and the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Further south in Equatoria are groups such as the Azande, Bari, Latuka, Madi, Moru, Taposa and Turkana who are a mixture of Sudanic, Eastern Nilotes, and other groups.
Dinka, followed by Nuer and their associated subgroup, Atuot, are the most numerous groups in South Sudan. A Nilotic people, Dinka – who according to some estimates make up more than a third (35.8 per cent) of the population – are seasonally migrating pastoralists, often forming livelihoods out of cattle-keeping, small-scale agriculture, fishing, trade and conflict-related activities, such as recruitment in an armed group. For both the Dinka and Nuer, cattle are fundamental to relationships and social structures; they are a profound measure of wealth, status and personal influence. Cattle are used to pay debts, fines and bride prices and are also central to religious and artistic culture.
Nuer are often described as relatively homogeneous in language and culture but lacking in political centralization. The community, who according to some estimates make up 15.6 per cent of the population, are divided into several independent groups that are organized into clans, lineages and age groups. This is in contrast to the highly structured kingdoms of their fellow Western Nilotic peoples, Shilluk and Anuak.
Not all Western Nilotes are seasonally migrating; some Shilluk and Anuak groups have long traditions of settled agriculture. And amongst pastoralists in South Sudan, there are only a few groups, such as Ambororo living in the western areas of South Sudan, who are entirely nomadic. Most peoples in the Equatorias are agriculturalists, however there is a substantial minority of seasonally migrating pastoralist peoples.
Updated July 2019
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South Sudan’s birth as an independent state has been overshadowed by a devastating civil conflict along ethnic lines that has bankrupted the fledgling nation, brought any development progress to a standstill and led to mass displacement. South Sudan’s bitter internal conflict began in December 2013 when fighting broke out between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and then former Vice President Riek Machar, of Dinka and Nuer ethnicity respectively. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed since the outbreak of the conflict, primarily by ethnic militias loyal to either side, as well as the creation of over 2.2 million refugees in neighbouring countries. In addition, 1.9 million are internally displaced within its borders. The situation has been exacerbated by the outbreak of famine during 2016 and 2017, driven in large part by the insecurity and destruction of the civil conflict. UN agencies reported in early 2019 the hunger continued to rise and that as many as 7 million people would be at risk of acute food insecurity in the coming months.
South Sudan remains on the precipice of another round of brutal violence. Despite a September 2018 agreement between the government and the main opposition group to enter into a power-sharing arrangement, conflict has ebbed but not ended. Forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar remain responsible for depredations against civilians including unlawful killings, torture, sexual violence, and use and recruitment of child soldiers. Efforts to hold to account perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity via a Hybrid Court for South Sudan have been obstructed. Particularly in former Unity State, famine has also exacerbated fatal inter-ethnic violence between Dinka, Nuer and Muerle communities seeking to acquire cattle and pastureland. Lasting peace remains distant and threatened by opportunistic manoeuvring by the main parties.
Indiscriminate and escalating violence has resulted in sweeping human rights violations such as sexual violence, abductions, widespread property theft and the recruitment of child soldiers by both the South Sudanese army and opposition forces. Politically motivated violence has also divided the country along ethnic lines between the primarily Dinka leadership of the government’s forces and the largely Nuer membership of Machar’s opposition forces, the two largest ethnic groups in the country. However, other smaller ethnic minorities, such as Shilluk, have also been drawn into the conflict as victims of targeted violence.
The national conflict between Kiir and his former deputy Machar has exacerbated long-standing tensions between communities over land rights, lack of community-centred development and violent rivalries that have developed over centuries, with access to water, grazing areas and other resources playing a major role. The national conflict has worsened these underlying problems, given that many development projects have been halted and public assets such as schools, medical facilities and water access points have been attacked or destroyed. Peace processes have largely focused on the national-level conflict between Kiir and Machar to the exclusion of many of the other fighting groups that have become part and parcel of the conflict. Concerns have been raised that this strategy cannot lead to lasting peace and will not address many of the concerns of minority communities in the country.
