The world’s youngest nation is enduring a large-scale humanitarian crisis in which protracted civil conflict, disease, famine, drought, displacement and inflation are driving statewide insecurity. Following a decades-long civil war, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and experienced relative calm for the ensuing two years. However, political instability reinvigorated violence in 2013. The conflict worsened again in mid-2016 and has continued through to late 2017.
When violence broke out in 2013, President Kiir (an ethnic Dinka) accused then-Vice President Machar (an ethnic Nuer) of plotting a military coup. Machar denied the allegations but proceeded to mobilise a rebel force. Since then, clashes have largely stemmed from political divisions and ethnic allegiances, with both sides allegedly targeting civilians. Additional causes of tensions are livestock raiding, as well as disputes over agricultural land, water and other resources.
Since independence, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed, while a further 4 million have been displaced. That’s almost one quarter of the total population. In March 2017, a UN report said the situation was teetering on the edge of genocide. One month later, the United Kingdom classified the violence as ‘genocide committed along tribal lines’, referencing ongoing ethnic cleansing in Yei since mid-2016. Both parties have been accused of human rights abuses. The UN says government forces are perpetrating the most atrocities.
Gang-based sexual assault, kidnapping, murder and destruction of property has led to mass displacement. As of September 2017, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said there were 1.87 million internally displaced people, 200,000 of whom were living within UN compounds. A further 2 million people have taken refuge in neighbouring Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. The total lack of physical security and basic services has also enabled the rapid spread of disease, with cholera transmission present almost 30% of South Sudan’s counties.
At a local level, the conflict has shut down markets and prevented farmers from planting and harvesting. Subsequently, famine is already prevalent in many areas, with 1.7 million people needing immediate aid and a further 6 million going hungry. Less volatile regions are also struggling to put food on the table due to widespread drought and poor yields since 2014. Mercy Corps says the current window between hunger and starvation in South Sudan is extremely narrow and therefore encourages immediate international action. However, attacks on aid convoys—such as the recent killing of an International Committee of the Red Cross employee—further complicate the distribution of emergency rations.
Food shortages have caused exponential inflation, with staple grains such as sorghum becoming inaccessible for many families. The conflict has also triggered fuel shortages, causing public transport costs to skyrocket. Subsequently, many people are forced to choose between absenteeism and spending almost their entire salary on transportation. South Sudan’s inflation rates continue to fluctuate but became the world’s highest in January 2017, peaking at 835%.
The situation is dire, but there’s hope for reconciliation. Reducing small arms proliferation and encouraging inclusive dialogue to determine the root causes of conflict will be key factors for developing a homegrown solution. Progress is underway in some communities, where peace committees have facilitated mediation to prevent further violence. With the right support and leadership, these committees could work at a local level to support a nationwide resolution.
Looking ahead, South Sudan’s 2015 Peace Agreement requires presidential elections to be held at least 60 days before the Transitionary Period concludes in February 2018. However, this would go against the UN’s advice to postpone elections until after the security situation has stabilised. This advice has caused controversy amongst lawmakers who insist there’s no constitutional avenue for postponing elections. The Kiir Government maintains it will go to the polls within the agreed timeframe. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether this decision will provide political legitimacy or cause further societal deterioration.
Remy Tanner is the International Security Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.