South Sudan: Jonglei – “We Have Always Been at War”

South Sudan: Jonglei – “We Have Always Been at War”

International Crisis Group



Jonglei state’s combustible mix of armed political opposition, violent ethnic militias and dysfunctional political system were part of the tinder that led to the eruption of the civil war in South Sudan in late December 2013. Despite eleven months of peace talks, mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the war threatens to reintensify in the coming weeks. The negotiations do not reflect the diversity of armed groups and interests in South Sudan and the region, most of which are nominally allied with either President Salva Kiir’s government or former Vice President Riek Machar’s Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO). The constellation of regional and South Sudanese armed groups in Jonglei is emblematic of the regional, national and local challenges to peace and the pattern of a war that cannot be resolved by engaging only two of the nearly two-dozen armed groups in the country and ignoring those that have not yet engaged in the fight.

These armed groups’ casus belli are often different from those of Kiir and Machar, and many do not support the peace process, creating a chaotic environment on the ground. Most of these groups are not fighting for control of the government in Juba and some of their conflicts are best resolved at the state or local level. Yet if they are ignored the main protagonists will use these groups to continue the fight and derail national peace efforts.

This round of fighting in Jonglei represents more continuity than change with past decades, and its deep roots are similar to those across the country. Much of the state is now under the control of the SPLM/A-IO and the Murle South Sudan Democratic Army-Cobra Faction (SSDA-CF), which has made a peace deal with the government but the majority of whose fighters are not integrated into the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), while the SPLA and the Ugandan army, the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), secure the government’s control over the rest.

No one’s territory is stable, civilians are displaced and starving and a return to fighting is all but guaranteed. The trajectory of the war in Jonglei demonstrates the dangers of limiting IGAD’s peace process to only the government and SPLM/A-IO. The uneasy status quo in Jonglei is unlikely to last; the peace deal between the government and SSDA-CF is in danger while the local peace deal between the Murle and the opposition-affiliated Lou Nuer grows stronger. Jonglei illustrates the nationwide trend of fragmentation of armed groups, alliance formation at the local level and the potential for the war to get much worse during the upcoming fighting season.

Crisis Group’s prior recommendations about the need for more inclusive talks focused on 1) Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) reform (now supported by Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party); 2) a reactivated Political Parties Forum; 3) engaging with armed groups beyond the SPLA and SPLA-IO; and 4) more attention to intercommunal all remain relevant to ending the war. By looking at the war in Jonglei, this report explains the importance of the third and fourth recommendations. IGAD’s emphasis on brokering a deal between Kiir and Machar neglects the diversity of armed interests and may lead to a peace deal that enjoys little support on the ground. While the government has the upper hand militarily, increasing repression in Juba, interminable rebellion in the bush and cities of Greater Upper Nile and continuing regional interference point to a turbulent future.

In addition to the peace talks in Ethiopia, political work is needed on the ground not only to end the war, but to create a sustainable peace. To improve the prospects of an agreement that leads to peace on the ground, IGAD could consider a number of factors:

  • The vast majority of the political work toward a sustainable peace will need to be done inside South Sudan. IGAD could reinforce its political presence there in addition to its monitoring and verification teams.
  • Monitoring and verification teams could become more responsive to ongoing violations and increase monitoring in areas not yet in conflict but that remain at risk.
  • Building upon the political consultations undertaken by the government and SPLM/
    A-IO, encouraging dialogue in strategic areas within and between key communities will better link the talks with the evolving political situation on the ground.
  • Sustainable peace at the local level is distinct from the alliances of convenience that constitute much of the government and SPLM/A-IO coalitions. Unpacking different groups’ motivations will enable a more coherent approach toward which matters should be included in the IGAD talks, which require local-level processes, and how best to link the two so they are mutually reinforcing rather than mutually undermining.
  • The multiplicity of armed groups and their independent nature suggests that far more effort should be dedicated to discussions about transitional security arrangements that go beyond the government and SPL/A-IO.
  • The 2010 elections in South Sudan took place in a restrictive political climate and led to conflict. Elections should be part of a long-term national political process, not an outcome or objective on their own.
  • Outsiders have had little success in mediating south-south conflict over decades and the most transformative southern peace agreements have been led by South Sudanese. Religious and traditional leaders are influential, relatively independent of military leaders and important barometers of communities’ willingness and ability to implement agreements.
  • Abuses against civilians in South Sudan lead to rebellion and communal obligations to revenge. IGAD could carefully consider how transitional justice and accountability can reinforce the peace process and encourage the parties to halt abusive practices to prevent further escalation.


Africa Report N°221 – International Crisis Group

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