South Sudan On The Brink Of Chaos: Lessons From The Genocide In Darfur


South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is now teetering on the verge of genocide. On Friday 12 November, Adama Dieng, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, warned that South Sudan is at a “strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.” The situation has become increasingly violent and widespread, with conflict and inter-ethnic violence occurring throughout the country. The targeted massacres of civilians based on their identity and hate speech against ethnic groups have divided the population. In the state of Equatoria, tensions between the Dinka community and Equatorians have grown particularly virulent, resulting in a series of tit-for-tat atrocities committed by armed forces and militias. Elsewhere, civilians who have faced the devastation of conflict have been forced to flee.

The United Nations (UN) has raised the alarm, however, the international community has yet to show serious political will to prevent the genocide. The inability of the UN peacekeeping force, UNMISS, to protect civilians facing murder, mutilation, abduction, and sexual violence has reflected the international community’s attitude to conflict and war in the Sudans. The government of South Sudan has denied Dieng’s claims that the country is moving towards genocide, and has further denied responsibility for inciting and committing violent atrocities. Instead, the government armed forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has continued a scorched-earth campaign that targets civilians as sympathisers of the opposition. Armed militias and opposition forces have similarly adopted ruthless means to attack the government through the massacre of civilians. Both sides will continue to commit atrocities against civilians if it means staying in or acquiring power. In neighbouring Sudan, the case of Omar al-Bashir presents a sobering prediction of the lengths the government of South Sudan will take to maintain control. Indeed, the international community has failed to halt the ongoing genocide committed by al-Bashir in Darfur. If the international community fails to heed the warnings of an imminent genocide in South Sudan, the people of South Sudan will undoubtedly experience a prolonged, ruthless suffering at the hands of its own leaders.

Conflict and genocide in the Sudans

The widespread violence and atrocities in South Sudan can be traced to the country’s turbulent history. Before its independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan had experienced decades of war. Civil wars between Sudan’s government in Khartoum and the SPLM rebels reflects the ideological and religious tensions between the north and the south. Upon the independence of South Sudan, Salva Kiir became President, and Riek Machar was appointed Vice President. However, tensions became evident between the two leaders, who fought for power over the country. In 2013, this resulted in the sacking of Vice President Machar, and with it, the beginning of South Sudan’s civil war. It soon created dangerous, ethnic divisions. President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, rallied the support of followers from the large Dinka community of the South Sudanese population. Machar, an ethnic Nuer, similarly garnered support from the Nuer community. However, Al Jazeera has stated that “with nearly 60 ethnic groups, the main factions have broken up into even smaller fighting factions.” This has made the violence in South Sudan highly complex and localised.

In August 2015, a peace agreement was achieved between Kiir and Machar at the behest of regional leaders. However, since July 2016, the intensity of violence has escalated. Attacks on civilians are becoming increasingly atrocious and widespread, as the number of those killed since July extends to the tens of thousands. Dieng, upon his visit to South Sudan, noted a particularly disturbing trend, reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, with “the barbarous use of machetes to hack families to death.”

Not dissimilar to the Rwandan genocide, the international community has done little to halt the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. This represents a worrying precedent if South Sudan descends into genocide. The genocide in Darfur began in 2003, waged by President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan against his own population. But unlike the Rwandan genocide, which lasted only 100 days (devastating nonetheless), the genocide in Darfur continues. Nick Turse, author of Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, remarked: “The killings there actually never ended, only the public outcry did.” He also points to the massacres that occurred in places “like Malakal, Bor, and Leer” in South Sudan during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, these places are sites of violence, suffering, and abandonment, as residents flee to swamplands to survive.

The genocide in Darfur provides a sobering reality for a country on the brink of chaos. Eric Reeves, a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, argues that the Darfur genocide “has occurred despite compelling reports of the genocidal nature of Khartoum’s counter-insurgency strategy from the first months of ethnically-targeted civilian destruction… [and] the peacekeeping mission meant to respond to the catastrophe in Darfur is certainly the most dismal failure in the history of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UN DPKO).”

The international and national actions in response to South Sudan are eerily similar. Indeed, the UN has recognised the potential for genocide, but it has shown a failure in the past to address mass atrocities in the country. The UNMISS peacekeeping force has also faced accusations against its credibility, during the failure of peacekeepers to protect civilians attacked in their presence. The peace negotiations, led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), represented by leaders of Eastern African countries, have similarly failed to effect sustainable pressure on the government and opposition in South Sudan to achieve lasting peace. Within South Sudan, the government has denied the UN’s claims of genocide within the country, and denied state responsibility for inciting hatred between ethnic groups.

Preventing bloodshed and achieving peace in South Sudan

The UN’s recognition of the potential for genocide in South Sudan is a positive first step to prevent serious bloodletting. The term genocide has particularly grave connotations and is a powerful identification that (usually) garners international intervention. At the international level, this requires deliberation at the UN Security Council, in order to enforce sanctions and establish arms embargoes. Significantly, it must establish a suitable, nonviolent response to the ethnic violence in South Sudan. Member states must provide ongoing humanitarian support and funding to the peacekeeping mission. There must be an increased presence of UNMISS troops willing and able to protect civilians under threat. While UNMISS has been unsuccessful in curbing inter-ethnic violence, it has the potential to reform and perform as an effective peacekeeping corps with additional international support. These actions must be undertaken in order to quell the violence on the ground. However, high-level negotiations must continue between President Kiir, Riek Machar, and other opponents. IGAD must continue to lead negotiations with the support of the UN in order to strengthen the possibility of establishing a durable peace.

However, the responsibility to end the conflict in South Sudan remains with its leaders. Jok Madut Jok of the Sudd Institute believes that: “The best case scenario is an impossible one. It’s to get Machar and Kiir to retire from politics, to be replaced by a caretaker technocratic government until elections.” Indeed, the willingness of both leaders to cling to power, as shown by the continued destruction of their country, indicates the futility of such a scenario. According to Jok, former opposition negotiator Taban Deng Gai has the most potential to enact change through his appointment as Vice President: “to put a brake on the excesses of the army, and build a constituency among the opposition that bleeds support away from Machar.”

A country on the cusp of genocide must find local ways to reconcile ethnic violence. Once high-intensity violence is quelled by peacekeepers and there is a negotiated truce between South Sudan’s leaders, community-based initiatives should be implemented countrywide. Peace and justice are inextricably connected. The communal nature of violence in South Sudan requires truth-telling and reconciliation initiatives that aim to heal the trauma associated with mass atrocities. Indeed, the failure of the international community to halt the genocide in Darfur leaves important lessons for the situation in South Sudan. The international, national, and community-level strategies suggested above provide potential solutions to prevent the outbreak of genocide in South Sudan. Unless the international community, the government and the opposition of South Sudan have the political will to end the violence that has devastated the population of South Sudan, we may witness another genocide on African soil that could have been prevented.

Caitlin Biddolph