Minorities and indigenous peoples often are most vulnerable during periods of conflict and regularly make up higher proportions of displaced people. Many Sudanese Nuba communities, for example, were already residing in refugee camps in South Sudan after fleeing from South Kordofan in Sudan. Since the conflict in South Sudan erupted in late 2013, the situation of Nuba communities has become even more desperate as they are caught in the crossfire between South Sudan factions and also are targeted by government forces from Khartoum. Protracted insecurity has also pushed pastoralist herders into new and unfamiliar areas, at times leading to tensions between them and settled communities. These incidents reflect the fact that South Sudan’s instability, while greatly exacerbated by the recent conflict, is also rooted in competition over scarce resources.
The traditions of indigenous peoples, pastoralist communities and minority groups are in general strongly linked to the areas in which they have long resided. Cultural practices and traditional knowledge, linked closely to self-sufficiency and local livelihoods, are reinforced by social institutions such as the family, clan and tribe. Conflict related displacement in South Sudan has disrupted this fragile balance, particularly affecting the country’s large pastoralist population, who depend upon their herds for economic sustainability, basic nutrition and social interaction. While cattle are the basis of marriage contracts, conflict resolution and wealth generation, insecurity and violence – arising during the decades-long civil war that preceded South Sudan’s independence in 2011 as well as the current conflict – has placed this system under threat.
Conflict-induced displacement has also generated abnormal and overly intensive migrations as communities move their livestock herds in response to emergencies. The abnormal migration, as well as the inability of veterinary services to reach herds in conflict-affected areas, has taken a serious toll on the health of the animals on which so many minority and indigenous communities depend. According to experts, it may take years for the herds to recover once the conflict is finally brought to an end, meaning many of these communities could remain at risk well into the future.
The Republic of South Sudan is located in the north-east of Africa. Sudan borders it to the north, Ethiopia to the east, Kenya to the southeast, Uganda to the south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the southwest, and the Central Africa Republic to the west. The White Nile flows northward through South Sudan from Uganda, creating one of the world’s largest wetlands, the Sudd. Much of the environment in the north and east is suitable for semi-nomadic pastoralism and agriculture in some areas, while the southern areas are suitable for settled agriculture.
Historically, the area that is now South Sudan was dominated by Central Sudanic-speaking peoples. The presence of Nilotic peoples may date back to as early as 3000 BCE. Nilotic expansion began around the 14th century following the collapse of major Christian Nubian kingdoms in what is now Sudan. Over time, Nilotic speakers, such as the Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer came to occupy much of southern Sudan.
Prior to the expansion of Egypt into southern Sudan in the 19th century, there were many different types of polities in southern Sudan. There were highly structured kingdoms, such as the Shilluk and Azande, that were powerful regional forces in the pre-colonial Horn of Africa and Central Africa. There also were smaller and less structured groups, including communities that were further removed from the influence of the powerful states of the day.
By the 16th century Shilluk had expanded greatly, controlling areas along the Nile and into present-day Sudan. During this period, the Shilluk political structure centralized under a king, ‘reth’. Shilluk developed an intensive system of agriculture and the area under their control was highly-organized and densely populated, in comparison to the relatively dispersed populations of most other Nilotic groups at the time. Shilluk military power was based on control of the Nile and its trade routes, and a complicated series of alliances and warfare with the Funj Sultanate, Sultanate of Darfur, Kingdom of Takali and the Dinka.
Further south, in the tropical rainforest belt of western Equatoria and Bahr el Ghazal, the Azande people established the region’s largest state in the 16th century. The Azande kingdom was based on a clear division between the nobility, the Avungara, and the average citizens. The Azande acquired substantial territory in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic through long periods of warfare and conquest.
Geography meant that some groups, such as Shilluk, Azande and Bari, came into more regular contact with neighboring peoples and states, both through trade and exchange as well as warfare. Other groups, such as the Dinka and Nuer, living in the Sudd wetlands were more geographically isolated although, despite this relative isolation, Nuer began a period of expansion and heightened warfare during this period.
