Coup Attempt? Ethnic Conflict? Figuring Out the Crisis in South Sudan

Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, the world's newest nation, said on December 16, 2013 that an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar had been put down. Riek Machar has refuted the allegations, saying that the fighting was a result of a conflict between members of the presidential guard.

Machar was the African country's first vice-president before president Kiir fired him July 2013.

About 500 civilians are reported to have been killed since the crisis began.

Was there a coup on December 16? Is the crisis in the country an ethnic conflict?

President of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit outside the Security Council chamber, at UN Headquarters in New York. Photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License  by Jenny Rockett.

President of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit outside the Security Council chamber, at UN Headquarters in New York. Photo released under the GNU Free Documentation License by Jenny Rockett.

What would be the reasons for president Kiir's attempt to blame his former vice president? Lesley Anne Warner, an African security analyst, explains:

Political tensions had been on the rise since President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet in July, especially his VP Riek Machar, whose location at the moment, is unconfirmed. (I’m trying to get the #WhereIsRiek hashtag started, but sadly it hasn’t gained traction.) Salva was quick to point the finger at Riek to blame him for the recent unrest, but my initial sense is that Riek has spent years trying to rehabilitate his reputation from the 1991 Nasir coup attempt and would be more likely to exhaust his options in the political sphere before resorting to armed violence. The key issue to consider is who stands to gain from casting Riek in a negative light and reminding South Sudan, and the international community, of his past? The answer is, President Kiir, who needs to bolster his own image as South Sudan’s leader in light of the cabinet reshuffle, and in the run-up to elections in 2015. Notice how President Kiir has donned his military apparel, which he hasn’t worn in years for the press conference he gave on yesterday’s events instead of his trademark cowboy hat.

Is the crisis a power struggle between two ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer? President Kiir comes from the majority Dinka people and Machar from the Nuer. South Sudanese bloggger PaanLuel Wël does not think so:

Deadly shoot-outs among the presidential guards in Juba is being portrayed as a war pitting the Dinka (among whom President Kiir is from) against the Nuer, the tribe of Dr. Riek Machar, South Sudan former Vice President. Yet, the senior SPLM officials being arrested are overwhelmingly Dinkas – both from Bor and Bahr el Ghazal. And even Equatorians and Shilluks. So, what is the what? South Sudanese should sort out the mess among the Presidential Guards and must leave out these two–tribalization of the unfortunate incident and victimization of innocent political opponents.

Wël also imagines possible end scenarios to the crisis:

Barring the tragedy of the situation, it is amusing how the government is conducting the aftermath of the mutiny – making it appear as a resounding victory rather than the beginning of a tragedy awaiting the nation.

One thing is clear: there is no end to this crisis other than some kind of mediated compromise between President Kiir and Riek Machar. Riek Machar will come back to Juba as the 1st Vice President of South Sudan, and possibly with a clause making him unfirable by Kiir. If that is the case, then won’t it make more sense to initiate the dialogue and peaceful end to the crisis RIGHT NOW rather than waiting for more precious lives to be lost on both sides before the two camps settle for what it is that it is.

Martin Garang thinks the crisis was either a coup or mishandling reassignments on the part of security forces:

Civilians have so far become the underdogs caught in the crossfire, targeted for no reason or locked in their homes without food or water in Juba. Reports have hinted that the Jonglee capital of Bor had come under heavy gunfire with several deaths reported.

Either it was a coup d'état or security forces mishandling reassignments in their quarters, The SPLM has tarnished its reputation by putting innocent lives at risk. Whatever the truth in the recent government rhetoric, the rhyme and whine over state power from the leaders carry the blame for the current state of affairs in Juba.

South Sudan has a history of rebellions which had been made excessively ethnical during the decades of war of independence. It is a reality that can be seen in all aspects of life in the country. It’s therefore the responsibility of the SPLM leadership to have acquainted itself with this reality by urging leaders to refrain from using ethnic cards in their power manipulations.

Writing on African Arguments, Jairo Munive, a post-doctoral researcher at the Peace, Risk and Violence Unit- Danish Institute for International Studies, points out that what happened in South Sudan is probably not a coup:

But are we witnessing a coup in South Sudan? Probably not. First, one should forget, or at least treat with caution, the wording employed by the actors involved the crisis. President Kiir has spoken of a “coup attempt” and “criminal actions” whilst Machar refers to the “manufacturing of a coup plot to launch a crackdown against the opposition…the country is to be united and cannot tolerate one man’s rule or it cannot tolerate dictatorship”.

It is more fruitful instead to think about the apparent collapse in cohesion of SPLA. The real issue at this juncture, as the head of the United Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Hilda Johnson expressed, is the discipline, command and control in the security forces. To come to terms with recent events we have to understand the SPLA – its politics, tensions and drama surrounding it.

South Sudanese politics is interwoven with low intensity warfare, inter-ethnic violence and norms of authority grounded in violence. This violence is designed to generate loyalty, fear and legitimacy within a region or an ethnic group vis-à-vis those in power. The army in South Sudan has a tremendous importance in two ways: both as a space for politics and as a ‘welfare provider’ within the nascent state. Furthermore, the make-up of the army reflects the divided politics of the country.

The political environment in South Sudan, as the events of this week testify, remains vulnerable to the mobilisation of armed force. Internal factionalism and defections have marked the SPLA in recent years. Commanders, particularly those from other armed groups integrated into the SPLA (particularly from the SSDF), have reacted to a perceived lack of integration and authority, power and military command.

On Twitter, users employing the hashtag #SouthSudan had this to say:


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.