When Will Peace Come to South Sudan?

Jeremy Jingwei

18 July 2018

Opposition (SPLM-IO) soldiers in South Sudan’s capital city.

Opposition (SPLM-IO) soldiers in South Sudan’s capital city.


Thousands flooded into the capital city of Juba when South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 from its northern neighbor Sudan. After two long and bloody wars, peace finally seemed to have arrived in this new nation.

However, seven years later, South Sudan has remained unable to disentangle itself from civil war. This conflict has spanned almost five years, and the South Sudanese people continue to suffer. Despite numerous interventions from NGOs, foreign governments, and aid organizations, the warring parties still cannot agree to, or abide by, armistice provisions.  

The conflict is rooted in the tension between South Sudan’s two most prominent ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer peoples. In late 2013, tensions erupted into full-scale conflict when President Salva Kiir Mayardit, who is a Dinka, sacked his Nuer Vice-President Riek Machar under suspicion of plotting a coup. Although some contend that the civil war’s true objective was political,namely the consolidation of President Kiir’s power, it is clear that the opposing parties’ political bases are ethnically rooted. Thus, willingly or unwillingly, the war has taken on ethnic undertones.

Following a failed 2016 truce, many other tribes have taken up arms under the rationale of fear, accusing President Kiir of using the army to terrorize people who are not of Dinka origin. Some assert that the government tacitly encourages the ethnic cleansing of areas thought to support other tribes by labelling the armed militiamen as rebels in need of extermination.

Used as political pawns by both the opposition (SPLM-IO) and the South Sudanese government (SPLM), the people of South Sudan are the greatest victims of the constant warfare. Not only has the conflict killed over 50,000 people, but it has also produced over 4 million refugees and internally displaced persons.  

However, there is cause for greater concern; war-triggered famine has rendered 7.1 million civilians—over 50 percent South Sudan’s population—in desperate need of urgent food assistance. This crisis has been perpetuated by the restriction of humanitarian assistance to those who experience severe food insecurity. Many fear that the government is deliberately starving the opposition-supporting regions, with soldiers stealing food aid and denying aid workers access to entire cities. South Sudan is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an aid worker, with at least 100 killed since the fighting began. This, coupled with donor fatigue as the war enters its fifth year, creates significant obstacles to helping the most vulnerable segments of the South Sudanese population.  

Continued war in the region has also had significant regional consequences, as 2.47 million refugees represent a significant challenge for South Sudan’s neighbours’ resources and infrastructures. Moreover, many ethnic groups transverse neighbouring national borders, and the ethnically-fueled civil war is causing cross-border attacks that threaten the stability of the whole region. For instance, the 2016 Gambela massacre resulted in the deaths of 208 Ethiopian villagers after armed tribal militiamen crossed over the border from South Sudan.

On July 13, 2018, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan, hoping to limit the influx of arms accessible to the warring parties. Preceding this embargo was a report by the UN human rights office detailing the killing of 232 civilians between April 16 and May 24 by government-supported troops.

Recently, a “permanent” ceasefire was agreed upon by the two major warring factions, with hopes of a peace deal being reached. Many, including South Sudanese human rights activist Edmund Yakani, see the arms embargo as a measure to incentivize a peace deal between the SPLM and the SPLM-IO.

However, the historical track record of peace brokering between the two major factions has been poor. In fact, South Sudanese rebels and government forces have already blamed each other for breaking the most recent ceasefire. Previous ceasefires in December 2017 and May 2014 were also violated within days of being signed.

The lack of entrenched limits to executive power in South Sudan has been detrimental to previous peace agreements. The president’s unilateral alterations to the provincial makeup of the country in late 2015 and the sweeping appointment of his parties’ deputies to all provincial governorships in early 2016 violated the previous power-sharing peace agreement. These actions highlight both the absence of executive checks and balances, and the rival factions’ unwillingness to lose geopolitical advantages. Furthermore, Kiir’s actions were in direct contradiction to the general will of the populace, as many civilians either rejected the changes or were never consulted about them. These obstacles must be addressed in future peace agreements.

Despite the previous failures of diplomatic approaches to peace, it is clear that there is no military solution to South Sudan’s civil war. Even if the SPLM or the SPLM-IO win a significant military victory over the other, the various other armed rebel groups have no incentive to stop fighting simply because of the defeat of a major faction.

Although peace in South Sudan seems distant, the first step to peace must be a fair and equitable power-sharing agreement that prescribes protections and political relevance for minority ethnic groups. Furthermore, an entrenched constitution that makes provisions for fair, free, and contested elections must be agreed upon and ratified by the South Sudanese people. These conditions may seem far-fetched in the current political climate of South Sudan, however, with enough pressure from international organizations, foreign governments and the people of South Sudan, peace can be achieved.  

Until then, we’ll continue asking, when will peace come to South Sudan?