Egyptian Expansion into the Sudan
The expansion of the Ottoman Khedivate of Egypt into southern Sudan in the early 19th century and the accompanying traders and slavers fundamentally altered relationships between southern Sudanese peoples and polities, and began nearly two centuries of exploitation and violence, first from the Egyptians, then the British and finally the Sudanese. This was also the beginning of the period in which northern and southern Sudan were defined and governed differently. The Egyptian expansion after 1821 faced decades of difficulty in establishing a long-term presence in the region (a challenge the British would also face in the 20th century).
Due in part to their inability to control the territory, beginning in the 1850s the Egyptians combined grants of trade and political authority, leading to widespread slave raiding and forced conscription of southerners to obtain ivory, while at the same time allowing the Christian missionaries access. Many slaves were used as soldiers and ivory collectors in the south while others were transported to northern Sudan where they became domestic slaves. One slaver, al-Zubayr, quickly became powerful enough to defeat both the Darfur Sultanate and Egyptian expeditions sent against him. Indicative of his power, in 1873, the Egyptians appointed him governor of Bahr el Ghazal province. In 1874, in response to pressure from abolitionist British citizens, the British sent a military force to end the slaving but were able to exert only limited control in the area, due in part to the collusion of the Egyptians with the slavers.
From 1883-1898, conflict related to a millenarian, Islamic uprising in northern Sudan, called the Mahdiyya, physically separated southern Sudan from Egypt and upended British and Egyptian colonialism in southern Sudan. During this period, the Belgians annexed areas in the southwest and the French in the north of southern Sudan. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that the British and Egyptians succeeded in securing a complete withdrawal of other European powers from southern Sudan.
Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and the British Colonial Period
In 1899 the British reached an agreement with Egypt that ushered in a period of joint Egyptian-British administration, called the ‘Anglo-Egyptian Condominium’ in Sudan that would last until Sudanese independence in 1956. Enabled by a period of political turmoil in Egypt, the British took the lead in establishing a colonial administration in southern Sudan. To ensure their prominence in the area, the British sought to maintain the separation of Egypt and Sudan, and southern and northern Sudan. One way it did this was through the Close Districts Ordinances, some of which separated the north and south of Sudan in 1920s. These policies restricted movement and trade between northern and southern Sudan, enshrined English as the official language of the south rather than Arabic and enabled Christian missionaries to operate in the south. Christian missionaries were already operating in southern Sudan before 1920, however, and generally with greater capacity than in the north.
In 1946 the British established the ‘Sudan Administration Conference’ which, among other things, sought to ‘Sudanise’ the government in advance of independence. The Conference, which had no southern Sudanese members, determined that the north and south should be united, and northern Sudanese administrators should be allowed in the civil service in southern Sudan, positions they had been denied following the Closed Districts Ordnances. The 1947 Juba Conference, which included southern Sudanese delegates, confirmed that north and south Sudan would be unified. A treaty was signed in 1954 granting Sudan independence. Of the 800 administrative posts in southern Sudan that were Sudanised that same year, only six junior posts were filled with southern Sudanese: the rest were filled with northerners leading many southerners to believe that British colonialism had simply been replaced by northern Sudanese colonialism. Sudan became independent in 1956.
Sudanese Independence and the First Sudanese Civil War
In 1955, before Sudan achieved independence, the onset of the First Sudanese Civil War began when southerners launched an uprising, based on fear of living under northern Sudanese control and with the aim of achieving representation and more regional autonomy. The southern armed groups that emerged from this period were collectively referred to as the ‘Anyanya’, though at the time there were a number of armed factions, some of them drawn along ethnic lines: it was not until around 1970 that a unified front emerged. The fighting, initially operating as a relatively contained guerilla insurgency, only took on a larger separatist dimension in 1963, when the fighting then took on the character of a civil conflict.
