Expert Opinion

South Sudan: A multi-causal crisis in dire need of multi-level approach to peace

Since the current crisis in South Sudan began on 15 December, more than 231,500 people have been forced to flee their homes in at least seven of ten states. The number of people forced to flee in the past month is comparable to the total number of people displaced in the country in the first 11 months of 2013.

The incredible speed, gravity and scale with which the conflict spread from the capital, Juba, to the rest of the country occurred in part due to underlying and unresolved historic grievances and tensions in the country. Including some 231,500 people displaced by the current crisis, IDMC monitoring has shown that at least 951,500 people have been newly displaced over the last three years due to ongoing instability within the country.

A multi-causal crisis reduced by some to an ethnic face-off

The conflict initially appeared to be a mainly political struggle between two leaders, as President Salva Kiir of the ruling Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/ Army (SPLM/A) accused his former vice-president Riek Machar of attempting a coup.

Soon thereafter, the crisis took on ethnic and community-based dimensions. President Kiir comes from South Sudan’s largest ethnic group Dinka while the alleged coup leader, Machar, from the Nuer community. In turn, certain divisions of the SPLA have split along ethnic lines, and are now fighting each other. Further still, ethnic allegiances have reportedly played a role in the targeting of civilians in house-to-house searches, killings and the destruction of property.

Nevertheless, the current crisis should not be reduced – as it has been by some – to a Dinka-Nuer rivalry. More complex underlying political, social and economic grievances exist which also apply to other ethnic communities, some of which have already been involved in this or other conflicts.

For example, 80,000 people were displaced in 2012 in Jonglei state, due in part to violent disarmament campaigns led by the SPLM/A in which the Murle was particularly targeted. Armed violence in South Sudan has, in recent history, been overlain with tribal and ethnic tensions.

The path to stability starts now with an appropriate response, and ends with successful national reconciliation

People must be able to put their South Sudanese identity before their community identity. A true peace process cannot exist without resolving the current political crisis and without addressing the underlying structural causes of the conflict.

Humanitarians must play a role in the early stage of the crisis to provide safety and assistance to those affected. In parallel, humanitarians should be aware of and acknowledge grievances between communities and ensure their actions don’t fuel tensions, and ensure they do no harm.

While there is no ready-made approach to rebuilding peace, efforts at both local and national level have to be made. For example, community discussions where victims and perpetrators share their experiences of the conflict as well as their grievances, to help re-build community trust.

Restoring rule of law and bringing justice to the people is critical, for example, by holding perpetrators of violence accountable.

Finally, there must be a national dialogue looking into the future where all parts of South Sudanese society – including children and the youth, the elderly, women and men – search for common interests and ways to rebuild their country. Efforts like these will also be crucial for all those displaced to be able to find long term peace; that they can freely choose where to live without feeling compelled to move to an area where their community is a majority.

After a political solution is found, true national reconciliation will be achieved by a comprehensive and multi-level approach. As the involved parties hold political talks to find a negotiated solution to the conflict, there is need for the plan towards restoring peace be comprehensive and inclusive to ensure no one is left behind.

For more information, see IDMC’s country page for South Sudan.

Melanie Wissing

IDMC’s Acting Country Analyst for Central Africa