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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: £20000 - £25000 per annum + c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a number ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Sales Consultant - OTE £45,000

£15000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for an exci...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food