Sudan’s independence came and went without agreement on the political status of the south. While some southerners were fighting in the bush, others were engaged in national politics, forming alliances with different northern political parties and seeking greater degrees of autonomy and to prevent ‘Arabization’ and ‘Islamization’ of the south. The Sudanese government took repressive measures against southern populations and shut down missionary activities, first with the passing of the Missionary Societies Act of 1962 and the subsequent expulsion in 1964 of hundreds of foreign missionaries from the south. Mission-run schools were the only educational option for the vast majority of southerners due to the chronic failure to establish state-run schools under both the British and the Sudanese administrations making this a particularly painful blow.
In the 1958 elections, southerners advocating for greater autonomy won positions in the national government. However, a military coup prevented the elected government from taking office. The military government ruled from 1958 until 1964 and intensified efforts to Arabize and Islamize the south. This period saw the largest southern Sudanese political party, the Sudan African National Union (SANU), petitioning the Organization of African Unity (OAU) for independence. The government relied on Arab nations for support while the Anyanya, emerging in the early 1960s, relied on neighboring African countries and Israel for weapons and operating bases.
Short-lived civilian governments between 1964-1969 were unable to end the civil war in the south. By 1971, Joseph Lagu had consolidated the Anyanya forces into a more coherent group. This was a fractious process and Lagu relied on his monopoly over arms coming from Israel, much as Dr. John Garang would do in the 1980s with Ethiopian weapons, to secure and maintain control over the movement.
General Jaafar Nimeiri ended civilian rule and took power in a coup in 1969. Church-sponsored mediation eventually led to the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972. The Agreement established the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region, which had political and economic autonomy, and included provisions to integrate the Anyanya forces into the Sudanese security apparatus.
A Failed Peace and the Second Sudanese Civil War
Many of the Anyanya forces were unhappy with the Addis Ababa Agreement and there were small clashes throughout the Addis Ababa period (1972-1983) between former Anyanya groups and the government, culminating in the formation of the Anyanya II group in the early 1980s. Its aim, like its predecessor, was complete southern separation. But while the majority of Anyanya forces were drawn from the Equatorias, the majority of the Anyanya II were drawn from Nilotic groups, particularly Nuer communities.
In the mid-1970s, Nimeiri came under pressure from Islamist groups to change the provisions of the Addis Ababa Agreement. The economic provisions of the Agreement, particularly as they related to the development of oil finds in southern Sudan were increasingly violated. In the early 1980s, president Nimeiry began work on the ‘Jonglei Canal’ which would divert Nile water from the Sudd wetlands to serve commercial agricultural schemes northern Sudan. The Jonglei Canal would have undermined the livelihoods and social structures of the minority, semi-nomadic pastoralist groups living in southern Sudan for the benefit of northern groups.
In 1983, Nimeiri began working to abolish the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region, which would end the Addis Ababa Agreement. In this environment, enabled by challenges arising from the integration of former Anyanya fighters into the Sudanese government, the mutiny of Southern Sudanese troops at Bor effectively ushered in the Second Sudanese Civil War. Following the outbreak of conflict, Nimeiri abrogated much of the Addis Ababa Agreement and declared Sudan an Islamic state to be governed by Islamic Shari’a law.
Early years of the SPLM
The core of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was comprised of former Anyanya fighters whose integration into the Sudanese Armed Forces had become problematic under the Nimeiri regime. Fighters from the First Sudanese Civil War that had remained in the bush joined them along with new southern Sudanese civilian recruits. The political wing of the SPLA, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), quickly established itself in Ethiopia with a Manifesto declaring its intention to fight for a united and secular Sudan. Ethiopia’s struggles with Eritrean separatists meant that the SPLM would not get Ethiopian support if they advocated separation and the manifesto was characterized by the Marxist language common within Ethiopia at the time. Dr. John Garang quickly became a close ally of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the Ethiopian Derg regime, and secured his power over the movement through selective purging of rivals within the SPLM leadership and a monopoly on support from Ethiopia. There is a widespread perception that Garang and his fellow Dinka purged rivals from other, minority southern ethnic communities and favored Dinka for advancement and outside training. This is the genesis of the ongoing belief of many southerners that the SPLM/A is ‘Dinka dominated’.
