When the country gained independence just over two years ago, everyone lauded its entry onto the world stage. But was it really ready?
A five-day bout of violence has left hundreds feared dead in ethnic fighting between rival factions in South Sudan, according to various reports, with President Salva Kiir urging calm on Friday to quell the unrest that many are afraid could plunge the young nation into civil war..
President Barack Obama sent 45 American soldiers to the capital, Juba, to protect its citizens and property, like the U.S. Embassy.
Some accounts have as many as 400 to 500 people, mostly soldiers, dead since the unrest began on Sunday. The wave of hostility, according to a government statement by Wednesday, was originally caused by a “failed coup,” but on Thursday mass evacuations were under way, with an attack on a United Nations compound in the town of Akobo in Jonglei state,in the nation’s east, leaving two Indian peacekeepers dead.
The U.N. announced Friday it was sending rescue helicopters to the base. It was reported up to 35,000 civilians were seeking refuge at U.N. installations around the country.
The country has been cursed with violence for decades.The South fought a 21-year civil war against the North from 1983 to 2004, resulting in roughly two millions deaths. A comprehensive peace agreement was signed in 2005 in neighboring Nairobi, Kenya, calling for independence six years later.
One American businessman in neighboring Nairobi – Ian Cox, who owns a transportations-logistics company called Lorry Boys that does business in South Sudan – told MintPress the long-term situation looked unsteady.
He was urgently helping to arrange ground transportation for ex-patriots seeking to leave the country over the last three days, in addition to providing charter flights to those in danger-prone areas outside the capital where the violence has spread, like Jonglei state. Juba, where the main fighting was until Wednesday, is in Central Equatoria state.
“I think this is really an unfortunate turn of events for a country that just two weeks ago had probably the biggest international investment conference since independence,” Cox said via Skype on Friday “It’s really going to throw a lot of corporations on their back foot who are seeking to do business or who are looking to invest in South Sudan.”
He said he had gotten a report from inside South Sudan that another hub, Bor, had fallen into the hands of rebel forces. too, while Juba had calmed at the same time.
The fighting is said to be largely along tribal lines between two military factions comprised of Dinka and Nuer troops. The international airport in Juba was temporarily shut down and curfews imposed.
“While the fighting within Juba town has calmed, there remain serious concerns, including the mistaken idea among some Dinka SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) soldiers and rogue security agents that this is a Nuer-Dinka conflict, taking rather ghastly acts of revenge against Nuer,” Jok Madut Jok, chairman of The Sudd Institute – an independent research organization facilitating public policy debate in South Sudan, said in a situation report via Facebook from Juba on Wednesday. Jok’s credible reports are largely followed by media and aid workers in East Africa.
Though officially separating from Sudan in mid 2011 and becoming the newest country on the planet (193rd), it instantly became one of the poorest, most uneducated, corrupt and politically unstable nations upon independence. Kiir’s government was just ranked the fifth most corrupt in the world by Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
For a country that held so much promise just two and a half years ago, things have taken a new, perilous path.The simple task of running like a functioning state in a post-war climate is a tall order for this country already afflicted with so many internal political problems. Foremost on their mind should be keeping foreign investments in country, not scaring them off.
“Innocent Nuers have already been killed in the neighborhoods, stoking what might escalate into tragic acts of ethnic cleansing,” he continued. “One Nuer officer I happen to know personally who had been fighting on the SPLA side until Tuesday when there was a lull in the fight, and had taken a permission to go and check on his family, was found at home and killed by his comrades, simply because he was Nuer and they mistook him for an enemy. There are many stories of this kind and such are the stuff with which the collapse of a state is made of.
Jok claims several ministers are currently being detained in connection with the alleged coup plot.
“The damage of this incident on future national cohesion, image of the country and its efforts to encourage investment from outside will be even far greater,” Jok said.
The clashes broke out on Dec. 15, when soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar supposedly attacked the Al Giada army headquarters just outside Juba, according to an article Wednesday by the UN humanitarian news agency, IRIN, headquartered in Nairobi.
But writing in Khartoum-based Sudan Tribune newspaper on Wednesday, Machar said, “There was no coup. 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.”
Another radio news outlet in South Sudan also reported on Wednesday what Machar claimed in the Sudan Tribune: that Kiir had ordered some Nuer guards within the army’s so-called “Tiger Battalion,” which was the impetus for the spate of violence, not a coup attempt.
Machar, whose whereabouts are unknown presently, has a Twitter account and the feed was active Wednesday.
“Salva tried to disarm the Nuer,” he said, referring to the president, and Kiir would have “to pry it from my cold dead hands,” with a now-famous picture of former National Rifle Association Charlton Heston holding an old musket in a defiant, raised clutch from May 2000 accompanying the post. From the Twitter posts its clear Machar is fanning stoking further flames, as they are all taunting in nature toward the Kiir government.
“Tensions remain,” according to American freelance journalist Andrew Green, who is in Juba currently and exchanged messages about the situation with MintPress on Wednesday via Facebook (editor’s note: Skype connections were very sketchy). “Thousands of people are still seeking refuge at United Nations compounds, mosques and churches around the city. The U.S. Embassy has evacuated non-essential staff and civilians.”
Green went on to say this: “It’s hard to say what will happen. Kiir has expressed an interest in meeting with Machar, who is a good enough politician to accept and try to plot a way forward. It does have the potential to split the country along political, if not ethnic lines, though everyone is rather courageously trying to avoid that outcome at the moment – something the president deserves a lot of credit for.”
He said if the fighting abated soon, things could return to normal.
“But it does not appear likely that is going to happen,” he said.