NAIROBI, Kenya – A decade after South Sudan’s independence amid much hope and fanfare, the country’s path to lasting stability remains fragile as tears of infighting against the precarious coalition that rules most young nation of the world.
Over the weekend, clashes within a faction of the national unity government could have left dozens dead, officials said. The outbreak of violence has exposed long-simmering divisions and frustrations over the slow implementation of political reforms, and raised concerns about the future of the fragile peace accord signed three years ago.
The clashes pose a challenge to a nation already facing a severe humanitarian crisis, growing internal power struggles and the coronavirus pandemic. They show how violence and armed splinter groups derail efforts to chart a course for a better future and indicate that leaders will face even more difficult challenges as the country’s problems worsen.
Fighting erupted early Saturday between rival forces within the military wing of Vice President Riek Machar’s party, the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. The clashes came just days after Mr Machar’s rivals said they ousted him as leader of the party and its military forces, part of the fragile alliance that rules the country, and appointed First Lieutenant General Simon Gatwech Dual as interim leader.
Forces loyal to Mr. Machar “pushed back the aggressors”, who support Mr. Dual, during the fighting in the Upper Nile region in the northeast of the country, according to Colonel Lam Paul Gabriel, military spokesman for the United States. Mr. Machar’s party.
Each side claimed to have killed more than two dozen fighters from the rival faction, but there has been no independent verification of both sides’ claims.
On Monday, concerned about the violent clashes, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional security and trade bloc that includes Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya, called for a special meeting to discuss the escalation of the situation.
The clashes come a decade after the landlocked nation gained independence from neighboring Sudan – a time many hoped would end decades of bloody conflict.
But in 2013, barely two years after the jubilant independence celebrations, tensions between President Salva Kiir, who belongs to the majority Dinka ethnic group, and Mr. Machar, who is a member of the Nuer ethnic group, escalated into a civil war that claimed the lives of some 400,000 people and displaced nearly four million people.
After nearly five years of civil war, the country’s conflicting leaders reached an agreement in 2018 and last year agreed to form a unity government. Mr. Machar, who had fled the country, was sworn in as vice president again and he and Mr. Kiir pledged to build a government that would keep the peace and address the country’s main challenges.
But the uneasy alliance has yet to alleviate the country’s biggest economic and political problems.
According to the United Nations, an estimated 8.3 million people across South Sudan are in need of humanitarian assistance, with a lack of infrastructure and violence against humanitarian workers derailing aid delivery. Early seasonal flooding also displaced at least 90,000 people in at least two counties in Jonglei state this month, according to the United Nations.
Inter-communal violence is rampant with disarmament efforts leading to clashes with authorities and dozens of deaths a year ago.
Corruption permeates the economy and officials have been accused of pocketing revenues from oil, the government’s main source of wealth. The coronavirus pandemic has also put a strain on people’s meager incomes, and the country has vaccinated barely one percent of its 11 million people.
“The inevitable conclusion is that the leaders of South Sudan after independence have failed to keep their commitments and the expectations of South Sudanese citizens,” Luka Biong Deng Kuol, academic and former South Sudanese minister, recently wrote in a statement. analysis for the African Center for Strategic Studies.
Machar’s camp has insisted in recent days that he was still in command and that three generals involved in the call for the deputy president’s impeachment had been sacked.
Yet the latest events show how much both President Kiir and Mr Machar face in their own ranks. While Mr Machar’s camp has tried to replace him in the past, the president has also faced calls for resignation.
These tensions threaten to be a serious obstacle as elections loom in a year or two – authorities have postponed the 2022 election but have not yet committed to a new timetable – and could lead to renewed violence.
To avert a crisis, there has been a growing call for the drafting and adoption of a new constitution that would more equitably distribute power and ensure justice is served to the victims of the civil war.
But in the face of a leadership crisis now, those aspirations remain distant for Africa’s youngest nation, said Alan Boswell, senior analyst for South Sudan at the International Crisis Group.
“There is still no sign of a broader reset in South Sudanese politics,” Boswell said. “Instead, the divisions keep mounting.”