In the past few weeks, South Sudan has teetered on the verge of civil war with over 1,000 people reported killed and around 200,000 displaced, many seeking shelter around United Nations compounds.
Much has been written about the crisis including an introductory 9 questions, helpful political context and speculation about the likely direction of the crisis. The answers are complex, controversial and worth careful study.
But if you’re looking for a place to start or still wondering what it’s all about, here are the most surprising, unsurprising, troubling, promising, and under-discussed aspects of the crisis.
Most Surprising: What happened to the cowboy hat?
One of the most jarring images for South Sudan watchers was President Salva Kiir’s first public appearance following the start of the crisis…in an army uniform. Kiir had spent years in the bush fighting for the independence South Sudan achieved in July 2011, but for the past several years he has been easily recognized by a suit and his signature black cowboy hat, a gift given to him by former President George W. Bush.
Kiir was quick to label the initial violence a coup attempt and to blame his recently sacked Vice President and face of the opposition Riek Machar. The disappearance of the trademark black cowboy hat in favor of an army uniform cast doubt on that charge and caused suspicion that Kiir used the crisis to try to further consolidate his power and isolate the opposition (several former high level officials were arrested). But Kiir seemed to quickly get the message and the cowboy hat soon returned. The question remains whether the uniform remains underneath.
Most Unsurprising: The fault lines of the conflict
The history between Kiir and Machar and recent political moves make it decidedly unsurprising that they would be the faces of the current crisis. The ethnic background of Kiir, a Dinka, and Machar, a Nuer, make the ethnicity and location of their followers also unsurprising, though, as has been written elsewhere, the ethnic aspect in this crisis is more a corollary of the political power struggle than the core aspect of the crisis and should not be overstated. Nor should it be surprising that we are seeing this level of violence in South Sudan.
Observers have long warned about the corruption, development challenges and wearing off of the initial euphoria around independence. Long time South Sudan expert Eric Reeves aptly described the crisis as “if not inevitable, all too likely”.
Most Troubling: Mass graves, atrocities, and long-term effects
The nature of the violence with reports of crimes against humanity and mass graves and the sheer numbers of those displaced are troubling enough, but even worse the follow on effects of the violence are sure to be felt for a long time to come. South Sudan with its lack of infrastructure and development, remote dispersal of food insecure populations, and flow of refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile already made South Sudan one of the most challenging places for international humanitarian work.
The latest violence has added to the numbers of those in need and caused an exodus of international humanitarian workers. Nor are the political tensions and underlying governance challenges in South Sudan likely to be solved any time soon. Add to that the yet unknown economic effects of disruptions in oil production and cross-border trade and the long term effects of this crisis, even if further violence is avoided, is sure to be felt for a long time into the future.
Most Promising: The voices for peace
Amid the recent chaos in South Sudan several voices of moderation arose both internationally and domestically. Messages of peace were released by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the United States, regional powers, and concerned citizens around the world. The UN Security Council acted relatively quickly in passing a Resolution calling for peace and authorizing a doubling of peacekeepers. The African Union quickly pushed for mediation and talks have begun with both sides at the table in Ethiopia.
More importantly, domestic voices of moderation and reconciliation have been echoing through the airwaves and across the internet. Religious leaders in South Sudan have joined to call for peace and domestic and Diaspora South Sudanese have spread the hashtags #iChoosePeace and #mytribeisSouthSudan across Twitter. Much remains to be seen in how the high-level talks and on the ground interactions go forward, but the ultimate solution to the crisis and the threat of longer term violence lies with the people of South Sudan and these voices for peace provide room for hope.
Most Under-Discussed: Refugees from South Kordofan and Blue Nile; Sudan?
Before the recent crisis there were already over 200,000 refugees in South Sudan who had fled fighting in the areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan. It would be inaccurate to say that these refugees have been forgotten, but their plight over the past two and half years has received scant international attention and has been largely overshadowed by the recent crisis. Now those refugees are being forced to choose between the fresh dangers of clashes and decreased humanitarian capacity in South Sudan and a return to the indiscriminate aerial bombardment and aid blockage from which they fled.
This leads into another under-discussed aspect of the crisis, the effects on the relationship between Sudan and South Sudan. And a final question to consider: What role will Sudanese President Bashir, the former common enemy with an ominous history of stoking with South-South tensions, play in the future of his neighbor to the South?
For more in depth background on the crisis in South Sudan check out the South Sudan page on our Save Darfur website.