Thursday, January 2, 2014


It started out rather innocently, for South Sudan, with some sporadic gunfire over the weekend. By the time Tuesday came around there was full scale shoot out in Juba, with media reporting upto 500 killed in the fighting.

The fact that there was some confusion as to whether this was a coup attempt or just factionalized fighting between competing ethnic groups within the ruling SPLA, suggests a constant state of uncertainty in one of the world's newest states.

The SPLA leadership insists it was a coup that was put down, but fighting spread and on Thursday the SPLA announced they had lost control of Bor; former Vice President Riak Machar said he was being framed for the attempted coup and was on the run and president Salva Kiir said he was open to talks with his nemesis, Machar and his coup plotters.

"Coups even the most swiftly executed can be messy business...

What is clear to every one watching is that there is an armed contestation. The coup attempt was clearly foiled but was not put down summarily, seeing as the plotters seem to have fallen back and as a bargaining chip are threatening civil war.

As with many of these conflicts they have as their background deep seated grievances, which come to the fore when a universal danger, which pushed these tensions into the background, has been overcome.

The marginalization of the southern Sudan has a long history and triggered the second civil war that led to the split of Sudan and independence for the south in 2011. A mutiny by south Sudan army officers in 1983 triggered the civil war and with support from Ethiopia, under Haile Mengistu, the SPLA controlled large swathes of the southern Sudan except for the strategic town of Juba.

Ethiopia supported the SPLA in revenge for Khartoum's support of Eritrean rebels.

The fall of Mengistu in 1991 came with a split within the SPLA with then leader John Garang's authority being challenged by Machar and others. Khartoum took advantage of this confusion to make serious gains against the fractious rebel group winning back several crucial towns.

With much regional support the SPLA regrouped, its leaders putting aside their egos to further their cause for a secular Sudan.

But clearly these rivalries have continued to fester under the surface, popping up intermittently over the last decade or so before the full scale explosion in the last week.

It's an old and familiar script.

A rebellion erupts, various parties aggrieved by the center are cobbled together, they oust their joint enemy before turning on each other in a duel to the death.

South Sudan's case is not helped by the new country's oil reserves.

"Oil exports only resumed in April after a year's suspension of production over a dispute on pipeline fees due to Khartoum from south Sudan. This suspension may have proved the tipping point for the fragile coalition in Juba...

The oil money, which accounted for almost the entire south Sudan budget, was being used to buy time for Juba, to pay off varying members of the coalition. Many of these factions have their basis in ethnic loyalties without crosscutting support, but potent nevertheless because they controlled armed groups and at worst can prove a nuisance.

While the government borrowed to stay afloat it was inevitable that in a situation of more finite resources some political realignments were inevitable and probably much faster than Kiir and his allies may have hoped for.

Official statistics showed that at least $1.3b in oil sales were made between April and October but one can assume the political damage had been done by this time, suspicion had been sown and the coalition's cracks had widened into fissures.

The events of the last week point to the difficulty of building post conflict societies.

The shortfalls in capacity -- physical and human, governments built on coalitions of convenience rather than ideology and rampant poverty will always be a recipe of disaster whose explosion is more a matter of when rather than if.

"It is not likely that this situation will be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone any time soon, if only because there are parties outside the confusion with interests in keeping the country in a state of confusion -- not least of all Joseph Kony and those that bankroll him...

South Sudan has always been a heartbeat away from chaos. Of course we will be glad if this analysis is wrong and they sort their issues with a click of a finger. That will be the true miracle of this half of the century.

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