The civil war in South Sudan from 2013 – 2019

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Background to the South Sudan Armed Conflict of December 2013

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that ended 22 years of the North-South War in Sudan led to South Sudan’s eventual separation from Sudan and the creation as the United Nation’s 193 member state in 2011 (International Peace Institute, 2016).  South Sudan became the newest nation on 9 July 2011 and all and sundry celebrated the achievement of global actors’. Unexpectedly South Sudan plunged into a more devastating civil war in December 2013, just barely two years after independence. The main liberation movement that led to the success of the liberation, which is also the current political party of South Sudan, is called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The Country’s national army is the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) (United States Institute of Peace, 2014).

According to Astill-Brown, the seeds of South Sudan’s return to violent conflict in December 2013 were sown long before the world’s newest country achieved independence in 2011 (Astill-Brown, 2014). Two developments that led to the immediate outbreak of war were dissension within the ruling party over the style of governance and the decision of the vice president to challenge the president for the leadership of the SPLM and then the presidency in 2015 (United States Institute of Peace, 2014). Before the supposed attempted coup d’etat, Kiir had reshuffled his government after bitter exchanges about the state of affairs in the SPLM. The root cause of the crisis lies in the lack of willingness to democratize and the low level of service delivery to the public (Maru, 2013). Forces loyal to the president and those loyal to the vice-president were engaged in confrontations following weeks of intense succession politics within the SPLM Political Bureau. According to Hilde Johnson, the former head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, the people felt entitled to power – their turn to eat (Williams, 2016). The political competition within the ruling party intensified not only between the president and his vice but also with members of the political elite (Council on Foreign Relations, 2016). These political developments took place in a fragile politico-military structure and, rather than being resolved, were allowed to fester (United States Institute of Peace, 2014).

Other tales about the cause of the war include ethnic division. The Dinka and the Nuer are the dominant ethnic groups in South Sudan (Nyadera, 2018). They are other ethnic groups in the country and Kiir’s political prisoners belong to various ethnic groups (Pinaud, 2014). Signs of deep friction showed up when President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, sacked his deputy Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer (BBC News, 2014). This action gathered momentum in the military to split along ethnic lines.

Alex de Waal in an interview published in the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the reason the political conflict turned into an armed conflict was not as a result of ethnic divisions. He highlighted that the army, which was a collection of militia organized based on personal loyalty to its command, was not professionalized. According to him, this translates that when fighting broke out, people fled to their brethren for security (Council on Foreign Relations, 2016). The third-largest ethnic group, the Shilluk were drawn into the fighting first on the side of the government and later aligned with the rebels (Santora, 2015). 

The politics in South Sudan is therefore viewed as being shaped by a local context and ethnicity, which are fundamental to how people are organized geographically and economically, and which provide local forms of security (Astill-Brown, 2014). According to these analyses, the ethnic division became significant as people sought local protection when there was chaos. 

Some of the narratives about the cause of the armed conflict touch on natural resources (especially oil), others on the access and availability of arms, or the role of Sudan in the conflict (effort of the Khartoum government to destabilize the new nation)(Nyadera, 2018). 

In December 2013, following this power struggle between the ruling elite, violence erupted between presidential guard soldiers from the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan. Soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group aligned with Kiir, and those from the Nuer ethnic group supported Machar. The armed conflict rapidly spread across the country (Council on Foreign Relations, 2020). This confrontation took place in the presidential palace in Juba and deteriorated into a civil war (Maru, 2013). Kirr then accused the ex-vice president of attempting a coup d’etat against the government (BBC News, 2014).

About 2.3 million were reported displaced within four years of the war (Nyadera, 2018). As many as 50.000 people have been killed, around 6 million people at risk of going hungry, and 70 percent of schools have been closed due to fighting. Ethnic cleansing, burning of villages, looming starvation, and gang rape are what UN experts found when they took a ten-day trip in South Sudan (Williams, 2016). “Mass killings, Systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, women, and girls being gang-raped and burned alive, horrific crimes committed against children, were beyond comprehension, the intransigence of the leaders appalling” (International Peace Institute, 2016). The war was intense and had a substantial negative impact on the communities and country as a whole. 