The Derg provided the SPLA bases, weapons, and a radio station. In return, the SPLA fought Ethiopian opponents of the Derg inside Ethiopia as well as the Sudanese government in Sudan. During this period, the SPLA was responsible for the enslavement (including widespread sexual slavery) of more than 1,000 Ethiopians trying to escape forced resettlement by the Derg or perceived to be in alliance with Ethiopian opposition groups. In addition to this, the SPLA forcibly recruited at least 17,000 child soldiers into the ‘Red Army’ and used refugee camps inside Ethiopia as military bases.
Within a few short years the SPLA was able to occupy the majority of the territory within southern Sudan. Early successes included attacks on oil facilities along the border with northern Sudan and the Jonglei Canal project. This was accomplished despite the SPLA’s at times predatory relationships with local communities. As the SPLA grew in strength inside southern Sudan, the movement’s political development remained stagnant. Dr. Garang’s monopolization of access to weapons and other resources enabled him to exercise dictatorial control over the movement, a position that would be challenged in the 1990s.
Changes of Government in Khartoum
Through a series of military, transitional and civilian governments, including the return of Sadiq al-Mahdi to the presidency in 1986, talks between the Sudanese government and the SPLA continued between 1985-1989. The Koka Dam Declaration, which laid out the basis for future political discussions and a National Constitutional Conference was signed in 1986. The new government agreed to a ceasefire with the SPLA in November 1988 amid contentious discussions about the implementation of Shari’a law in the south.
In June 1989, a coup fronted by Colonel Omar al Bashir brought a new Islamist military regime, called the National Islamic Front (NIF), to power. In 1993 the NIF converted into the National Congress Party (NCP). Following the coup, the government imposed limitations on political activity, including the banning of political parties and unions, and closed the parliament and newspapers. The government’s disregard for human rights extended to the war in southern Sudan. The NIF/NCP was a strong proponent of Islamic law and gave the conflict with the SPLA a more overtly religious nature, using the rhetoric of jihad. During this period the government enabled the re-launching of the slave trade by northern or ‘Arab’ groups in southern and south-central Sudan.
1991 Split within the SPLM
With the NIF regime in power in Sudan, the war between the government and SPLA continued unabated. In early 1991, the Ethiopian Derg regime collapsed and the Ethiopian opposition, some of whom the SPLA had fought on behalf of the Derg, took power. The SPLA and southern refugee populations fled Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government cut off all support to the SPLA. In the midst of this dislocation, internal political tensions in the movement came to the fore. The SPLA’s Political-Military High Command had never met, an SPLM National Convention had not been held since the party’s founding in 1983, and internal democratic processes within the SPLM/A were not functioning.
In 1991, Dr. Riek Machar, a Nuer, and Dr. Lam Akol, a Shilluk, announced their split with the SPLM/A, citing the lack of internal democracy and Garang’s dictatorial leadership. The split also carried ethnic overtones as Nuer and Shilluk were the second largest groups in the SPLA after the Dinka: indeed, many of Machar and Akol’s followers and fighters under the umbrella of the ‘SPLM-United’ were motivated by ethnicity, often deliberately, rather than party practices.
The split quickly led to devastating inter-communal violence throughout South Sudan and came to be known as the ‘War of the Doctors’. Machar and Akol quickly split from one another and the Sudanese government armed both groups. Soon after, the Sudanese government began arming multiple armed groups in southern Sudan to fight the SPLA, including different Nuer groups. The groups had a multiplicity of objectives: total independence of the South, perceptions of ethnic discrimination within the SPLA, personal aspirations for power, and local grievances about how the SPLA treated local communities. The 1990s saw a breakdown of relations within the Nuer leading to the ‘Nuer Civil War’. It took the SPLA years to recover and more than a decade of fighting, alongside international recognition, to secure the territory it held in 1990.
