Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Lords of the Tribes

The Real Roots of the Conflict in South Sudan

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.

natsios_south_sudan_rtx1jk11.jpg Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar, July 8, 2015.

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 BBC reported in June of the rape of teenage girls by the SPLA in Machar’s home turf of Unity State (the location of much of the South’s oil). The rapists burned the girls alive in their homes to dispose of the evidence. UNICEF has reported that, in recent weeks, the SPLA brutalized Nuer boys in the same area and then drowned them en masse. According to a June report by USAID, a famine is developing in Unity State, which could kill tens of thousands. The Dinka remains the largest tribe in South Sudan and at the time, dominated the Southern government. Nuer are the second largest and the Dinkas’ traditional rivals. Read the full article on ForeignAffairs.com