Unrest Mounts In The World’s Youngest Country

Since violence erupted a week and a half ago, South Sudan has moved closer and closer to a civil war. The world’s youngest country came into being in 2011, when it secured independence following 23 years of civil conflict in Sudan. Although the negotiated peace was heralded by the international community, political and ethnic tensions threaten the stability and viability of the underdeveloped state.

Political Dispute Becomes Violent

Earlier this year, President Salva Kiir removed from power his entire cabinet, including his Vice President, Riek Machar. The ensuing political dispute took a violent turn on Dec. 15, when military factions clashed in the capital city of Juba. President Kiir alleges that Machar was attempting to mount a coup, a claim Machar has denied.

Clashes continue in Juba, resulting in a currently unknown death toll. Although the number of deaths has officially been at about 500 for multiple days, the discovery of mass graves and the ongoing violence makes that number seem unlikely. Violence has now spread to oil-producing areas in the north, near the border with Sudan. The U.N. estimates about 81,000 people have been displaced due to fighting, with five of the country’s 10 states now experiencing violence. In addition, two U.N. peacekeepers were killed during an assault on a U.N. headquarters. The U.N. has increased the number of peacekeepers on the ground, while other foreign nationals have been evacuated.

Ethnic Rivalry

Although the conflict was political in nature when it began, the country is finding itself splitting along ethnic lines. Many African nations still have multiple ethnic groups with strong ties, and long standing rivalries can and do lead to conflict. In this case, the majority Dinka group, of which President Kiir is a member, is clashing with the second largest Nuer group, of which Machar is a member.

Tension between the Dinka and Nuer has lead to clashes in the past. During the Sudanese civil war, the groups were on opposing sides, leading to mistrust and hostility when the conflict ended. Now, support is forming along those ethnic lines, threatening a conflict far more difficult to resolve than one based in a political power struggle. Reports of violent actions targeting specific ethnic groups have emerged, including torture and rape.

Oil

South Sudan is an oil producing country, adding another layer of concern as violence mounts. Oil is the primary source of revenue for the young country, and a disruption in production would have massive impact on economic stability. Oilfields are a strong source of funding for rebel groups, and should fighting become centered around securing them, the conflict could escalate quickly into a full-blown civil war.

The two year old country already struggles with underdevelopment and instability. Clashes with Sudan have taken place along the border, where the oilfields are located. South Sudan has struggled to overcome the setbacks caused by years of conflict, including rebuilding the education system and infrastructure. The country is not ranked by the U.N. Human Development Index.

Losing the largest source of revenue could set the country back considerably. A previous halt in production required the country take massive loans to remain afloat, a move that would be difficult and damaging to repeat.

International Response

The international community has called on the rival factions to work towards a negotiated peace. President Kiir announced he is open to dialogue without conditions, a significant opening that could headoff civil war. An African delegation has arrived in Juba to mediate the talks, but at this time Machar has not reciprocated and fighting continues.

The United States was key in supporting the South Sudanese bid for independence and in brokering the end of the Sudanese civil war. The breakdown within South Sudan is threatening what was a U.S. diplomatic victory, and as such officials hope to keep a full on civil war at bay. A US aircraft came under fired during an evacuation mission, however, and President Obama responded by calling for an end to violence and threatening the loss of U.S. support for the South Sudanese government. A small number of U.S. Marines are currently in neighboring Uganda to assist with evacuation efforts.

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