01/30/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Not Just Another War in Africa: Explaining the Crisis in South Sudan, the Devil is in the detail and so are real solutions.

Early in December preparations began to celebrate the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed on January 9th 2005, which eventually led to the creation of South Sudan, the world's youngest nation. On or about December 15th, only two years a sovereign state, major violence escalated throughout South Sudan.

The President moved to arrest a group of former government officials he accused of plotting a coup. The group consisted of several former Ministers, many successful business people, hailing from various regions of South Sudan.

In the week leading up to the arrests and the violence, this group of senior political figures arranged meetings and held a public rally expressing vocal opposition to President Kiir. It seems the meetings and the public event perked the ire of the President and those surrounding him.

Since the fighting began government forces have faced stiff resistance in securing towns from rebel hands. As well, vast areas have suffered pillage and plunder, with civilians suffering the brunt of the violence. Numbers are unclear but many tens of thousands are displaced and thousands have been killed in fighting or died due to conditions caused by the violence.

At the time of writing, January 23rd, the government had regained control of all the major towns previously held by rebels and hopeful headlines out of Addis Ababa, where talks are taking place; indicate that both parties will imminently sign a draft ceasefire arrangement.

Making sense of the situation unfolding in South Sudan is a daunting task. There is however, a lot of background and accumulated knowledge. Reading journalistic accounts and listening to official engagements by global leaders and many involved suggests much of this repertoire of knowledge has been lost or ignored. Overly simplistic narratives are being used to explain the current conflict in South Sudan and these narratives are contributing to agenda setting and to understandings of the situation.

Common explanations for the recent 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 in South Sudan mirrors most of that which has come before regarding conflict in Africa more generally.

Lets 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. This is not a conflict between two clear camps.

The idea that there are two clearly discernible 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 unfolding remains unclear to the public. The accused and the public deserve those arrested 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, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM). 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 the clear binary description of the situation is the question of the extent of direct coherence and command and control of the armed forces of the opposition carrying out major violence and attacks. For example, in some interviews the former VP Riek Machar (the primary figure of the opposition) has claimed to be in command and control of all the forces. On other occasions he has denied that he is in control of the White Army (a group of armed youth that are marauding throughout Jonglei), rather stating they are controlled by a "local spiritual leader," Dak Kueth. While some clear groups exist in the field fighting, such as the group that defected from the national army under command of General Peter Gadet, (this is the group that threatened Juba and took control of Bortown), forces and political leaders connection with each other is unclear. This renders any agreement inked in Addis Ababa tenuous and difficult to enforce.

Connected to the tendency to frame conflicts in terms of two oppositional forces/blocks is that those described as an "opposition" are often understood as being popularly representative of a minority group or groups. The associated conclusion tends to be that oppositions are thus attempting to redress abuses, wrongs and marginalization. The group of those accused of being the head of the opposition are from very different communities throughout South Sudan 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 sized 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. While seemingly inevitable, such political change is tragic as it need not be violent.

Photo by Ally Ngethi

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 in this political crisis had/have organized armed bodyguard forces, the largest being the Presidential Guard, a sub-unit of the army and known as Tiger - they are based separate from the main body and command of the army. Tiger also responds to a slightly different chain of command, it is directly under the President.

In South Sudan any leader has 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, and/or other supporting roles.

Most of the figures involved, although not all, had bodyguard forces largely from their home areas and tribes that radiated around them. This nepotistic approach created a situation where the main supporters and physical defenders of individual leaders took on more or less exclusive ethnic constructions. That is, for example, the guards of Riek Machar were largely drawn from his-own or loyal tribal groups. Similarly, the Presidential Guard had become largely composed of men from the tribal and community groups linked to the President Salva Kiir.

At a particular point in time in early December the South Sudan security services had concluded, rightly or wrongly (its important to remember the veracity of accusations remain unknown to the public), 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 even though this was largely due to the fact that Machar and many of those involved had surrounded themselves with tribesmen.

Unsurprisingly, many in these groups resisted and then actively took on units of the Presidential Guard and government security services. 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 however, accepted the arrests and at the same time instructed any associated armed manpower not to resist. In the case of the former Vice President and several others, a very forceful resistance was unleashed.

Then the violent and often exaggerated response of the Presidential Guard in particular, then resulted in further escalation, and the cycle of attack and retaliation had begun. 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.

It is thus because the guards of the different leaders had built heavily armed protection groups, largely drawn from their respective tribal groups, that fighting took on the character of ethnic targeting. No doubt young male Nuer were being targeted by the security services the logic however is important, 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 that they were told were plotting against the President.

The orders and directions were taken too far and abused, with many Nuer suffering. 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.

The key point is that the majority of the attacks were not initially because of ethnicity or a hatred of others because of their ethnicity.

Further, the fact is that most of the opposition figures detained are from the Dinka tribe, the same tribe as the President, which further shows this is not necessarily a tribal or ethnic war, although there is no doubt tribal affiliation and identity is an important element.

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 toward tribal or ethnically defined war.

So in this situation 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 this conflict in the most dangerous of directions, that of inter-communal violence and tribal hatred.

Peace Deal in Addis Ababa

Several 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 is not allowing 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 was reporting at the time of writing (Jan 23rd) that despite agreeing to the Addis Ababa deal, the government of South Sudan was commenting (some by tweeting) that they would not release the prisoners until appropriate legal processes were carried out. Riek Machar has also stated that he would not cease his actions until President Kiir leaves office. At the lowest level, such as the youth fighters of the White Army, have been stating (as seen in BBC interviews) 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 likely to be no different. Several of the requirements of all forces to be redeployed conflict with the requirements to preclude any "actions that could be viewed as confrontational." (sec 1.2 c ) 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 however it 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 political party, 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 SPLM. The result has been the internal wrangling that has stalled the political party and government to a halt and spurred internal confrontation. This is why the real political fight was not between parties during elections but within the SPLM.

The recent conflict has created a major set-back 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.

This piece has only touched the surface of the issues, and as I noted the devil is in the detail. The details of the agreements, how those agreement are related to the inter communal, inter personal and international politics are all intermingling to create a vortex of violence, resentment and anger, which may very well have set South Sudan back twenty years, a tragedy indeed.

Photo by Ally Ngethi