Reports of gunfire. Thousands of civilians seeking shelter. A president addressing the nation. From all the reports coming out of South Sudan, it appears that something is happening in the capital, Juba, but precisely what and why remains unclear more than twenty-four hours after the disturbances began.
As near as anyone can tell, the situation began on Sunday evening, when gunshots rang out in Juba, followed by what appears to have been an attack at an army base. Details beyond that prove murky at best, however. A spokesperson for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) told local media that the South Sudanese army was facing a “hostile force of more than 300 men in two areas around Juba.” Whether or not what took place was a coup attempt, a mutiny, or some third option, however, is still very much in question.
What actually is clear is that the situation goes back to South Sudanese president Salva Kiir moving to sack his entire cabinet in July, including Vice President Riek Machar. The announcement exposed fully the deep divide within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), as several of those sacked — including Machar — had planned to challenge Kiir in the 2015 presidential election. Four of the former officials fired in July’s purge, including the former ministers of interior, national security, environment, and culture, were arrested in connection with the clashes in Juba.
Nowhere to be found, however, is Machar, of whose location the United States made expressly clear they didn’t possess knowledge. His location could well be the key to discovering just what caused South Sudanese soldiers to fire off into the night, a matter that is still not fully certain. Reuters reported that according to witnesses and analysts, the clashes were between soldiers housed in two sets of barracks in Juba, one of which is home to the Presidential Guard. Portions of the Guard remain loyal to Machar, whose Nuer tribe have fought previously against the Dinka tribe to which President Kiir belongs. These motivations have yet to be confirmed, however, in the fog of the ongoing fighting.
Kiir addressed the nation on Monday, wearing the full military apparel he had not donned since winning election in 2011, the first presidential ballot in his country’s short history. Before the cameras, Kiir announced that a curfew — lasting from 6 PM until 6 AM — would be in place until further notice to allow for the government to track down the perpetrators of the “coup” attempt.
Kiir also wasn’t shy about pointing to Machar as the instigator of the attacks. “This prophet of doom continues to persistently pursue his actions of the past and I have to tell you that I will not allow or tolerate such incidents once again in our new Nation,” he said. “I strongly condemn these criminal actions in the strongest terms possible.”
The fighting within the city has caused thousands of South Sudanese citizens to seek shelter behind the walls of the United Nations compound near the Juba International Airport. According to the U.N. more than 13,000 civilians have arrived at their doorstep, looking to wait out the clashes while peacekeepers provide them with water and basic medical treatment.
“I urge all parties in the fighting to cease hostilities immediately and exercise restraint,” Special Representative of the Secretary-General Hilde Johnson said in a statement from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). For now, though, the fighting continues, with the airport closed to commercial flights and the number of civilians seeking refuge with the U.N. swelling by the hour.