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< South Sudan

South Sudan

Ethnic conflict and civil war

SPLA-In Opposition soldiers in rebel-held Magwi county of South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria state, August 2017.

SPLA-In Opposition soldiers in rebel-held Magwi county of South Sudan’s Eastern Equatoria state, August 2017. —Jason Patinkin/US Holocaust Memorial Museum


On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was born, ending more than five decades of war and two civil wars between the peoples of southern Sudan and the government in Khartoum. Southerners—mostly Christian and animist—fought against rule by the north and the imposition of Arabic language and culture.

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Title: From Independence to Civil War: Atrocity Prevention and US Policy toward South Sudan

Author: Jon Temin

Publication: July 2018

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The wars claimed two million lives and continued until 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and then-leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) John Garang. Brokered by the United States, whose government and grassroots advocacy community had long supported southern independence, the CPA included a provision that gave citizens of South Sudan the opportunity to vote whether to remain part of Sudan or to break off and become an independent country.

Some feared that the referendum or full separation from Sudan would reignite violence between the north and the south. Despite the fears, and with support from the international community, a peaceful referendum was held in January 2011, and the citizens of South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Ethnic Conflict and War

A political crisis that began in 2013 erupted into a large-scale civil conflict that has taken on an ethnic cast, as Dinka militias and supporters of the president, Salva Kiir, have battled Nuer forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. Forces on both sides have targeted civilians based on their ethnic identity—using murder, rape, assault, and torture.

The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) brokered a power-sharing agreement in August 2015 with support from the United States and other members of the international community. The agreement fell apart after renewed clashes between the army and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA/IO) erupted in the capital, Juba, in July 2016. The violence prompted Machar, the opposition leader, to flee the country and fighting spread to previously unaffected areas.

According to the United Nations, the conflict has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people and displaced more than four million, as of March 2018. More than two million have fled across international borders to Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries in the region.

A map of South Sudan’s previous ten states. Since the country's independence, President Salva Kiir has subdivided South Sudan into 28 states, in 2015, and still further to 32 states, in 2017. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Fears of Genocide

From the start of the violence in 2013, civilians have been targeted along ethnic lines. In 2016, UN Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng said the escalation of such violence created a strong risk of “the potential for genocide.”

Violence Propels Famine

Conflict in South Sudan has contributed to rising extreme hunger throughout the country. In some instances, levels of hunger have been so severe as to be classified by international humanitarian agencies as famine. Armed violence has scared many away from farming, notably in the Equatoria region, the country’s southwestern “breadbasket.” Lack of rain and high food prices have also contributed to extreme food insecurity.  

Many parts of the country are cut off from receiving adequate food aid and medical attention due to insecurity. UN Food and Agriculture Organization Director of Emergencies Dominique Burgeon noted in June 2017, “The only way to stop this desperate situation is to stop the conflict, ensure unimpeded access and enable people to resume their livelihoods.”

This page was last updated in July 2018.