Concomitant to the breakdown of the SPLA was the Sudanese government’s efforts to widen splits between southern groups, engender new splits, and to negotiate independently with different armed groups. Renewed efforts to begin oil production in the southern oil fields, the majority of which were located in Nuer areas, provided an additional rationale for the Sudanese government to weaken the SPLA and seek willing southern Sudanese partners to secure the oil areas. This led to a series of agreements with Machar, including the first time the Sudanese government agreed to a referendum for southern independence. At the same time, the Sudanese government engaged in a policy termed ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Nuer oil areas – often carried out by southern armed groups receiving support from Khartoum. In 2001, a lawsuit was filed by southern Sudanese in a New York district court against Talisman oil, a Canadian company involved in the government’s policies around the oil fields, alleging ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide.
Oil began flowing in 1999, providing the Sudanese government with enhanced resources to fight the war, including to provide further weaponry to southern armed groups fighting the SPLA. As the largely Nuer groups saw few dividends from peace there was disillusionment and further conflict; many rejoined the SPLA, began to operate independently, or competed for dividends stemming from providing protection of the oil fields.
The 1990s were a devastating time in southern Sudan, creating ethnic cleavages and militarizing society, the effects of which can be seen in South Sudan today.
With renewed war in southern Sudan beginning in 1983, southern Sudanese were governed by the Sudanese government, the SPLM/A, and community-based armed groups, such as the Equatorian Defense Forces and the Pibor Defense Forces. As these groups fought for control of territory and resources, southern Sudanese had to contend with multiple and shifting sources of governing authority. The one thing southern Sudanese could rely on was that whoever was in control of their territory, they were far more likely to be military than civilian, and with extractive and abusive tendencies.
Following the 1991 split, Garang was pressured into holding an SPLM Convention in Chukudum in 1994. Following this, uneven efforts were made to establish civilian governance systems in SPLA-controlled territory. Supported by the international community, this included the establishment of the New Sudan Judiciary, the South Sudan Law Society, and other efforts to build the foundations of civilian governance in southern Sudan. These efforts were aided by the success of the 1999 Wunlit Peace Conference that led to local peace agreements between some Dinka and Nuer communities and was the springboard for a major upsurge in ongoing church-sponsored processes of reconciliation within and between communities.
Post-CPA Governance in the semi-autonomous Southern Sudan
After more than a decade of negotiations sponsored by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), in 2005 the Sudanese government and the SPLA signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The agreement ushered in a new era of governance in the now semi-autonomous region of ‘Southern Sudan’. Several aspects of the CPA were to have profound effect on governance in Southern Sudan. The CPA, which was a product of negotiation amongst elites in the north and south, only recognized the NCP and SPLM. It also made armed groups other than the SPLA illegal in Southern Sudan. In essence, this gave the SPLA, still widely viewed as ‘Dinka dominated’, an international legitimacy that was at odds with the patchwork nature of territorial control on the ground and the grievances many minority groups held against the SPLA. Critically, the CPA also provided for a referendum for independence of the south in 2011.
Prior to the CPA, Garang negotiated the return of Machar and Akol into the SPLA but many armed groups, including several Nuer and Shilluk groups, did not follow. After Garang’s death in 2005, a fellow Dinka, Salva Kiir Mayardit, took the helm of the SPLM/A and the position of second Vice-President in Sudan. Kiir and the SPLM changed course and dedicated themselves towards achieving independence in the coming referendum rather than seeking reform within a united Sudan. In 2006, Kiir announced the ‘Juba Declaration’ bringing in the bulk of the Nuer forces that remained separate from the SPLA, and began a policy of amnesty and accommodation of armed groups that were opposed to the SPLM/A. The CPA guaranteed the SPLM’s political role, enabling Kiir to accept these groups into the SPLA without addressing their political grievances.
