Comment & analysis

Civil war in South Sudan need not be inevitable

20 December 2013 Paul Murphy

Restraint and dialogue are urgently needed to avoid a return to civil war in South Sudan, but a long hard look at the underlying issues fuelling current violence is essential to lasting peace says Executive Director Paul Murphy.

For many, events in South Sudan over the past few days have been a nightmare come true. Just two years since independence – and nine years since the end of South Sudan’s protracted conflict with what is now the Republic of Sudan – political discord and spreading internal violence are pushing the fledgling state to the edge of breakdown. Following a dispute that turned tragically violent among soldiers in South Sudan’s Presidential Guards on Sunday 15December, conflict quickly escalated across the capital Juba with many military personnel and scores of civilians killed, and thousands displaced. South Sudan is menacingly close to another civil war.

The current crisis has occurred against the backdrop of rising tensions within the ruling SPLM party over recent months, fuelling a major political standoff between rival party elements. The deepening dispute between President Salva Kiir and the former Vice president, Riek Machar, is just one manifestation of this. Although initial claims that this was a coup attempt may seem unlikely, the country is now becoming deeply divided – behind the president on the one hand, and those opposing him on the other.

Even more worryingly, the violent clash over power and control of the ruling SPLM party is being increasingly executed along ethnic lines, reinforcing unresolved grievances and legacies of past civil wars. The crisis has quickly spread to other states, with unconfirmed reports of many hundreds of people violently killed and injured, most intensely in Jonglei State. The time and opportunity to stop the slide into all out war is rapidly diminishing.

Short term restraint; long term reconciliation

Resolving the underlying causes of this conflict will not be achieved in the short term – differences are deep, complex and in many instances personal. However, it is imperative that leaders on all sides agree on four key principles at this critical stage:

  1. to contain all armed groups and cease from any form of violent action
  2. to call on the people they have sway over to desist from any form of retaliation
  3. to commit to the safety and security of civilians everywhere and ensure they have safe access to necessary humanitarian assistance, and
  4. to publicly commit to a process of peaceful dialogue to resolve the current impasse.

At this point, the need for a credible third party to intervene in good faith appears urgent. Regional actors – including regional governments and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) bloc – are best placed to facilitate and lead this process, and have a major role to play ushering parties towards a negotiated solution. To support this, the ‘Troika’ group of states – the US, UK and Norway – and other influential actors such as China and the European Union, should use all pressure at their disposal to press South Sudanese leaders to dialogue.

South Sudanese voices of moderation and reconciliation must be given space to be heard in this process. Church representatives, the many traditional leaders with a proven track record in peace building, and active civil society groups have great potential to influence both leaders and the wider population in the interests of peace, and should be supported in playing an assertive role.

Ultimately, however, renouncing militarism and a commitment to dialogue must come from the conflict parties themselves. Control and discipline over South Sudan’s many armed groups has been broadly lacking, and has hastened the intensification of the conflict. It is incumbent on South Sudan’s leaders to be unequivocal in urging restraint. A public plea for calm, and a clearly stated commitment to peaceful dialogue – that is heard clearly and loudly across all of South Sudan – is the best possible course of action to avert an even deeper crisis, when negotiation will become even harder to achieve.

The next few days and weeks will be critical to South Sudan’s future and prospects of avoiding a slide to civil war. When the guns do eventually die down, South Sudan will have to turn to the difficult task of addressing the underlying issues that led to the present crisis. There are many questions that will need to be asked during the recovery process. Have the legacies of war been adequately dealt with? How effective has the transformation and reform of the country’s security services been? Is the system of governance serving the needs of the new state?

For the sake of long-term peace and stability, South Sudan desperately needs to engage in a broad based reconciliation process as an essential part of developing a new constitution. This would be an opportunity for wide public engagement to both deal with past political violence and grievances, and to cultivate greater public accountability, transparency and oversight of political processes and the management of its security services.



“The next few days and weeks will be critical to South Sudan’s future and prospects of avoiding a slide to civil war. ”

Paul Murphy