A new nation with old hatreds: More than 500 people feared dead after 'failed coup' in South Sudan

Thousands have fled from their homes after violence erupted in the world’s newest country. Peter Popham examines the rivalry behind the conflict

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, is in flames this week with up to 500 people feared dead after what its President described as “a failed coup.”

Some 20,000 people in the capital, Juba, fled from their homes to take shelter with the United Nations after rival divisions of the Republican Guards reportedly began shooting at each other on Sunday. Parts of the city are said to have been reduced to rubble by the fighting, which today spread to the town of Bor, north of the capital. Behind the fighting is ethnic rivalry which, according to one South Sudanese military official, threatens to tear the country apart.

The new country was forged with high hopes in a referendum in 2011, after decades of civil war. But an oil blockade enforced by Sudan’s government in Khartoum has undermined the development of democratic institutions in what is essentially a one-party state. The decision by President Salva Kiir, who led the new nation into independence in 2011, to sack his deputy, Riek Machar, in July provoked a political and military rift which today leaves South Sudan teetering on the edge of serious conflict. Mr Kiir belongs to the Dinka tribe, while Mr Machar is from the Nuer tribe.

President Kiir said that the fighting on Sunday broke out after what he called a “failed coup attempt” by soldiers loyal to Mr Machar, and that the former Vice President was now the subject of a manhunt. Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said that Mr Machar had gone into hiding. “If he wants to become President, he needs to wait for elections,” Mr Benjamin added. “He wants to be President, but in the wrong way.”

Mr Machar denies involvement in a coup, according to an article in the Sudan Times. “There was no coup,” he said. “What took place in Juba was a misunderstanding between presidential guards within their division. It was not a coup attempt. I have no connection with or knowledge of any coup attempt.” He added, “Someone wanted to frame me. I had to flee. They are hunting me down.”

The sudden eruption of violence left the international community struggling to provide assistance to the many victims. “Thousands of victims, including women and children, have fled their homes in search of safety,” the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement.

“The ICRC is providing the city’s two major hospitals with support so they can cope with the heavy influx of patients. More than 300 people have been admitted... over the past two days.”

Britain’s Foreign Office said that its embassy in Juba remains open but that it was pulling some embassy staff and their dependants from the country in response to the violence. The United States said it had ordered all non-essential embassy staff out of the country immediately.

Ahmed Soliman, of the Chatham House think-tank, traced the unrest back to the summer. “There has been increasing political unrest in the country since July, when President Kiir sacked Vice-President Machar and reduced the number of ministries from 29 to 19 in an attempt to streamline and invigorate the government,” he told The Independent. The move was also interpreted as a way for Kiir, who took over as leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party, in 2005, to strengthen his chances of regaining the presidency in elections scheduled for 2015.

Mr Soliman said that in the past couple of months a number of very senior members of the party have distanced themselves from Mr Kiir, including the party’s secretary-general, the man who led the negotiations that paved the way to independence, and Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, the widow of Mr Kiir’s predecessor, John Garang, who was advising the president on human rights and gender issues.

“On 6 December they held a joint press conference, accusing Kiir of increasingly authoritarian behaviour,” he said. “This was a significant challenge to his leadership.”

Mr Soliman denied that the divisions necessarily prefigured tribal conflict, noting that members of Kiir’s Dinka tribe were among the dissenters from his style of government. But others claimed that polarisation along ethnic lines was now a live danger in the country.

One Western diplomat with long experience of the region said, “The worry is that, once this conflict spreads out of Juba to other areas, it is in a much more ethnic landscape, and then you have the remobilisation of the old militias.”

An official in the town of Bor, north of Juba, said that soldiers at two military barracks had attacked each other. One journalist in the town told Reuters that troops of the Nuer tribe loyal to the former Vice-President now controlled the barracks.

Bor is in Jonglei state, the biggest and most populous and also the most unsettled in South Sudan, where in 1991 soldiers loyal to Mr Machar massacred hundreds of Dinka tribespeople.  

One of the poorest nations on earth, South Sudan faced immense challenges when it gained independence in 2011, and these were immediately aggravated by a prolonged dispute with Khartoum over ownership of crucial oil wells in the north of the country, a dispute which has yet to be fully resolved, though the oil is once again flowing.

The decades of civil war have also made it harder to bring stability to a country which an International Crisis Group expert described in 2010 as “a web of deep-rooted ethnic tensions.”

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game