South Sudan President President Salva Kiir in 2011 wearing a hat gifted by U.S. President George W. Bush. Image by Aljazeera English.
Five years after gaining independence from Sudan in 2011 to become the world’s newest nation, South Sudan remains deeply troubled.
The color and joy that marked independence and the end of Africa's longest-running civil war turned into tears and blood when a fresh civil war arose in 2013, displacing 2.2 million people in two years.
In August 2015, under pressure from the United States and other nations, warring leaders Salva Kiir and Riek Machar negotiated a truce. The deal called for the installation of a two-year transitional government administered by representatives from both sides.
But that deal is now in tatters, after a fresh outbreak of hostilities within South Sudan.
Kiir, who also leads the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party, is the country’s president. Machar served as his deputy until the end of July.
The two have never gotten along. Machar detests Kiir’s management style, while Kiir maintains that Machar, the current leader of the breakaway faction SPLM-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), has been working to overthrow him. Kiir also belongs to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, while Machar is Nuer. The two rival groups have fought for land and resources since at least the 19th century.
Chaos erupted in July when supporters of the two leaders engaged in gun battles after a disagreement at the state house. Everline Otete, a Kenyan chef, reported hearing gunfire as government forces targeted her hotel, where opposition leaders had been booked. Said Miss Otete,
“It was really tense, and for a moment all we could hear were explosions and gunshots.”
The SPLM-in-Opposition heads were later evacuated from the hotel, but the government soldiers remained on alert, as journalists and other expatriates reported that the fighting in the city had gone technical, with gunships and attack helicopters involved.
Machar went into hiding and Kiir proceeded to fire him as vice president, installing General Taban Deng in his place, effectively undermining the 2015 deal.
President Kiir then announced a ceasefire—four days after the outbreak of violence. But the infighting between Kiir and Machar may reveals just how disconnected the two are from the rising chaos in the country.
Theories are now emerging that notorious military general Paul Malong Awan, head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and a former governor in the northwest, may be behind the most recent fighting.
Known as King Paul among his supporters, Malong has forged allegiances across the country through dozens of marriages. He reportedly has more than forty-five wives. To prove just how much power he wields, on July 25 Malong sent out a circular to the country’s air force “to carry out aerial bombardment” on Machar’s hideout.
South Sudan expert Clémence Pinaud, from the University of Indiana, has observed that Malong may be interested in seizing power for himself, writing:
“I have come to the unsurprising conclusion, as many South Sudanese have, that Malong is the one that holds the real power.”
Other countries in the region appear hesitant to get involved.
Kenya is still working to repatriate refugees from decades-old camps in its territory, and might be reluctant to get involved in South Sudan for fear of bringing in more refugees inside its borders.
Ironically, Machar spends most of his time in Kenya and often entertains important guests there. Further, most of Kiir’s, Machar’s and Malong’s relations stay in Nairobi, Kampala, and Dar es Salaam, where they are known to live in extreme opulence—Malong’s children attend fancy private schools in the Kenyan capital.
Samson Majok, a university student who entered Kenya as a refugee, attributes his country’s woes to extreme corruption and the disregard of development by its leaders. He explained:
“Some years back there were reports of financial donations to our country, which would have comfortably sustained us for six years, only for the amount to be split amongst less than 100 individuals. These are the people whose children you see driving huge cars and living in classy neighbourhoods.”
Majok’s bitterness is shared with more than 30,000 other refugees, nearly all women and children, who fled into Uganda late last month in the wake of the violence. Only five years after independence, and less than one since the U.S. pressured the country towards a peace deal, South Sudan again appears to be on the brink of war.
Brian Moseti SNR is a Kenyan journalist. Currently, he works as a digital media consultant in Nairobi, Kenya.