Last week, reports began to trickle out from South Sudan of violence on the streets and mutinies in barracks. Since then, what appears to have began as a minor confrontation among soldiers has escelated to placing the world’s youngest country on the brink of civil war. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Why is there fighting in South Sudan?
Since its independence from Sudan in 2011, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has held control of the government. President Salva Kiir earlier this year dismissed a large portion of his cabinet, including Vice President Riek Machar. The flare-up began in military barracks as forces loyal to Machar refused to be disarmed, spreading throughout the country. After a period where the government’s claims of a coup attempt seemed murky at best, Machar claimed that Kiir was merely executing a purge of his competitors. The former vice president is now openly challenging Kiir, with ethnic differences between the two men beginning to become an integral part of the fighting.
2. Is it serious?
Yes. Thousands have fled the fighting, with at least 42,000 taking up shelter in United Nations bases throughout the country. These headquarters for the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) have been unable to feed all the refuge-seekers, however, and as many as 2,000 armed youth assaulted a base in Akobo, resulting in the deaths of civilians and peacekeepers attempting to protect them alike.
“It would have been have been difficult one week ago to imagine that things would have unravelled to this extent,” Toby Lanzer, the U.N.’s South Sudan humanitarian coordinator and deputy head of UNMISS, said on Sunday. “It would be quicker to talk about which areas I’m not worried about.”
The situation became much more serious to Americans watching the crisis unfold when an evacuation attempt of U.S. citizens on Sunday resulted in shots fired at the helicopters, injuring four U.S. solders.
3. Where is the worst fighting?
At the moment, the regions of Jonglei and Unity are currently the most heavily disputed areas, thanks to the defection of Peter Gadet and Maj. Gen James Koang Chuol, two major figures in the South Sudanese military. That Unity is under the control of rebels is particularly problematic to the government, given the need for the oil revenues the state produces — which totaled $1.3 billion in just five months of production this year — to keep Juba running.
Foreign oil workers have been evacuated, while countries struggle to withdraw all of their civilians from harms way. Machar told the BBC on Saturday that his troops were now in control of “much of the country,” though that claim is difficult to view as accurate. While some major areas have been rendered insecure and conflict ridden, the government of South Sudan remains largely able to assert itself throughout the country even as the fighting continues. The government has declared that the situation in Juba, the capital, has returned to normal, but many continue to fear a counterattack by rebel forces.
4. Who is doing the fighting and can the U.N. peacekeepers contain them?
Reports from the country show that most of the South Sudanese army remains loyal to Kiir for the moment, but the defection of Gadet and Koang Chuol have proven to be a major blow to the government. As a result, the cities of Bor in Jonglei and Bentiu in Unity have been handed over to the rebels. The South Sudanese government on Monday was poised to launch an offensive to reclaim Bor, though it was delayed while the U.S. attempted to evacuate the civilians still in the region. President Barack Obama over the weekend informed Congress that he had dispatched 45 U.S. military personnel into South Sudan to aid in the removal of Americans, warning that he would be willing to take further military action if necessary to secure them.
A new regional dimension to the conflict opened up this weekend, as well, when Uganda dispatched troops to aid in the evacuation of Ugandan citizens. “Our major concern is to ensure that [our citizens] are safe, and if not they are evacuated so that process is ongoing,” said Fred Opolot, a spokesman for the Ugandan Foreign Ministry, denying reports that Uganda was intervening on behalf of the South Sudanese government. “Uganda People’s Defense Forces [are] in Juba to secure the airport, in order to ensure that the evacuation process goes very smoothly.” Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has thus far remained silent on the crisis in the territory he until recently controlled.
UNMISS has been struggling to provide for protection of civilians. The thousands sheltering in their bases making going out on patrols unlikely, an unfortunate truth for the many thousands more who remain outside the U.N.-controlled walls. As of October, there were only roughly 6,000 blue-helmeted soldiers available for all of South Sudan, a country the size of Spain and Portugal combined. Troops from the U.N. mission in the Congo are being redeployed to South Sudan to aid, but it is not clear how much their presence will affect the current fighting.
5. What are the ethnic dimensions of the conflict?
President Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group, while Riek is a Nuer. Those identities have rapidly become part of the narrative of the fighting, as each side begins to draw on the long history between the two groups to rally support. “As someone who was an architect of the split within the [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] in 1991 and was responsible for some of the divisive Dinka-Nuer ethnic violence of the 1990s, Machar has spent over a decade since he reconciled with the SPLM/A reforming his image so that he can be cast as a statesman and potential successor to Kiir,” Lesley Anne Warner, an analyst of African security issues, explained. “However, what started as a political dispute within the SPLM runs the risk of crossing the ethnic conflict line – a line that will be difficult to uncross given underlying civil war-era Dinka-Nuer tensions.”
While the government has avoided overtly playing on ethnicity, Human Rights Watch on Thursday accused South Sudanese soldiers of targeting civilians based on being Nuer. “The awful accounts of killings in Juba may only be the tip of the iceberg,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Government officials – whatever their politics – need to take urgent steps to prevent further abuses against civilians and quickly deescalate rising ethnic tensions.”