South Sudan, the newest independent state in the world, is currently experiencing increased sporadic fighting with 1,000 people feared dead already. The tense situation has forced United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to put in a request to the U.N. Security Council for an increase in the number of U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the volatile country. According to Toby Lanzer, a U.N. humanitarian coordinator, the deadly fighting in South Sudan could worsen in the coming days.
According to Lanzer, this is the reason why Ugandans, Ethiopians, Australians, British and Americans are among the 17,000 people seeking shelter and protection at a U.N. base located in the city of Bor, the capital of Jonglei state. Other reports also indicate that there are now close to 100,000 local residents seeking protection in churches in what many believe is caused by ethnic violence. The main protagonists in this fighting are the ethnic Dinkas and Nuers.
The city of Bor, taken over by the rebels, is also the place where rebels fired on American aircraft last Saturday, forcing them to abort their evacuation missions. Earlier, the U.S. had successfully evacuated 380 Americans and 300 others from South Sudan.
The current president of South Sudan–Salva Kiir, a Dinka–has said that the violence stems from the coup attempt staged by the opposition led by former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer. Other reports indicate that the fighting was also triggered by the fight between Nuer presidential guards, called the White Army, and the government’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).
Last July, Machar, a western educated politician, was removed as vice president by Kiir in a cabinet cleansing meant to eliminate political rivals, heightening the violent factionalism prevalent in the country. These political and ethnic flashpoints often cripple this oil-producing country and are now again threatening the newly-established democratic institutions.
According to Col. Philip Aguer, South Sudan’s spokesman, government forces are now advancing toward Bor, which is populated mostly by Dinkas; but soldiers have not yet engaged the rebels. The rebels are said to be those who pledged support to the former vice president and are fighting on his behalf. One such supporter is former SPLA General Peter Gadet, who led the takeover of Bor. Gadet is a notorious militia leader in Sudan.
Machar has denied leading the coup, but has made clear his intention he wants to see Kiir removed from office. “He must go, because he can no longer maintain the unity of the people, especially when he kills people like flies and tries to touch off conflicts on an ethnic basis,” Machar has said. He has also said that government forces have killed his bodyguards and some of his relatives when they attacked his Juba residence. A South Sudan expert, Douglas Johnson, says that Kiir is just using the uprising as an opportunity to quash political dissent.
However, many doubt the leadership capability of Machar, who is seen as a divisive figure in South Sudan politics. Many former comrades say Machar is a traitor for aligning himself with the former Sudanese government by signing the 1997 Khartoum peace covenant. The peace covenant was signed on April 21, 1997 between various militia leaders espousing independence and the Khartoum-based Sudanese government. According to Jok Madut Jok, chairman of South Sudan’s Sudd Institute, “He (Machar) has a very volatile history,” and he is not a credible national leader.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama has sent a formal letter to congressional leaders to inform them that he may initiate a more intensive military action in South Sudan to protect American citizens and property in the country.
South Sudan is an oil-rich country that separated from Sudan after years of civil war and became an independent state in 2011. The escalation of fighting in South Sudan has already possibly claimed the lives of 1,000 people and may also imperil the fragile hold of democracy in this war-torn country.
By Roberto I. Belda