Since 2013, South Sudan’s armed forces, which are loyal to the President Salva Kiir and have lots of soldiers coming from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), fought against the rebel troops led by Riek Macher (Kiir’s vice-president in 2013), known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-in-Opposition (SPLM/A-IO).
The civil war lasted five years and only in 2018 ended due to a peace agreement signed between the two main opponents. Nearly 400,000 people died because of this armed conflict and there is still political and social instability in the country. Even more, the violence is yet present, as there are ongoing clashes in different parts of the territory. Also, the peace agreement has found obstacles which do not allow the governments and stakeholders to accomplish the goals established in the document. Futhermore, the National Salvation Front (NAS), which was created in 2017, has been fighting against South Sudan’s government, mainly in the Equatoria state, and refused to sign 2018’s peace agreement. In relation to this subject, it is important to remark that the key insurgent groups in Equatoria did not sign 2018’s peace agreement, generating a tense context in this state, something that can be seen through the permanent clashes that erupt, in an erratic way, in Equatoria.
The main consequence of the civil war is the ethno-political dispute, which has appeared or worsened even between communities that, beyond their differences and their fight for dwells or pastoral lands, historically had a good relation and even celebrated intercommunal marriages. A good example of this situation is the Dinka-Nuer relation, in which both ethnical groups -the two largest of the country- used to have some traditional disputes but with a more local extend. During the civil war, this rivalry was exacerbated, as Salva Kiir is a Dinka and Riek Machar is a Nuer. Even if today the tension has decreased and, as a demonstration, both leaders signed a peace agreement, it cannot be stated that violence between these ethnical groups will not burst in the future.
Now, due to the climate change, intercommunal conflicts will be more frequent and violent, as it can be seen in different reports. The problem is that the ongoing violence is the best context for smugglers who abduct and sell children, as Siobhan Mullally, UN Special Rapporteur, said on December 14th.
During 2022, some important milestones gave hope to those who were working to find a solution. First, on January 16th, Salva Kiir’s government clinched two agreements with two important commanders that had left Riek Machar’s files. Apart from integrating their forces into the National Army, the most relevant fact is that they intended to resolve a longtime border conflict between the Padang Dinka and the Shilluk, who have been dealing to define the status of Malakal, a city claimed by both ethnical groups. Nevertheless, these agreements generated another problem, that is, the internal division of the former rebel groups aligned with Machar. This is quite important, as 2018’s agreement could be put in danger but also because Kiir and Machar have had a tense relation and the unity government depends on their capacity of sharing the power in a good way. So, while dividing Machar’s bloc, the future of the peace deal risks to be another failed attempt of establishing a permanent solution to the political crisis of the country.
Then, on September 5th, rebel troops joined the national forces, in a symbolic decision. However, this issue did not consolidate the peace process in the country, as violent clashes have erupted since August. However, it can be seen as a step forward concerning the integration of all forces (loyals to the governement, former rebel groups and current rebel forces, as the NAS) but to consolidate this process it is mandatory, for example, that the NAS and South Sudan’s government can bring their proposals closer, so they can obtain the desired agreement of peace.
Unluckily, on November 25th the government of South Sudan stepped out from the peace talks with rebel groups that did not sign 2018’s peace agreement. The negotiations were held in Rome and the South Sudanese emissaries pulled out because they thought that the rebels were just “buying time to prepare for war”.
The violence and crisis in numbers
To understand the current situation of South Sudan it is very useful to analyse the figures published by the the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which allow us to have a better view of today’s context.
Between December 9th, 2021 and December 9th, 2022, there have been 1,873 fatalities and 697 total events. About this latter ones, violence against civilians (328) and battles (253) represent 83.36% of the events registered during the above mentioned period. The figures have clearly decreased in comparison to the same period of time but between 2020 and 2021. Nevertheless, it is very relevant to observe the rate or tendency of the last months. Concerning this issue, between August 1th and December 9th, there have been 154 events (58 battles and 86 violence against civilians) and 349 fatalities but November’s numbers represent 25.3% of the total events and 30.95% of the fatalities of the mentioned period. It is worrying to see that October acquires 24.68% of the total events and 25.21% of the fatalities of the period, that is, with a similar number of events, more people were killed in the incidents.
As a matter of fact, on December 14th, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that 166 civilians were killed and 20,000 were forced to displace since violence erupted in August on the Upper Nile State. This information is very worrying as it is a consequence of intercommunal clashes due to “grazing areas, water and cultivation grounds”.
Another element that should be taken into account is the fight between “groups locally known as the White Army and Shilluk forces” in Fashoda County. This confrontation began on November 17th and it is mandatory to remind that Fashoda County is part of the Upper Nil state. Also, it must be said that the violence has spread to two more states (Jonglei and Unity).
In addition, the rising figures and the deteriorated situation in different regions of South Sudan can allow to conclude that the final numbers could be bigger, something that will be observed when the statistics of the last month of the year will be published.
