Can South Sudan be saved from self-destruction?

  • 1 May 2014
  • From the section Africa
A mass grave pictured in Bor, South Sudan

After months of war, it took a brutal massacre followed by a revenge attack inside a UN compound to bring international attention back to a country racked by both violence and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

South Sudan's downward path is now being talked about in the context of the two great African disasters of a generation - the famine in Ethiopia and the genocide in Rwanda.

The UN says "crimes against humanity" are being carried out, and the mass killing has been described as "a game-changer".

But what can be done to stem the violence and bring peace to the world's youngest country?

A rush of international diplomacy has begun.

First came a high level UN human rights delegation, which will be followed by US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit on Friday, and a regional leaders' summit in the capital, Juba, this weekend.

Talks in neighbouring Ethiopia have failed to make progress towards a peace deal, and neither side has honoured a ceasefire agreed in January.

The pressure is now being piled on President Salva Kiir and former vice-president turned rebel leader Riek Machar to agree an end to the violence.

The ethnic nature of what began as a political crisis is most worrying.

'Verge of catastrophe'

The two men lead the country's two biggest ethnic groups - the president's Dinka community and Mr Machar's Nuers - the split has sparked a continuous cycle of revenge killings, which is racing out of control.

A boat preparing to leave Bor in South Sudan
More than one million people have fled their homes since conflict began in mid-December
Children sit on jerry cans as they wait at a water distribution point at a camp for internally displaced people at the base of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Juba on 15 January 2014
Some 80,000 of those have sought protection at UN bases in the country

Bodies have been lying in the streets of Bentiu for two weeks - since Nuer rebel forces re-took the town from pro-government troops.

The UN said hundreds of non-Nuers were killed and has alleged hate speech was broadcast on the radio to incite ethnic violence.

There are also reports of moderate Nuers being killed - another eerie hark-back to Rwanda 20 years ago.

Survivors described a massacre in a mosque - where civilians had taken shelter from the fighting - others were killed in a church.

Aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres said at least 33 people were killed in the state hospital, and they have treated 230 people for gunshot wounds.

The brutality of the killing sparked a reaction in Bor - a flashpoint town currently held by the government.

A Dinka mob attacked the UN compound in what appears to have been a well-organised attack - 46 people under UN protection died, along with a dozen attackers.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, used strong words, saying "crimes against humanity" were being carried out in South Sudan.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (l) shakes hands with South Sudan's former Vice-President Riek Machar
UN rights chief Navi Pillay met President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar (R) during her visit
Rwanda President Paul Kagame (R) and South Sudan President Salva Kiir arrive for a ceremony at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre on 7 April 2014 in Kigali, Rwanda
President Kiir joined his Rwandan counterpart in Kigali for genocide commemorations earlier in April

Meeting both leaders, she stressed they would be held accountable for the actions of their followers, describing the crisis as: "A personal power struggle that has brought their people to the verge of catastrophe.

"They must stop blindly dragging their people down the path of self-destruction."


There will be a similar message from Mr Kerry who has begun his trip in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, where he is urging progress from peace talks which resumed this week.

The US was pivotal in South Sudan gaining independence, so its opinion holds sway.

Sanctions on individuals have become a popular international tool of pressure at the moment, but it is not certain if Mr Kerry will go that far.

Presidents Barack Obama and Kiir got off to an uneasy start, and the latter has recently spoken against Western interference and the need for African solutions to African problems.

Members of an anti-government militia in Nasir - 14 April 2014
Even if the two leaders agree to peace, there are concerns their followers may not be willing to disarm
A government soldier waves his AK-47 in celebration outside the UN base in Malakal after the army said it had recaptured the town from rebels on 19 March 2014
After towns are recaptured, revenge killings often follow, perpetuating the violence and making talks difficult

It is a view supported by regional heads of state who will hold a mini-summit in Juba on Saturday, but they are expected to further pressure President Kiir.

Foreign diplomats watching the situation closely warn the next month will be a dangerous time before three battalions of UN peacekeeping troops can deploy, with broader rules of engagement - as recommended by UN chief Ban Ki-moon in March.

The 2,500 soldiers from Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda would be allowed to use greater force to keep the two sides apart and protect civilians.

Regional agreement for this seems close, but waiting for approval from the UN Security Council and the time it takes for logistics will leave a vacuum, where the incentive is not to stop fighting, but to ensure more ground is captured or held.

Fear of famine

The cycle of ethic-based killing and revenge attacks is spreading and even if the two leaders committed to peace, at some point the violence may become impossible to stop.

Fighting may soon return to Bentiu as pro-government troops prepare to re-take the town from rebels.

There is the fear the troops will be bent on revenge after the massacre.

Four thousand mainly Nuer people have arrived at the UN compound in the city in the last few days, taking the total number sheltering there up to 27,000.

Across the country 80,000 people are under UN protection, but conditions in the camps are poor as the rainy season hits sanitation and makes life increasingly miserable.

A peacekeeper in Bor, South Sudan - 29 April 2014
It was agreed in December to raise the strength of the UN force in South Sudan from 7,000 to 12,500
A South Sudanese woman displaced by recent fighting prepares a meal at the Bor camp for the internally displaced in Bor town, Jonglei state, 29 April 2014
If crops are not planted, there will be a more serious food crisis in the months ahead

With 1.2 million people displaced and the UN estimating 4.9 million in need of humanitarian assistance, the fear of famine later in the year appears justified.

If crops are not planted, a far more serious situation could emerge in the months ahead.

The pressure is on the president - and the rebel leader - to at least engage more seriously in a peace deal.

But with both sides continuing to blame each other, the prognosis for South Sudan continues to be poor.

Map of South Sudan states affected by conflict
Fighting erupted in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in mid-December. It followed a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his ex-deputy Riek Machar. The squabble has taken on an ethnic dimension as politicians' political bases are often ethnic.
News graphic showing the ethnic groups of South Sudan
Sudan's arid north is mainly home to Arabic-speaking Muslims. But in South Sudan there is no dominant culture. The Dinkas and the Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, each with its own languages and traditional beliefs, alongside Christianity and Islam.
Map showing the location of oil fields in South Sudan
Both Sudan and the South are reliant on oil revenue, which accounts for 98% of South Sudan's budget. They have fiercely disagreed over how to divide the oil wealth of the former united state - at one time production was shutdown for more than a year. Some 75% of the oil lies in the South but all the pipelines run north.
Map showing the geography of South Sudan
The two Sudans are very different geographically. The great divide is visible even from space, as this Nasa satellite image shows. The northern states are a blanket of desert, broken only by the fertile Nile corridor. South Sudan is covered by green swathes of grassland, swamps and tropical forest.
Map showing access to water in South Sudan
After gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan is the world's newest country - and one of its poorest. Figures from 2010 show some 69% of households now have access to clean water - up from 48% in 2006. However, just 2% of households have water on the premises.
Map showing education levels in South Sudan
Just 29% of children attend primary school in South Sudan - however, this is also an improvement on the 16% recorded in 2006. About 32% of primary-age boys attend, while just 25% of girls do. Overall, 64% of children who begin primary school reach the last grade.
Map showing food insecurity rates in South Sudan
Almost 28% of children under the age of five in South Sudan are moderately or severely underweight. This compares with the 33% recorded in 2006. Unity state has the highest proportion of children suffering malnourishment (46%), while Central Equatoria has the lowest (17%).

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