How the World’s Newest Country Is Destroying Itself

Ethnically charged violence has already left hundreds dead and threatens to plunge the new country into chaos

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Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

An internally displaced boy walks next to barbed wire inside a U.N. compound in Juba, South Sudan, on Dec. 19, 2013

The violence that erupted this week in South Sudan following an apparent coup casts a shadow over the nascent country’s future. As the fighting spreads — roughly 500 people are already dead amid reports of grisly ethnic killings — foreign observers are warning of civil war.

“The scenario many feared but dared not contemplate looks frighteningly possible: South Sudan, the world’s newest state, is now arguably on the cusp of a civil war,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said on Wednesday as clashes continued across the country. The violence has escalated in the volatile Jonglei state, where a U.N. peacekeeping base came under attack on Thursday, Reuters reports.

Founding an independent state is never easy, but South Sudan may have it particularly bad: leaving aside reports of already endemic corruption, the country comprises myriad feuding tribes, is impoverished, landlocked, undeveloped (it began two years ago with only 110 km of paved road in a landmass the size of France), and tensions blow hot and cold (mostly hot) with neighboring Sudan to the north. Plus, for better but also definitely for worse, South Sudan has oil.

Here’s what you need to know about the current crisis:

What is South Sudan?
South Sudan became a country in 2011 following a referendum that saw 99% of voters support independence from Sudan. Unlike the mostly Muslim north that, in many ways, identifies with the Arab world, South Sudan is primarily Christian or animist and is more closely associated with sub-Saharan Africa. The official languages are English and Arabic, but its roughly 11 million people speak more than 60 indigenous languages.

The country is very poor and ranks among the lowest in the world on human-development indexes. When it became its own country, less than 1% of its population had access to electricity, and it had the lowest female literacy rate in the world. Its lack of nearly any substantive infrastructure means improvements are far down the road.

But it also has enormous economic potential. South Sudan sits on three-quarters of the two Sudan’s total oil reserves — oil initially provided 98% of the country’s revenue — and foreign investment (read: China) is flowing in to help take advantage. The country also has an abundance of cattle, fertile land, timber and — especially following an influx of immigrants from neighboring countries — labor.

So Sudan just let it go, like that?
No. An insurgency populated by various rebel militias clashed in Khartoum in the late 1950s and ’60s, and then resumed again in 1983 in what is considered, combined, the longest-lasting conflict in Africa. It has left some 2.5 million people dead.

In 2005, as international pressure mounted amid reports of massacres in Darfur, the two sides reached an agreement imparting the South with autonomy until a referendum could be held. The separatist movement known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its armed wing transformed into the formal regime of the autonomous and then independent state. Tensions have since simmered over disputed territory and South Sudan’s oil exports, which go through Sudan’s pipelines, and proxy battles rage between rebel groups on each side of the contested border. But outright war has been avoided, so far.

But now they’re independent. What’s the fighting about inside South Sudan?
Relative peace with its neighbor has magnified the political divisions in the new country. President Salva Kiir, a shrewd politician, has maintained his post at the head of the South Sudanese political establishment since 2005, despite growing power struggles within the ruling SPLM party. In July, Kiir took the radical step of dismissing his entire Cabinet as well as Vice President Riek Machar, who is considered a likely candidate in 2015 presidential elections.

On Sunday night, according to Kiir, forces loyal to the ousted Vice President staged a coup. The next day, Kiir addressed the nation in military garb — a switch from his traditional suit and cowboy hat — to call Machar a “prophet of doom” and announce that after a day of gunfights that left at least 40 people dead, the attempted coup had failed. The government said at the time that multiple former Cabinet members were arrested, naming them on its official website.

But Machar, a player in regional politics for some 30 years, has denied partaking in the coup. The former Vice President, who says he’s in South Sudan but has not revealed his location, instead accuses Kiir of using clashes among soldiers as an impetus to crack down on opposition.

The President said the coup has been put down. Why is the fighting continuing?
South Sudan comprises a mélange of ethnic and tribal identities including the majority Dinka tribe — to which Kiir belongs — and Machar’s Nuer tribe, the second most populous. The initial fighting aggravated long-standing fissures between the two sides, and clashes within the military broke out across the country. Reports of ethnic killings in Juba fueled fears that the country would implode, and more than 16,000 people sought shelter within the U.N. compound. On Wednesday, the government said it had lost control of Bor, the capital of the restive state of Jonglei, reportedly to soldiers loyal to Machar.

Is the country imploding?
On Thursday, the capital was mostly calm, and the government said order had been restored, though reports streamed out of fighting in Jonglei. But international observers are cautioning that the violence can still tear the country apart. The U.N., which has nearly 8,000 peacekeepers stationed in the country, has called for political dialogue, and neighboring governments — well aware of the threat of an unstable South Sudan — are urging calm. So is the U.S., which evacuated all nonessential personnel and dispatched Ambassador Susan Page to meet with Kiir.

“We are deeply concerned that ethnically based attacks on all sides will lead to revenge attacks and more violence,” Daniel Bekele, the Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The awful accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

48 comments
Robin Bird
Robin Bird

Let's all stand around and point fingers and judge one another. That's how things get resolved right?

Robin Bird
Robin Bird

Shut up, shut up, shut up.... what the hell is wrong with everybody???!!!

Mike Clarkson Sr.
Mike Clarkson Sr.

