The oil industry has long considered South Sudan as one of the most geologically exciting parts of the African continent. Discoveries and field development over the past 15 years confirmed this optimism but the country’s dire security situation has prevented more comprehensive exploration. Over the past six months, just two years after gaining independence, deep seated ethnic differences have been exposed and fighting between South Sudan’s two biggest groups, the Dinka and Nuer, is tearing at the fabric of this nascent nation.
The immediate cause of the conflict was the breakdown in relations between President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar. Kiir dismissed his entire cabinet last July following massive corruption that saw around $4bn vanishing. He later accused his sacked deputy of planning a coup.
The latter denied the allegation but the split triggered fighting within the presidential guard soon escalated into open warfare. Machar said that he would be prepared to challenge’s Kiir’s leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) but it is unclear whether there was any real coup plot.
Following the collapse in the relationship between the two men, Dinka members of the presidential guard decided to disarm their Nuer counterparts. Kiir is a Dinka and Machar a Nuer, as the country’s two biggest ethnic groups gained the most prominent political posts in the continent’s newest country. Although the two groups fought together against Khartoum over several decades, they also have a history of fighting each other.
Although both men have supporters from various ethnic backgrounds, their dispute has broadly resulted in ethnic fighting between the two groups. At least 1,000 people were killed in December and up to 100,000 fled their homes. Even during the height of the conflict with Khartoum, South Sudan’s political and military leaders were always divided along ethnic lines, with little in common apart from their desire to be free of north Sudan.
Rather than comprising a single army, the South Sudanese military is a mishmash of ethnic militia and units with more loyalty to their officers and ethnic group than to Juba. After finally overcoming rule from Khartoum, South Sudan’s political elite is weakening the country from within.
Kiir remains in charge of most of the country and most of the army but forces loyal to Machar control large areas, including part of Upper Nile and all of Unity State, where much of the country’s oil reserves and production capacity is located. Machar’s forces have also gained support from the Lou Nuer militia that is known as the white army.