October 1, 2014
South Sudan: Current Issues
South Sudan emerged in 2011 as the world’s newest
country, and as one of its least developed. After almost
40 years of war between the Sudan government and
southern insurgents, an overwhelming majority of southern
Sudanese voted in January 2011 to secede from Sudan.
More than 2.5 million people were killed in the civil war
and more than 4 million were displaced. Many fled as
refugees, including to the United States. South Sudan was
devastated by the conflict, which hindered the development
of basic infrastructure and formal civilian institutions. The
war created massive, chronic humanitarian needs that have
persisted, despite a bounty of natural resources, including
75% of Sudan’s former oil reserves. Corruption also slowed
post-war recovery and development. South Sudan was the
world’s largest recipient of humanitarian aid in 2013.
In December 2013, less than three years after
independence, growing political tensions among key
leaders in South Sudan erupted in violence. The political
dispute that triggered the crisis was not based on ethnic
identity, but it overlapped with preexisting ethnic and
political grievances, sparking armed clashes and targeted
ethnic killings in the capital, Juba, and then beyond.
Ongoing fighting, between forces loyal to South Sudan
President Salva Kiir and forces aligned with his former vice
president, Riek Machar, and among armed civilians, has
caused a security and humanitarian emergency, adding to
vast pre-existing needs and development challenges.
After the initial outbreak of violence, Riek Machar
declared a rebellion against President Kiir, who accused
Machar of plotting a coup. The fighting has continued,
despite international pressure to resolve the conflict and
repeated commitments by the warring parties to observe a
cessation of hostilities deal signed in January.
Regional mediators have led negotiations in Ethiopia
amid ongoing violence, but progress has been limited. In
early June, the two sides agreed to the mediators’ proposal
for a transitional government, but they continue to disagree
on its composition. Significant questions remain regarding
the scope of the dialogue to come, the willingness of either
side to compromise, and the extent to which other
stakeholders are included in the process. Some South
Sudanese express concern that a proposed power-sharing
arrangement may not address the root causes of the conflict.
Impact of the Conflict
More than 1.8 million people have been displaced since
December, and experts warn that the country is on the
verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. U.N. officials
estimate that 7 million people are at risk of hunger and
disease in 2014, with nearly 4 million, almost one-third of
the population, facing alarming levels of food insecurity.
The fighting has disrupted farming cycles and grazing
patterns, and local markets have collapsed. Aid agencies
warn that parts of the country may face famine conditions
in early 2015. Of the displaced, more than 458,000 people
have fled as refugees to neighboring Ethiopia, Sudan,
Uganda, and Kenya. The conflict also affects humanitarian
access to over 220,000 refugees who fled an ongoing
conflict in neighboring Sudan and who are sheltering in
camps in South Sudan.
U.N. officials assert that targeted attacks against
civilians and U.N. personnel during the conflict may
constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity. The
U.N. Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS)
reported in May that “from the very outset of the violence,
gross violations of human rights and serious violations of
humanitarian law have occurred on a massive scale.
Civilians were not only caught up in the violence, they were
directly targeted, often along ethnic lines.” Both sides have
reportedly used child soldiers. Thousands have been killed,
and almost 100,000 have sought refuge at UNMISS
peacekeeping bases. By numerous accounts, many of those
sheltering at the crowded U.N. bases fear that they may be
targeted based on political or ethnic affiliation if they leave.
Disease outbreaks are a major concern in the rainy
season—the first cholera cases were reported in May.
Background and Context
The current crisis reflects underlying tensions and
mistrust among South Sudanese leaders and ethnic
groups that date back to Sudan’s civil war, and before.
While the war was described broadly as a north-south
conflict, infighting among southern rebel commanders in
the 1990s nearly derailed the southern bid for selfdetermination, as leaders of the insurgency, the Sudan
People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA),
competed for power and mobilized supporters along ethnic
lines, resulting in atrocities by all sides. Khartoum fueled
SPLM splits by financing and arming breakaway factions.
www.crs.gov | 7-5700
South Sudan: Current Issues
The major factions reconciled in the early 2000s, although
several smaller southern militias continued to operate.
In 2005, the Sudan government and the SPLM signed the
Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) to end the war.
That deal paved the way for 2010 elections and the southern
referendum, after which South Sudan, led by the SPLM,
seceded in July 2011. The relationship between Sudan
and South Sudan remains tense, and parts of the CPA
have yet to be fully implemented. In early 2012, South
Sudan’s government, angered by Khartoum’s unilateral
decisions regarding the transit and export of South
Sudanese oil through Sudan, and by border disputes,
suspended oil production for over a year. This led to fiscal
austerity measures and economic shocks in both countries.