Surprise surprise. Religion/ethnic, same thing. An excuse for power and money.

Ales Soucek
Ales Soucek

Of course.... blame the north!!... what a stupid comment!

Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson

You mean stable black controlled country (Rhodesia)

Edward Erlikh
Edward Erlikh

Only two and a half million people dead? That's not even close to WW2 numbers, sorry Africa, not impressed.

JM254
JM254

What is South Sudan? Really?

Brayo B Knoxx
Brayo B Knoxx

what i ment is that the north is more arab than black in appearance

Obembe Ayodeji Oluwaseun
Obembe Ayodeji Oluwaseun

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Subash Sharma
Subash Sharma

Bane of being oil rich nation... What an irony?

gsnugawela
gsnugawela

Please judge who is responsible for this chaos, I think it is the high powered nations interference to the other nations. Vepons producers make sure that their products are sold.

kon-tiki
kon-tiki

Birth of Democracy is never an easy one. The same happened in East Timor too, Libya, Iraq. I guess it will take some time to settle down. The would be latest one will be Palestine which will be a real bloody one too with internal struggles manifesting in different violent forms. 

Vicky Sookdeosingh
Vicky Sookdeosingh

2 years later. Where there is oil there is conflict, human rights issues though jus unthinkable :( Sadly little hope for these ppl.

Kin Bleasdale
Kin Bleasdale

So ....ever thought of crashing into the Arabia to seek out the life out there? Moreover MECCA is the most fulfilling destination of a lifetime they can breathe it everyday the air is even more nourishing to start with. Seen several times on F/B majority even wanted to serve the Square Block for FREE. So here kindly rendered my charitable thoughts for them. Kindly deactivated the sexual alarm....that a big POP of miseries.

thinkfromabove
thinkfromabove

Ignorance is the transgression that kills 


(blasphemy of the BIG picture, called Holy, or Whole, Spirit)


and the scripture is the exclusive source for instructions on how to overcome death by the example of Jesus Christ, who overcame and resurrected Himself. period.

Kin Bleasdale
Kin Bleasdale

Majority are Muslims = trouble. Wherever they are multiplication of.destruction and catastrophe shadows like shadow of death. But now easily that weight of toxic are dumped for Israel and U.S. to cradle. Either way they are never wrong so Human rights can be standing by their side as their Armoured Protector! Angels of Great Deception ....MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU!

Missa Matamoros
Missa Matamoros

I agree with Brian. No need to waste even more money from the west in problems that will eventually happen again, by the same reasons.

Mahmoud S. Elbaih
Mahmoud S. Elbaih

The south separate as a result of outer pressure from some countries which have benefits from this separation

Azuka Chibuzor
Azuka Chibuzor

Mahmoud, the South is better off being independent from the North. The North had never given anything to the South since they were together. Only Sharia Law.

Gillian Welch
Gillian Welch

....Sigh dnt tke it personal my dear. If he was there he would b dyin for help if smeone was killin his family.

Azuka Chibuzor
Azuka Chibuzor

Let's face it Brayo, I don't see an Arab hand in this. I knew it would come to this. I just supported the South Sudanese having independence just to breakaway from her radical Northern neighbor.

Azuka Chibuzor
Azuka Chibuzor

You are really a Racist Bryan. And I'm very ashamed of you. To be sincere.

Brian Shane Byrne
Brian Shane Byrne

The west is sick of helping Africa. The slave trade ended long ago. Let the African Union do something .

Brayo B Knoxx
Brayo B Knoxx

oil thats the real problem, this is most likely a sponsored coup attempt from the "arab" north sudan since the split the bashir has been trying to destabilize the south continuosly

Azuka Chibuzor
Azuka Chibuzor

So what you are saying in essence is that my people are cannibals. Right?!

Janet Rose
Janet Rose

We served the refugees- both sides - well before 2000.

Janet Rose
Janet Rose

Cusp?? They were involved in civil much earlier in the present century, if not before.

Mahmoud S. Elbaih
Mahmoud S. Elbaih

Brian Shane Byrne how you say that , we live in one planet and should help each other

Brayo B Knoxx
Brayo B Knoxx

south sudan isn't a muslim country google stuff before talking

Mahmoud S. Elbaih
Mahmoud S. Elbaih

The big mistake is the separation of south Sudan from Sudan because South Sudan is not qualified to be a stable country

Brian Shane Byrne
Brian Shane Byrne

No involvement of western troops, let them eat each other, or the African Union deal with it!

Missa Matamoros
Missa Matamoros

Does this qualify as news? I mean, it is Africa, when does this not happen, except in the few southern nations?

Craig Conrad
Craig Conrad

sudanese are total morons,totally corrupt and air-heads

JeremyLovesworth
JeremyLovesworth

It is definitely an alliance between Machar and the North. He even promised to share the oil with them. He wants to be the president. He is selling out his people. Muslims are the ones spreading the disinformation. This is not ethnic, it is religious and it is personal greed.

gemeinerpfennig
gemeinerpfennig

It's like that time the big happiness banana boat fricassee upped and tuliped into the wild blue yonder. Oh, but the wind! Big ups to your hairdresser, son of child. Many mornings to you.

jacusplacus56
jacusplacus56

Unlike the mostly Muslim north that, in many ways, identifies with the Arab world, South Sudan is primarily Christian or animist "


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