Kiir, though a Dinka, is from Bahr el Ghazal while Garang was a Dinka from Jonglei. Like Nuer, Dinka have their internal divisions. During the CPA period, Jonglei Dinka along with many other ethnic communities began to believe that Kiir’s structure of government, while on paper multi-ethic, was increasingly dominated by Bahr el Ghazal Dinka in critical positions. In a letter to 70 senior officials, Kiir estimated that US$4 billion in oil revenue had been stolen by these same officials. In the absence of government service provision, representation in Juba was the only way for communities to benefit from the substantial oil revenue and the new status of the Southern Sudanese government.
Conflict in Southern Sudan continued throughout the CPA period with an array of different armed groups fighting the SPLA. These groups fought for greater representation of their community in government, in response to abuses by the SPLA, and for the political power of certain leaders. These groups often received support from the Sudanese government. One mechanism the government of Southern Sudan used to address these issues was ‘civilian disarmament’, ostensibly to halt cattle raiding and criminality, but most efforts involved violent, forced disarmament of minority communities who were at odds with the Juba government. In 2006 a single campaign against the Lou Nuer led to the deaths of more than 1,000. This was related to so-called ‘ethnic violence’ between communities, with thousands killed in conflict between Dinka, Nuer and Murle in Jonglei alone. The ethnic violence was fuelled by political leaders and related to cattle raiding, the failure of the SPLM to provide peace dividends, basic services or development, and efforts among communities to maintain military dominance over one another – the mechanism by which communities could demand representation in the government.
Other forms of discrimination against minority groups took place during the CPA years. In Western Equatoria, the government banned the practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses and attacked their churches in advance of the independence referendum due to their avoidance of engagement in political activity. In the western areas of Southern Sudan, the government expelled Ambororo, an entirely nomadic group who had been in southern Sudan prior to 1956 (which granted them citizenship rights), with the support of UNHCR who airlifted many out to neighboring countries. In advance of the referendum, many Islamic leaders were discriminated against and some ‘disappeared’. In the Equatorias, SPLM/A leaders used their positions to acquire land through violence.
In line with the conditions of the CPA, a popular referendum was held in January 2011 on whether Southern Sudan should integrate with Sudan as a single nation or become a separate independent state. The results were overwhelmingly for independence, with 98.8 per cent of votes cast in favour of the creation of a separate state. In July 2011, South Sudan officially came into being.
The post-independence Government of the Republic of South Sudan continued to function much the same way as it had prior to independence. However, following independence, internal southern grievances came to the fore. These were characterized by challenges to the lack of democracy within the SPLM and to Kiir’s dominant role. As President Kiir’s rule came under threat, particularly through challenges emerging within the SPLM, he increasingly consolidated power within his own ethnic group. The Presidential Guards and National Security were stacked with Bahr el Ghazal Dinka and reported directly to the Presidency, rather than through the still multi-ethnic SPLA leadership. Grievances were not limited to the core of the SPLM/A and included national level as well as localized grievances.
A 2012 all-Jonglei disarmament campaign, accompanied by widespread atrocities against the Murle population – but not other ethnic groups in Jonglei – after a major attack on Murle which had killed thousands of civilians, led to an armed rebellion by Murle militias against the government. The counter-insurgency campaign targeted civilians, killing more than 1,000, including civilians en route to receive UN food distributions. These events occurred at a time when the government sought to begin oil production in Murle areas, raising fears that the violence targeting the minority was related to these efforts. The killing of a Ma’adi chief in Eastern Equatoria who was defending his community against land appropriation by Dinka was an example of the widespread dissatisfaction and violent response it often engendered against minority groups across the country.
The South Sudanese Civil War
On 15 December 2013, following a tense meeting of the SPLM National Liberation Council, political pressures came to a head when fighting broke out among Dinka and Nuer members of the Presidential Guard. The fighting engulfed the capital city of Juba and soon spread to five of South Sudan’s ten states. Eleven SPLM leaders were detained on charges of sponsoring a coup while Machar fled to the bush and launched the SPLM/A-in-Opposition. The first days of fighting in Juba saw targeted ethnic violence by the security services against Nuer civilians, including the establishment roadblocks to prevent Nuer civilians from reaching safety in UN compounds. As the conflict expanded to include different armed groups, these initial killings sparked appalling levels of ethnically-targeted violence, including systematic sexual violence, against Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk and Darfuri civilians.
