Understanding South Sudan's current crisis and options for the international community

This seminar considered the origins of the crisis in South Sudan, providing an overview of the main actors, and options for international responses.

Since 15 December 2013, South Sudan has become embroiled in a bitter, ethnically divisive conflict that has impacted communities across the country. The political and humanitarian crisis has crippled progress towards recovery from decades of civil war.

At the heart of the current crisis is a struggle for the leadership of the ruling party – the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The scale of the violence, the rapid mobilisation of military strength and the intensity of grievances on all sides have raised difficult questions about the future of this nascent state.

This seminar brought together 45 participants from the diplomatic community, academia, civil society and policy community to discuss the origins, main actors and options for international responses in addressing the crisis.

Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), examined the growing unhappiness within the political leadership of post-independence South Sudan as a cause of the current crisis. This relates to the power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his deposed deputy, Riek Machar, along with the inability of the SPLM party structures to address the antagonism between them. These and other longstanding issues were identified as having provided the broader context that allowed the crisis to spread so quickly. These include issues of ethnicity, splits in the leadership of the SPLM and South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the over-militarisation of the political space in the country.

Lauren Hutton, a senior fellow of The Netherlands Institute for International Relations (Clingendael), recapped the complexities surrounding the emergence of the SPLA and the key individuals who drove the process. She identified the initial militarisation, which lacked consistent ideology, within the SPLM/A as the key cause of the factionalism. She also noted that there is a lack of distinction between the SPLA, the SPLM and the state, owing to the liberation credentials of the SPLM/A.

She added that other historical issues, such as the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the 2006 Juba declaration that outlawed other armed groups (OAGs) have all had an enormous impact on the nature of the SPLM/A and politics in post-independence South Sudan.

Casie Copeland, a consulting analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), noted that other countries in the region were perhaps the most prepared to address the crisis given their understanding of the issues in South Sudan, their involvement in brokering the CPA and historical ties that were formed during the second Sudan Civil War. She also noted the key roles played by the troika (Norway, United States and the United Kingdom) in achieving the recent cessation of hostilities agreement.

The discussions section of the meeting brought out interesting nuances to the crisis and the need for rapid response from the international community. In her concluding remarks, the ISS’s Stephanie Wolters, who chaired the seminar, thanked participants for the frank discussions as well as the governments of Norway, Australia and Sweden for supporting the ISS.


To listen to an interview with Casie Copeland, consulting analyst at the International Crisis Group, click here

Development partners
This event was made possible through funding provided by the government of the Netherlands. The ISS is also grateful for support from the following members of the ISS Partnership Forum: Governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the USA.
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