According to the World Food Program, more than 6.5 million people (equivalent to 63% of the population), are suffering acutely food insecurity and more than 100,000 are facing famine (that is, phase 5). Another relevant source, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), published a report in November and, among other figures, it established that 7.76 million people (nearly two thirds of the country’s population) will face acute food insecurity during the period April-July 2023. If this seems to be dramatic, the situation is even worse, as IPC projects that 1.4 million children will be malnourished in the same term.
In relation to this, it must be pointed out that the use of starvation as a weapon of war in South Sudan’s conflict is a dramatic reality and it has been announced by different medias or international organizations on April 2017, November 2017, February 2020, October 2020, June 2021 and, recently, November 2022.
Therefore, the UNHCR is worried due to the escalation of the armed conflict in the Upper Nile state and on December 7th gave some dramatic figures. According to this source, 20,000 people have been displaced since August and at least 3,000 of those displaced people have already crossed the border and entered Sudan. Even more, the UN said that the Adidiang island currentyl shelters 37,000 refugees, but in 2012 its capacity was 10,000.
Moreover, it is important to remember that nearly 2.29 million South Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers live in the neighbouring countries, which also have internal displaced people, confront political instability, face the effects of the climate change or simply do not have the resources to host so many refugees coming from South Sudan. So, a worsening situation in this latter one could have bad consequences for countries like Uganda (which already shelters 835,657 South Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers), Sudan (807,411), Ethiopia (407,382) and Kenya (151,172), among others. population in Africa. Sudan follows closely behind, hosting almost 800,000 refugees.
Furthermore, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), “9.4 million of the most vulnerable people in South Sudan will need urgent life-saving assistance and protection in 2023, compared to 8.9 million in 2022”. So, as it can be seen, the current context is very serious.
Lastly, the historical floods have to be pointed out, as they have been devastating.According to International Crisis Group, 289,020 people were displaced in 2019, while 442,400 were forced to flee in 2020 and 505,200 left their village or city in 2021. The intensity of the rains produced an extraordinary phenomenon, that is, the water did not recede in the dry season and the soil started to get saturated. Therefore, a normal rain could turn into a dramatic flooding and this is exactly what happened during April and June 2022, period in which thousands had to leave their homes due to the floods.
In order to have a deeper glance about the floods, the figures help to understand in a better way the complexity of the situation. On October 21th, UNOCHA published a report, which expressed that “over 900,000 people have been directly impacted as waters have swept away homes and livestock, forced thousands to flee, and inundated large swathes of farmland, worsening an already dire food emergency”. Then, on December 14th, another publication of UNOCHE stated that the number of people suffering to the floodings had decreased a bit (835,000). Nevertheless, according to the same source, 33 of 78 counties of the country were affected by this phenomenon (as of December 8th). Furthermore, the most impacted states were Jonglei (305,000 people), Unity (220,000) and Upper Nile (141,000), which represented nearly 80% of the total population affected by the floodings.
Due to the current floods, herders have been forced to displace and some of them have finally been part of the violent clashes against insurgents (who fight against the government) and members of the local communities in which they settled.
The floods crisis cannot be analysed as a single issue, as the climate change has other ramifications in the Horn of Africa. For example, the severe drought that has affected the whole region, which has experienced its longest drought during the last 40 years, with a 5-year dramatic streak of failed rainy seasons. Even if South Sudan has not been suffering due to this drought crisis, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have been dealing with this. According to the World Food Program, 2023’s situation could be even worse than the one registered in 2022. In the mid-term, it could mean thousands or even millions of people displaced and that could be a problem for the neighbouring countries, as South Sudan.
Armed conflict, intercommunal violence, political instability, critical economic situation, corruption, historical floodings and food insecurity are undermining any effort to improve South Sudan’s current context. The above mentioned circumstances have generated a growing drama, in which nearly 6.8 million people need urgent humanitarian aid, so they can escape from death. In addition, according to the World Bank, 80% of the South Sudanese population were living below the poverty line in 2018. This is very worrying, as UNHCR announced, on October 24th, that they needed at least US$700 before the end of 2022, so they could avoid further cuts in the humanitarian assistance, something that could be, in their own words, catastrophic. Moreover, in the particular case of South Sudan, during last year only 46% of the needed budget ($214.8 million) had been received.
In this scenario, the stakeholders should make bigger efforts in order to find a strong and lasting agreement, which satisfies all the parties involved. Thus, it is essential that the NAS and other non-signatory groups of 2018’s agreement start to dialogue with the government. About this latter one, the decision to split the opposition, whether it was accidental or not, did not contribute to the peace process. Thefore, Salva Kiir should analyse a new approach towards the opposition and, specially, the previously mentioned non-signatory groups.
Furtherly, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) could play a more relevant role in this conflict, as external powers have demonstrated that even if they may have good intentions, they are always seeking their own goals. Then, it seems that the IGAD could support the peace process and put pressure in order to accomplish the main objectives of the Revitalized Peace Agreement.
 It should be said South Sudan’s refugee crisis is the largest one in Africa and the third largest in the world (beyond Syria and Afghanistan).