The bulk of the government’s fighting forces are comprised of Dinka and the SPLA-in-Opposition’s of Nuer, but both sides have allied forces of various ethnicities. The Ugandan Army and three separate Sudanese armed groups – the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdul Wahid faction, and the Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minawai faction – have also intervened on behalf of the government and are responsible for atrocities.
Since the outbreak of civil conflict, in the context of widespread insecurity and human rights abuses by government forces and rebel militias, even the most basic state functions have collapsed in many parts of the country. Efforts are now focused on peace resolution efforts between the major warring factions. Though a peace deal was brokered in February 2015 between the factions, the Cabinet passed a resolution postponing general elections and extending the tenure of Kiir’s parliamentary term until July 2017, effectively annulling the provision within the agreement to jointly establish a transitional unity government with a 30-month term. Another peace agreement signed in August, after months of negotiations mediated by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, appeared to have limited impact and failed to halt the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis. It was also undermined by Kiir’s unilateral and unexpected announcement at the beginning of October 2015 that South Sudan’s internal borders would be redrawn to increase the total number of states in the country from 10 to 28, with the stated aim of encouraging communities to develop villages through local resources. Though more devolution of power to local states had been a key demand of Machar’s rebels, the move was condemned by the opposition for the lack of consultation preceding the decision. In January 2017, the number of states was increased by presidential decree again – this time to 32.
IGAD, the mediators of the CPA, has mediated between the government and the SPLM/A-in-Opposition. Despite multiple rounds of negotiations and a series of cessation of hostilities agreements, there has been little impact on the ground and the war rages on. For instance, in March 2018, opposition groups met under IGAD auspices in Addis Ababa; despite their calls for Kiir to resign and the parliament to be resolved – Kiir refused. A key problem is that, given the nature of politics in South Sudan and the history of conflict as a tool of political representation, mediation has garnered little traction as an alternative to armed conflict with either the government or rebels – a system that inherently disfavors minority groups. Widespread support for federalism by the opposition and from dozens of minority groups not involved in the conflict are indicative of the government’s failure to address minority rights. While federalism is one of many options, there is little faith that a central government, operating under the existing system, would bring long-term peace or benefits to the South Sudanese people. Structuring a transitional government to ensure minority rights will be critical to a sustainable peace.
Updated July 2018
- South Sudan: Displaced again by conflict, the Shilluk community faces an uncertain future (2018)
- Briefing: The case of South Sudan (2008)
- The Southern Sudan (1990)
- Eritrea and the Southern Sudan: Aspects of some wider African problems (1971)
News and updates
- South Sudan: Situation worsens in Boma, thousands of lives at risk says MRG (18 June 2013)
- South Sudan: Recognition of all minorities key to freedom, justice and equality (19 July 2012)
- Scramble for natural resources in East and Horn of Africa threatens minorities and indigenous peoples and fuels conflict – new global report (28 June 2012)
- Urgent measures needed to protect all ethnic groups after recent South Sudan attacks, MRG (5 January 2012)
- Evidence of ethnic killings in South Kordofan, Sudan. Khartoum must cease violations immediately says MRG (12 August 2011)
- MRG expresses serious concern on humanitarian and human rights situation in South Kordofan, Sudan (22 June 2011)
- Ethnic tensions could increase violence in Southern Sudan – MRG (15 June 2011)
- Minorities must be included in nation-building in newly independent South Sudan, says MRG (8 February 2011)
- Sudan and Russia are major risers in ‘Peoples under Threat’ 2010 rankings (27 April 2010)
- Small steps towards peace in Jonglei state (20 August 2009)
- African States are the most dangerous in the world for minorities, but South Africa comes top in a global list of best ethnic political representation – new report (20 March 2007)
- Darfur: No extension without verification states rights group (23 August 2004)
- Letter to UK Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon Jack Straw, MP: UN Security Council resolution on the situation in Darfur, Sudan (8 July 2004)
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