A historical overview of the factors that contributed to violence between north and south Sudan can be found here. This section is limited to describing the risks factors for genocide and mass atrocities evident today in South Sudan.
The potential threat from the north
When the line between the north and south transformed into an international border on July 9, 2011, it did not erase the long history of tension and violence that separates the people of these lands. Despite the South’s independence, the fates of both countries remain tied together. They share not only a history, but also interests in a number of cross-border issues, including trade, migration, and resource development (such as oil). The north has long used violence- either directly or through proxy armed forces- to address its issues with the south. Differences regarding borders, wealth-sharing, and security have been main points of contention. It is not clear if the north’s pattern of fomenting violence will continue as a means to settle these issues and others, or if the two countries will find a way to respect each other’s sovereignty and peacefully negotiate their relations.
History of inter-group violence in the South
The Khartoum-based government of Sudan was responsible for the majority of the violence during the conflict between the north and south. However, significant loss of life and destruction also occurred when southern groups fought amongst themselves. In 1991, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was weakened when its main outside supporter, the Mengistu regime of Ethiopia, was overthrown. Weakened, the SPLA’s long-time leader, Dr. John Garang, faced challenges from other southerners who argued that the Dinka dominated the leadership hierarchy to the detriment of the second largest ethnic group, the Nuer. Amidst accusations that the north was fueling the splinter groups, fighting broke out between SPLA forces loyal to Garang and breakaway groups, with significant numbers of civilian deaths. For example, in an attack on a town, Bor, in 1991, breakaway forces killed an estimated 2,000 Dinka.
The disputes were only overcome in 2002, when a unity agreement was signed by the leaders of the major splinter groups and the SPLA. The legacy of this conflict, both as a pattern and in the reemergence of some key personalities, continues to impact patterns of violence today in South Sudan. Dinka continue to dominate the SPLM in a country with considerable ethnic and religious diversity.
Political and social uncertainty
The government of South Sudan was built by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the civilian arm of the southern rebel army. This single party has dominated southern politics and is now tasked with finding a way to create strong institutions while also allowing multi-party politics. South Sudan must accomplish this political feat while simultaneously dealing with the severe and immediate need for better access to food, water, education, communications, and other infrastructure. The entire economy and workforce of the South must shift from decades of focus on self-protection, to building the world’s newest nation. These challenges would be enormous and difficult under any circumstances. South Sudanese must face them in the wake of a conflict that pitted groups against each other with enormous civilian suffering and losses, a potentially hostile northern neighbor, and multiple well-armed militias.