The ceasefire agreement reached today in the conflict in South Sudan ends a long chapter in the nation’s short history. At a conference in Ethiopia, rebel forces and government officials agreed to end one month of racially motivated fighting in the impoverished African nation. United Nations (UN) observers estimate that the conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 people and forced 500,000 from their homes. The International Crisis Group however places the total number of casualties at approximately 10,000. It began as a political dispute between the current president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, and his former vice president, Riek Machar. Kiir removed Machar from office in July of 2013, accusing him of attempting to stage a coup.
Kiir and Machar represent different racial groups within South Sudan however, and the political issue between them quickly sparked racial tensions within the country. Instead of a political conflict between two rival politicians, it grew into a racial war. President Kiir is part of a group known as the Dinka, while Machar represents another faction called the Nuer. These two groups had put aside their differences in the early part of the century as the territories of South Sudan fought for independence from Sudan as a whole, but the recent political dispute reignited old tensions.
UN peacekeepers were deployed to the region as fears began to mount that this racial conflict could explode into genocide. The UN was accused of siding with the rebel forces however as South Sudan government officials claimed the UN was sheltering rebel forces and assisting them in establishing a “parallel” government. UN representatives have rejected these claims stating that their intent was to prevent further loss of life in the conflict. They described the situation in South Sudan as a “horror” and expressed optimism that the ceasefire reached today will end this long chapter in South Sudan’s short history.
There is much international concern about the conflict, not only because of the potential for genocide. Other crimes such as gang rape and the use of children as soldiers have been reported to international monitoring groups such as Genocide Watch. The use of children soldiers is particularly problematic on the African continent and has been seen in many other recent conflicts there. It is one of the many allegations made against fugitive warlord Joseph Kony, who was the subject of increased international attention in 2012.
Regardless of the outcome of the conflict in South Sudan and the success of the ceasefire, the country faces considerable challenges. It does possess significant oil deposits, but faces many difficulties in exploiting them. The state of Sudan still contests those claims, and disputes with Khartoum regarding their extraction and export continue to plague relations between South Sudan and their former motherland. In addition, South Sudan itself does not have sufficient infrastructure to properly extract these oil deposits at present. It is a deeply impoverished state and lacks the modern refining and transportation systems that would allow for the efficient exploitation of these resources.
South Sudan faces a somewhat “circular” problem in this regard. They cannot take advantage of their oil deposits because their economy and infrastructure are insufficient, but without the capital such resources can provide, they cannot build the systems needed to properly exploit them. South Sudan might seek foreign investment from other countries or organizations such as the World Bank, but the instability in the country makes this unlikely at present.
Today’s ceasefire may reverse that trend and attract further interest in South Sudan. The country has only existed for a little more than two years but much of that time has been consumed by conflict such as what has been seen in recent months. South Sudan may be able to use this ceasefire to end this long chapter in its short history and build for the future.
By Christopher V. Spencer