Parties to the conflict:

The South Sudanese armed conflict was fought between government forces led by President Salva Kiir (SPLM) and the ex-deputy Riek Machar who lead the SPLM-in Opposition (SPLM-IO) (Samms, 2018). The SPLM-IO is alternatively known as the Nasir Faction. The leading player in this armed conflict was the SPLM, whose poor leadership led to the immediate cause of the conflict (The Sudd Institute, 2014). This war whose cause is multifaceted was ignited when President Salva Kir accused his former deputy Riek Machar and ten others of attempting a coup d’etat which Machar immediately denied and fled to lead the SPLM – IO (Wikipedia, 2020). Immediately after, Kiir was aided by the Ugandan Army and supported by the international community and Sudan to curb the rebellion led by Machar (Pinaud 2014). The actions of Machar brought into view two main actors in the armed conflict who are Kiir and Machar. These two leaders had the opportunity to stop the senseless war, but they choose not to do so (International Peace Institute, 2016). There was also a loose faction that was called the “Garang Boys”(The Sudd Institute, 2014).

Kiir had the resources to fight and hold onto power. The SPLA, which is the national army, was controlled by the Kirr faction. Ethnic groups organized around the president, including the militias such as Mathiang Anyoor or the Brown Caterpillar (Council on Foreign Relations, 2016). President Salva Kiir led the mainstream faction with key members of senior SPLM leaders, including Nhial Deng Nhial, the government’s chief negotiator in the IGAD-led talks, amongst others (The Sudd Institute, 2014). 

Riek Machar did not have resources like the government, so he felt back to the ethnic mobilization of the Nuer Militia and the White Army since it was quick and cheap and is what he has done for years (Council on Foreign Relations, 2016). Machar fled to the field, and his army support left the SPLA to fight for him. During this time, militia leader Peter Gadet joined Machar’s forces (United States Institute of Peace, 2014). A former governor of Unity State Tabang Deng Gai (The Sudd Institute, 2014), who was dismissed from Kiir’s government also joined Machar and became the lead negotiator for the Machar-led faction in the Addis talks (United States Institute of Peace, 2014). Lado Gore, who was Machar’s deputy, named himself the chief “ideologue” of the faction (The Sudd Institute, 2014).

There was also a loose alliance which is a group commonly known as the “Garang Boys” whose members were detained immediately after the outbreak of the war. This faction was led by the widow of the late leader Dr.John Garang by the name of Madam Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior (The Sudd Institute, 2014). The Garang Boys lose alliance was within the banner of the SPLM, and had animosity with Machar and would not want him to ascend to the presidency given Machar’s history of defection (United States Institute of Peace, 2014). This faction was not powerful enough to secure a right to negotiations in the Addis talks since in the end, the peace agreement was signed between Kiir and Machar.  

The battle between Kiir and Machar is not new as both men had fought against each other on the battlefield and in politics during the Sudan civil war. Kiir commands respect across the country for his role in leading the semi-autonomous region to independence after the referendum of 2011. He is criticized for failing to deliver on the dividends of peace and development (Abbasi, 2016). Machar, on the other hand, is a controversial figure in South Sudan and the SPLM as he had sided with Khartoum during the Sudan civil war, which led to violence between the rebel southerners. Still, he commands respect amongst the Nuer community (Abbasi, 2016). 

The peace deal was signed in August 2015 by the two leaders and was brokered by the regional eight-nation IGAD bloc, along with the UN, the African Union, China, Britain, Norway, and the United States (Abbasi, 2016). The IGAD peace accord of August 2015 interpreted the conflict as a race for power between Kiir (Dinka) and Machar (Nuer) (Comboni, 2019). 

How mediation shaped the civil war in South Sudan:

Challenges Faced by the Mediators: The mediation efforts were cast under the Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter. This gave legal status to the agreement and restore a binding model for all concerned. However, the agreement suffered a huge setback due to a number of factors both internally and externally. 

The process of participation was flip-flopped as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), launched the peace talk by selecting three envoys as Seyoum Mesfin of Ethiopia, Lazarus Sumbeiywo of Kenya, and Mohammed El Dhabi of Sudan. The warring parties and the U.S, UK, Norway, and organizations like the UN, AU, EU, China, and IDAD Partners Forum (IPF). While mediators were focused on getting the warring parties to the table, the regional rivalries and power struggles, the centralization of decision-making at the HoS level, and associated lack of institutionalization within IGAD and expanding the peace process beyond the South Sudan political elites remained challenging (Ahadu 2019: 2). 

Initially, the process of inclusion was faulty, as the negotiators to the South Sudan Peace Talks were mainly the warring parties, the government of the Republic of South Sudan, and the SPLM-SPLA in opposition. It was only afterward that the Former Political Detainees were included, which created some level of grievances. Alongside this group were other stakeholders like the Faith-Based group made up of religious leaders from the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) representing Christians and leaders from South Sudan Islamic Council representing Muslims in South Sudan, civil societies were also allowed to take part in the negotiations (Ahadu 2019). The mediators were not sufficiently empowered by their representing bodies which weakened the process as well. 

