Making sense of the situation unfolding in South Sudan is a daunting task. There is however, a lot accumulated knowledge that can help us in this pursuit. Reading journalistic accounts and listening to official engagements by global leaders and others involved suggests much of this repertoire of knowledge has been lost or ignored.
Common explanations for the conflict are ethnic or tribal violence; an opposition confronting an authoritarian government; and/or a humanitarian crisis. I have felt that most commentary on the situation mirrors most of that which has come before regarding conflict in Africa more generally.
Let's unpack these approaches to thinking about the current situation in South Sudan. Although hope for a mediated settlement is positive, real progress and peace will only come with widespread reconciliation and political efforts that take the intricate detail of the situation into account. Peace agreements are more than just pieces of paper; they must be viable and as the saying goes, the devil is in the detail.
The structure of the conflict is important.
The idea that there are two clearly discernable camps, 1) the government and 2) the opposition is inaccurate. There remain many questions about the coherence of the so-called opposition group both politically and militarily. The group of leaders detained and arrested in Juba may have expressed oppositional views about the President but each individual's role in the situation remains unclear to the public. The accused and the public deserve those arrested to be given their day in court.
The political figures involved and those fighting were, up until recently, members of the same government, or at least the main political party. So the fight is as much within a political party as it is between those with alternate political visions for the new nation. Personal political ambitions are just as important as wider political agendas, and in many cases, the most important.
Another major issue with this binary description is the question of command and control of opposition forces. For example, in some interviews Riek Machar has claimed to be in command of all the 'rebel' forces. On other occasions he has denied that he controls the White Army (a group of armed youth that are marauding throughout Jonglei), rather stating they are directed by a "local spiritual leader". While some clear groups exist in the field, such as that under the command of General Peter Gadet, (this is the group that threatened Juba and took control of Bor), the connection between these forces and political leaders remains unclear. This renders any agreement inked in Addis Ababa tenuous and difficult to enforce.
Connected to the tendency for polarised 'framing' is that those described as 'opposition' are often understood as being popularly representative of a minority group. The conclusion tends to be that oppositions are thus attempting to redress abuses, wrongs and marginalization. In South Sudan currently, those accused of heading the opposition are from very different communities and have varied backgrounds. Some were already being targeted on corruption charges before the fighting erupted, and others had only just been removed from posts in government. Curiously absent in the group are some of the long-time opposition to the government such as Lam Akol and leaders of the SPLM-DC (the only significant opposition political party outside of the SPLM proper).
Rather than observing an opposition vs. government, the situation we see unfolding is a tragic case of post-liberation movement bifurcation or fragmentation. It is very common in states where a liberation movement becomes the government that the political party then begins to break apart with the disappearance of the unifying force of common opposition to colonialism or other marginalization.
This is not an ethnic war... at least not yet.
So why does it look like one to so many? And what element has ethnicity (in this case tribal affiliation) played in the conflict?
If you consider the chronology of events in detail, the role of tribal identity in the conflict becomes clear.
All the senior figures involved had/have organized armed bodyguard forces, the largest being the Presidential Guard (known as 'Tiger'), a sub-unit of the army, they are based separately from the main body and command of the army. Tiger also responds to a slightly different chain of command, being directly under the control of the President.
In South Sudan any leader has a major obligation to his or her community or tribe. These obligations are often satisfied by including large numbers of extended family or fellow-tribesmen in offices in government or as drivers, advisers, guards etc.
Most of the figures involved have bodyguard forces largely from their home areas and tribes that radiated around them. This nepotistic approach has created a situation where the main supporters and physical defenders of individual leaders took on more or less exclusive ethnic constructions.
In early December the South Sudan security services had concluded, rightly or wrongly, that there was an imminent threat to the President and government. On orders from President Kiir, Tiger moved to arrest the figures believed to pose the greatest threat. This included almost all of those politicians that attended the meeting and rally of discontent with the government and President in the days preceding the escalation of violence.
Along with these arrests also came the attempt to neutralize the loyalist guards of each of the accused. The initial and most urgent action was taken to disarm and put under control those connected or believed to be connected to the former Vice President Riek Machar. There were also several units in the military that had major concentrations perceived to be loyal to some of the accused. Efforts by the security services were taken to prevent these groups from posing a threat.
The result of this action however, was a focus on individuals from several communities. Investigations and police actions, along with Military Police, began to appear as though they were targeting the Nuer community - this was largely a result of Machar and others surrounding themselves with their own tribesmen.
Unsurprisingly, many in these groups resisted and then actively took on units of the Presidential Guard and government security services. They then took what resources they could muster and fled to the bush to link with defecting units and others preparing to fight the government. Most of the accused accepted the arrests and at the same time instructed any associated armed manpower not to resist. But in the case of the former Vice President and several others, a very forceful resistance was unleashed.
