Lords of the Tribes

The Real Roots of the Conflict in South Sudan

Men from Dinka tribe stand amongst their cattle at dusk in a camp near Rumbek, capital of the Lakes State in central South Sudan, December 14, 2013. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Today, there is still no end in sight to the civil war raging in South Sudan. In March, I traveled there, speaking with the country’s leaders and citizens about the Southern crisis and learning about the three divergent narratives circulating in Juba these days that attempt to explain its roots: a failure to build a functioning state, myopic leadership, and northern Sudanese interference. But these accounts, while insightful, are incomplete. The current conflict is much more complex and discontent began to stir in the region long before violence erupted in 2013. In fact, the beginnings of the war can be traced back to just after the South won independence in 2011. That is when the unstable alliance between the country’s various tribes began to breakdown.


The South Sudanese civil war began just a few days before Christmas 2013. On December 15, fighting broke out in Juba, South Sudan, between tribal elements of the presidential guard and quickly spread across the city. In the days and months that followed, 50,000 South Sudanese were massacred and 2.5 million civilians were either internally displaced or fled to neighboring countries. A new civil war had erupted in a country not yet four years old.

South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar, July 8, 2015. Thomas Mukoya / Reuters
The bloody confrontation that took place between the Nuer and Dinka soldiers and militias reflected the tribal divisions in the South Sudanese leadership between President Salva Kiir Mayardit (a Dinka) and his former Vice President, Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon (a Nuer), whom Kiir had sacked on July 23, 2013. What followed can only be described as an attempt by Kiir’s government to ethnically cleanse Juba of Nuer men—although elderly people, women, and children were murdered as well. Kiir used the police, a tribal militia from his home state, and some elements of the South’s military (called the SPLA) to slaughter an estimated 6,000 to 30,000. Kiir defended his actions by claiming that he was merely halting a coup attempt led by Machar. Retaliatory violence followed and quickly spread north into areas of mixed Nuer and Dinka

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