The world’s youngest nation has been in disarray since December 14th, when sporadic gunfire and skirmishes broke out in the capital, Juba. Shortly after, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir announced that a coup had been attempted by members of his own presidential guard allied with Riek Machar, the ambitious former vice president who was purged in July. Since then, the country has been destabilized by fighting between government forces and members of the army loyal to Machar, forcing tens of thousands to abandon their homes and seek shelter in squalid UN bases throughout the country. Reports indicate that rebels have captured swathes of territory, including areas such as Bentiu, a northern provincial capital in the country’s most oil-rich region, and other economically strategic areas. Kiir belongs to the Dinka – the country’s most powerful and populous ethnic group – while Machar is ethnically Nuer, and sources claim that brutal ethnic violence has broken out between the two groups with heavy involvement by government forces.
Juba has insisted that its forces have only protected civilians and have not taken part in massacres, despite numerous reports of security forces arbitrarily targeting civilians belonging to the Nuer ethnic group. The resulting violence has prompted the UN to add nearly 6,000 international troops and police officers to the more than 7,600 peacekeeping forces already in the country.
The United States – which has been South Sudan’s main political backer prior to and since its independence in 2011 – has firmly declared their support for Kiir’s government and warned the rebels against attempts to seize power through military force. Though the current crisis has undeniable ethnic dimensions that have reemerged as a consequence of historically unsettled animosity between the Dinka and Nuer people, the crux of the problem is political. The rampant corruption and misuse of governmental authority in political and economic affairs has divided the ruling party (the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement or SPLM), while the state’s inability to provide basic services and alleviate poverty has created widespread disenchantment in a society that was largely optimistic that independence would bring lasting peace.