The violent and often exaggerated response of the Presidential Guard then resulted in further escalation, and the cycle of attack and retaliation began. Those linked in any way to Riek Machar, which meant mostly Nuer, were targeted by the Presidential Guard. Then many began to draw the conclusion that any Nuer was connected to Riek Machar. The reality however was that many Nuer remained in the army - including the Chief of Staff.
The guards of the different leaders had all built up heavily armed protection groups, largely drawn from their respective tribal groups, which meant that the fighting took on the character of ethnic targeting. No doubt young male Nuer were being targeted by the security services, but it was not necessarily by virtue of a specific hatred of Nuer, but because of a perceived connection to the former Vice President and others who were believed to be plotting against the President.
The orders and directions were taken too far and abused, with many Nuer suffering the consequences. This then gave justification to others to retaliate upon Dinka communities in areas such as Akobo and Bor where the forces of Peter Gadet and the White Army engaged in operations against the government.
It is important to understand that the majority of the attacks were not initially because of ethnicity or a hatred of others due to their ethnicity. Furthermore, most of the opposition figures detained are Dinka. That said, the more this dynamic of attack and retribution progresses, and the more it is framed as 'ethnic fighting' by all involved, including journalists and international organizations, the more it moves towards tribal or ethnically defined war.
Consequently, we can see an instrumental manipulation and use of tribal/ethnic identity and loyalties. The international community and those observing this situation should work to undermine this dynamic and logic that is pushing the conflict in the most dangerous of directions.
Peace Deal in Addis Ababa
Several specific issues with the agreements struck in Addis Ababa suggest that the deal is not likely to hold.
The nature of the focus on the release of the arrested leaders is the first problem. The combination of granting a pardon and the release of those detained is confusing. It remains to be seen if there is a justifiable case against them. Support and pressure for due process should be the more appropriate demand. Not proposing such a scenario, along with the inclusion of the requirement of a pardon, is curious - it suggests an acceptance of guilt and resembles the many amnesties given by the President to various other individuals and groups that have defected and used violence against the government.
Sadly the attempt at a process of political inclusion and mediation since the CPA in 2005 has created a cycle where there are many incentives associated with rebellion and the threat and/or use of violence.
Some detainees are likely to want some kind of proper judicial process as they will want to clear their names of wrongdoing. Also, if there was in-fact a coup or some other violent action being planned, the South Sudanese government should be supported to implement more appropriate judicial process and if they express capacity limitations various international actors would more than likely be willing to provide support. In some respect the deal as it stands does not allow the government of South Sudan to implement due process and will likely just prolong the type of cyclical violence plaguing the young state.
The BBC has reported that despite agreeing to the Addis Ababa deal, the government of South Sudan has commented that they will not release prisoners until appropriate legal processes have been carried out. Riek Machar has also stated that he would not cease his actions until President Kiir leaves office. Those at the lowest level, such as the youth fighters of the White Army, have stated that they will not stop until Machar is made President.
Another major problem with the agreement is the practicality of how it would be implemented. All the peace agreements to date in South Sudan and Sudan have struggled with implementation. This one, with even more vague statements and less clear requirements is unlikely to be different. The requirement for all forces to be redeployed also conflicts with the requirements to preclude any "actions that could be viewed as confrontational."
Movements can be interpreted in so many ways, with major confusion amongst forces, their locations and who is confronting who, particularly in Jonglei, these clauses do not make practical sense. Further complicating matters, the ability to monitor and verify this agreement is questionable. With the UN and international community more generally facing major criticisms and lacking credibility at the moment, it is doubtful that the terms can be independently monitored and verified. The monitoring and verification mechanism offered by IGAD is very limited and lacks the capacity to hold parties to account for any violations.
Rather than offering a strong chance for peace, this agreement will just initiate a period of blame and counter blame, morphing the conflict but not resolving it.
The sad truth is that the recent violence has set South Sudan back in terms of social and economic development - but this is a political fight that was in many ways inevitable. Since South Sudan became independent, even before, it was clear that a struggle was emerging over the future of the SPLM, the political dispensation in the new nation and over the banner of 'liberator' itself. No one was willing to give up ownership of the idea of being a liberator and leader in the party of liberation. The result has been the internal wrangling that has stalled the political party and government and spurred internal confrontation. This is why the real political fight has not been between parties during elections but within the SPLM itself.
The recent conflict has created a major setback to a national reconciliation, the most critical process for the future of South Sudan. Many may confuse the current reconciliation of some elites with each other and the government with a core element of a national reconciliation. If anything however, the kind of accommodation that is likely to arise from the current situation could set back the wider and deeper national reconciliation agenda required for South Sudan to move forward and for people to come together as one nation and a united people.
Matthew LeRiche is Visiting Assistant Professor, Memorial University of Newfoundland.