African philosophy seems to suggest that agreement are more binding if they follow a traditional symbol within cultures than on paper as despite the signing of the cessation of hostilities between the warring parties, the peace process not near successful in ending the conflict, as the unwillingness of the two antagonist parties to respect what they have pledged and signed for in the peace deals as it was seen in their repeated backslide into conflict. By so doing, the IGAD-PLUS would need to call on the weight of the wider international community to exert the necessary pressure in a coordinated manner (Ahadu 2019). Largely, the Peace Agreement failed because of the lack of political will of the warring parties, while the South Sudanese side should have implemented the peace agreement and not blame the international community for a tailored peace agreement. 

Internally, the government did not withdraw its forces outside the National capital Juba, 25km from the center of the national capital, as stipulated in the Peace Agreement. Externally, the parties to the conflict accused foreign forces of interests in the South Sudan conflict. The parties accused regional powers such as Sudan and Uganda of involvement in the conflict. On all fronts, the warring parties could not muster the political will to commit themselves to the agreement. They often were hostile to the idea of a negotiated settlement. Drawing from Vertin, the lack of consensus among the parties, the mediating institution, and the wider community of the supporters as to the nature of the conflict itself, thus affected the scope and depth of its solution (Vertin 2018: 22). 

Additionally, the political and moral dilemma confronted by the outside actors when a conflict is not “ripe” for settlement or trade-offs are not made between ideal solutions and the imperative to stop the violence (ibid); as senior military officers in Kiir’s government threatened him several times that they would kill him if he accepted any deal. While IGAP took the lead, the perception was that its peace process was already corrupted by mediators’ bias, a process that was partial from the take-off. Francois Grignon, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations team leader for South Sudan since 2011, argued that the mediators were more technical than real. They kept to the “textbook” remedies rather than “reality context”, and until we adapt our instruments to the actors of conflict, we will continue to struggle with mediation and peace process.


The South Sudan mediation was concluded theoretically before the real process began. The parties did not allow for the turning points or the crest as prenegotiations did not evolve through the crisis moment and the ripe moment which would have motivated a multilateral mediation talk. The parties remained stuck to their demands, irreversible on their already pre-emptive positions, stalled the process. Rounds of coalition-building, issue decomposing and sequencing should have resulted in fruitful negotiation. The IGAD-led peace process that was set up to bring sustainable peace in South Sudan was a contentious process as it failed to reach a robust mediating framework. Meanwhile, there was no monitoring process in compliance and verification. The mediation process had a deficit of preparedness, consent, and inclusivity. Generally, political and consensual will were in short supply. The international community, and the African Union (AU), should ensure the lost will is resuscitated. 


Ahadu, Ephrem. (2019) Evaluating the Challenges of IGAD-Led Peace Process of South Sudan, International Affairs and Global Strategy, 7(78): 1-10.

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BBC News. South Sudan: What Is the Fighting About? BBC News, sec. Africa, 2014., Accessed March 30, 2020.

Fr. Daniele Moschetti.Comboni.  A Brief History of the Civil War in South Sudan.Comboni Missionaries (blog). 2019., Accessed March 30, 2020.

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Council on Foreign Relations. Civil War in South Sudan. Global Conflict Tracker. 2020., Accessed March 30, 2020.

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Pinaud, Clemence. South Sudan: Civil War, Predation and the Making of a Military Aristocracy. African Affairs, 2014., Accessed March 30, 2020.

Samms, Andrew. The South Sudanese Civil War (2013- ), 2018., Accessed March 30, 2020.

Santora, Marc. Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s President, Signs Peace Deal With Rebels. The New York Times, 2015., Accessed March 30, 2020.

The Sudd Institute. South Sudan’s Crisis: Its Drivers, Key Players, and Post-Conflict Prospects. 2014.

United States Institute of Peace. The Conflict in South Sudan: The Political Context. United States Institute of Peace, 2014., Accessed March 30, 2020.

Vertin, Zach. (2018) A Poisoned Well: Lessons in Mediation from South Sudan’s Troubled Peace Process, New York: International Peace Institute (IPI).

Wikipedia. South Sudanese Civil War – Wikipedia. 2020., Accessed March 8, 2020.

Williams, Jennifer. The Conflict in South Sudan, Explained. Vox, 2016., Accessed March 30, 2020.

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