Genocide Looms in South Sudan

“The country has hit a highway to former Yugoslavia with the potent mix and interplay of the four horseman of apocalypse – war, death, famine, and mass emigration.”

South Sudan requires urgent international intervention to avert a looming genocide. Since South Sudan’s ascent to statehood in 2011, the country has witnessed a volatile landscape of ethnic-based insurgencies. These conflicts have irresponsibly preyed on primordial communal animus and further deepened ethnic cleavages between these ethnicities. Impunity, and indeed, poorly thought through amnesty granted to those waging such local conflicts have reinforced this pattern of violence. The proclivity toward sectarian politics based on ethnicity and region was the main driver behind why the conflict that began in December 2013 as a political contestation within the ruling party, quickly took on an ethnic dimension. This phenomenon made it easier for leaders of the warring sides to turn their communities into violent constituencies. 

For Riek Macar, the former Vice President and current leader of the SPLA-IO – the Nuer his ethnic group and the second largest tribe in South Sudan, form the backbone of his fighting force and political power base. For the President, Salva Kiir who hails from the Dinka ethnic group, it is the Dinka, the largest ethnic community, that forms the base of his support and from which he and his cadres have recruited government-backed vigilantes and militias. The unintended consequence of the two tribes fighting on the opposite poles of the war has been targeted mass atrocity along ethnic lines. In particular, the state policy of ethnic targeting and disenfranchisement of communities has alienated broad segment of citizenry, thereby paving the way for communal war of all against all

To make an already hopelessly complex situation even worst, a number of tribes in the Equatoria region have joined the fray. This is turning areas that were previously peaceful and home to a diverse mix of non-Dinka and non-Nuer tribes, into killing grounds pitting these local communities against the Government and the Dinka.

At last, the lid has come off the dormant ferment of age-old interethnic rivalries. Even though ethnic rivalry has been part of the history of South Sudan, it never reached the current combustible proportions. A number of interlocking tragedies orchestrated by state and non-state actors have finally set South Sudan on the fast lane to genocide of momentous magnitudes. Clearly, this has spelled a significant change in the past structure of social conflict – epitomizing a new shift in conflict dynamics.

One of the factors responsible for the march to a genocidal war is the senseless killings by a plethora of warlords loosely allied to both Kiir and Machar. The horrendous crimes committed against civilians in Juba, Bor, Malakal, Bentiu, and Akobo – and more recently along the highway, smack of patterns of ethnically targeted mass slaughter never seen before in the history of South Sudan. Without much flurry, they have caused a degenerate war and placed the country on a staircase to former Yugoslavia. While security tensions arising from threats beyond the borders still exist, South Sudan is now more encumbered by its own internal conflict.

To make matters worse, the recent Government counterinsurgency response in Equatoria has been high-handed and counterproductive. In July, villages along Machar’s axis of retreat were pummeled with heavy artillery and tank fire. Civilians were strafed with attack helicopters, villages torched, and livelihoods destroyed. It was a scorched-earth policy on display.

By and large, the government’s response was anchored on a maximum use of force. It has not succeeded to suppress the rebellion, but has instead fueled an intractable ethnic hatred among the citizens, caused accidental guerrillas, and more international condemnation. In truth, in Equatoria, the recurring theme of Dinka domination has rebounded into the arena with unparalleled force and intensity.

Deplorably, ethnic targeting and lynching of vulnerable ethnic Dinka civilians have spiked in recent weeks all across Equatoria. These heinous crimes are sometimes justified by their perpetrators as being impelled by a motive of counter-atrocity and revenge. In other words, these Dinka commuters are condemned to these cruel punishments on the basis of associational guilt. These incidences have served the cause of President Kiir to mobilize a violent constituency of ethnic Dinka latched to him by fear of existential threat.

At the moment, the country is segmented and polarized along ethno-regional sectarian faultlines deliberately promoted by leaders on both sides. According to Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “the spate of rising ethnic rhetoric, hate speech and incitement to violence in South Sudan is highly dangerous and could result in mass atrocities if not reined by community and political leaders at the highest level.”

The state has lost the hearts and minds of its population and has encouraged vigilante groups to emerge and act violently with impunity. Even if the legitimate use of force is functionally vested in the state, it should not be the end in and of itself. Compulsion through the state-sponsored violence has never built any nation. Generally, it is the promotion of mutual trust, mutual benefits, and mutual interests that encourages state formation and enduring solidarity.

The dangerous rhetoric by Machar to ratchet-up levels of violence to make himself more relevant, as evinced by his recent statements, presents another trigger. Moreover, a number of armed groups have intensified attacks on towns and on highways in most parts of the country. These attacks have attempted to hit the economic lifelines of the country and cause chaos and fear along key highways. The result has been massacres of one ethnic group by the other, thereby generating retaliatory counter-attacks.

The incisive question then is whither South Sudan bound? South Sudan, as its erstwhile progenitor – Sudan, has been, from the inception, set on a sectarian trajectory by its gun-toting class of leaders. It is therefore far from being a stable polity.  A more pessimistic view on the current state of affairs is that the country is “on life support”, “on a freefall”, “an Humpty Dumpty sitting on a cliff” or securely “on a stairway to former Yugoslavia”. Whichever the direction it is slanted to take, South Sudan needs an urgent rescue from collapse to avert a catastrophe – in fact a looming genocide – and urgent rebooting to reclaim its sovereignty.  

As it stands, the country has lost its magnetic needle and is out of orbit sliding dangerously towards anarchy. The unstable political calculus of both leaders has generated a conflict, which is rapidly transforming into genocidal war. Unlike Rwanda, a multi-polar system of vicious atrocities is leading towards state fragmentation. The country has hit a highway to former Yugoslavia with the potent mix and interplay of the four horseman of apocalypse – war, death, famine, and mass emigration.

Even as we have warned of the dire consequences of this “coming anarchy” in South Sudan, there are possible ways of averting the catastrophe. The swift response of IGAD, AU, Troika and the UNSC culminating in the adoption of UNSC Resolution 2304 (2016) on the deployment of 4000 strong Regional Protection Force (RPF) is a welcome step. This force should be immediately deployed. At the same time, the mandate of UNMISS should be recalibrated to new realities and to tally with the milestones necessary to prevent genocide and restore the country back to stability.

The RPF should deploy at once to assist in averting catastrophe by managing some of the “tiny initiating events” indicative of genocidal war which are contained in various inflammatory and inciting statements being made by high echelon political leaders and various reactionary community organizations.

Eventually, once there is an environment for dialogue, the society must be allowed to ventilate to address its fears and security dilemmas in an unconstrained manner. At present, a roundtable conference of all stakeholders, the faith-based groups and the civil society – among others – should be invoked. The people of South Sudan must be given the space and support necessary to bridge the chasm of ethnic divisions and redesign the roadmap for the country. This roadmap, should – among other things, embrace the establishment of at least four-year-tenured caretaker administration of technocrats and eminent national personalities who shall have no stakes in the future running of South Sudan beyond the next general elections.  

*Dr. Majak D’Agoôt served as a deputy minister for defence in the Government of South Sudan (2011 – 2013); and was deputy director general of Sudan’s intelligence service (2006 – 2011). He is a member of SPLM-Leaders (Former Political Detainees). He can be reached on

*Dr. Remember Miamingi is an international lawyer based at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. He can be reached at

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