Most SPLM leaders publicly put aside their differences as
the war was ending to present a unified front and, in some
cases, position themselves for political office. Ethnic
tensions and bitter interpersonal rivalries grew under the
strain of increased governing responsibilities, amid severe
human, institutional, and infrastructure capacity constraints.
The country remained awash in small arms, and localized
interethnic violence increased and appeared progressively
politicized. Political maneuvering ahead of anticipated
2015 elections added to these dynamics. Work on a new
constitution stalled, and a political struggle among senior
SPLM members unfolded. President Kiir’s July 2013
cabinet reshuffle, in which long-time political rival and
presidential hopeful Machar and other key officials were
removed from office, formalized a major fissure in the
ruling party. Tensions rose as Machar and others publicly
accused President Kiir of becoming increasingly dictatorial.
The initial fighting, on December 15, reportedly
occurred in Juba between presidential guard soldiers
from the country’s largest and second largest ethnic
groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, from which Kiir and
Machar, respectively, hail. The fighting soon spread
beyond the capital to the eastern state of Jonglei, where
inter-communal violence had already displaced 100,000
people, and to the oil-producing states of Unity and Upper
Nile. South Sudan’s military split, largely along ethnic
lines. Some military units rebelled against Kiir, purportedly
in response to targeted ethnic attacks against Nuer in Juba
by government forces. The fighting has primarily occurred
in Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile as the two sides vie for
territory. Ugandan military support for the government has
been controversial. Other neighbors have sought to
maintain the appearance of neutrality, although some South
Sudan officials accuse Sudan of arming Machar’s forces.
Senior SPLM political figures were initially arrested in
December for plotting what President Kiir claimed was
a failed coup attempt. U.S. officials have reported no
evidence of such an effort. The detained politicians were
later released, but not exonerated, and they have sought to
form a third block at the peace talks. Rebuilding trust
among political leaders, and between communities affected
by ethnic violence, may prove increasingly difficult the
longer the crisis continues. Many warn that the fighting
may increase with the onset of the dry season in late 2014.
Responding to the Crisis
The international community is mobilizing diplomatic,
humanitarian, and peacekeeping resources to protect
civilians, respond to rising needs, and bring an end to
the conflict. Donors have pledged about $963 million to
date in response to a U.N. appeal for $1.8 billion in relief
aid for 2014. The United States is by far the largest
humanitarian donor, allocating more than $720 million.
The humanitarian response has been constrained by
funding shortfalls, access challenges, threats against
U.N. and other aid agency personnel, and ongoing
hostilities. The looting of relief supplies at the onset of the
conflict, followed by heavy seasonal rains, has necessitated
the costly distribution of food supplies by air. The U.N.
Security Council unanimously authorized a substantial
increase in peacekeeping forces for UNMISS in December,
and in late May modified the mission’s mandate to focus on
four key tasks: protecting civilians, monitoring and
investigating human rights abuses, facilitating aid delivery,
and supporting the cessation of hostilities deal. African
leaders have joined U.N., U.S., and other international
leaders in criticizing both sides for the civilian suffering
arising from the ongoing fighting, and East African officials
have threatened sanctions against the warring parties.
“If the conflict continues, half of South Sudan’s 12 million
people will either be displaced internally, refugees abroad,
starving or dead by the year’s end.” U.N. Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon to the U.N. Security Council, May 12, 2014
U.S. Policy and Foreign Assistance
The United States played a major role in facilitating the
CPA and South Sudan’s subsequent independence, and
the United States has been the country’s largest bilateral
foreign aid donor. It also has played a lead role in U.N.
Security Council deliberations on the country. Engagement
by Congress has been historically driven by human rights
and humanitarian concerns. Despite strains in the
relationship with the South Sudan government, several
senior Obama Administration officials have expressed a
personal stake in resolving the current crisis. U.S. officials
have sought to pressure both sides to accept a settlement
that will facilitate reconciliation and as accountability for
crimes committed during the conflict. President Obama
imposed targeted sanctions under Executive Order
13664 on two military leaders deemed responsible for
fueling the war—a senior rebel commander and the head of
the presidential guard—in May 2014. Two additional
commanders were sanctioned in September. The State
Department has requested $331 million in FY2015 foreign
aid for South Sudan (not including anticipated humanitarian
aid) to protect development gains, ensure delivery of
essential services, and promote peace, in addition to a
request of more than $390 million to support UNMISS.
See also CRS Report R43344, The Crisis in South Sudan.
Lauren Ploch Blanchard, email@example.com, 7-7640
www.crs.gov | 7-5700