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South Sudan

Can South Sudan still avoid civil war?

A young country descends into chaos: The people of South Sudan have already been through years of civil war and could be on the brink of yet another. Different ethnic groups fight for power, property and survival.

Crisis talks are under way to calm unrest in South Sudan, but the country could descend into yet another civil war as the power struggle between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar continues.

Germany's new Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier along with his international colleagues warned that the conflict must not spread to the rest of the county. Hundreds of people got killed in the weeks before Christmas, tens of thousands are on the run. What began in the capital Juba has already reached some of the provinces although "most people in South Sudan are not affected," as expert Mareike Schomerus of the London School of Economics told DW.

Different ethnics groups in the region have been fighting with each other for decades. Sudan had to endure almost 50 years of civil war until a 2005 peace deal was achieved. More than 2 million people died in the conflict. Rebel groups from the south rose up against the government in the north and since the 1980s the insurgency was mostly conducted by the Sudan People's Liberation Army of John Garang.

Riek Machar and Salva Kiir

Rivals Machar and Kirr once were political allies

Rebels become politicians

Leading politicians from the south often have in past held posts as commanders in the rebel ranks. Also today's president, Salva Kiir, fought alongside Garang. But in 1991, a 40-year-old officer split the SPLA: Riek Machar, the man who later could become vice president of independent South Sudan. Garang's idea had been to reform Sudan as a whole, Machar instead wanted an independent country for the south.

Kiir and Machar have been in a power struggle for decades and also come from two different ethnic groups - a fact they both try to use to their own advantage. Kiir has the backing of the Dinka, the largest ethnic group making up around 40 percent of the population. Machar, who's now accused of instigating a coup against Kiir, is a member of the Nuer group which makes up around 20 percent of the 8 million to 9 million people in the country. Those ethnic groups are being "mobilizied and used," Schomerus said.

Division and a new start

The SPLA rebels negotiated with the Sudan government for years over what kind of a political solution they could agree on to end the civil war. Until 2005, several smaller steps had been made until eventually a peace agreement was reached. This agreement detailed that the mostly Christian population of the South would within six years time have the chance to vote on whether they want independence from the largely Muslim north. Until then, the people were to have time to think about whether they really want the country to break in two.

Refugees in Juba

The number of internally displaces is on the rise

But in that same year, SPLA chief Garang died in a helicopter crash. His idea of a different but united Sudan gradually lost supporters. When the people of the south eventually voted in 2011, they overwhelmingly opted for independence. The vote brought new unrest and rekindled old conflicts.

No improvement for the people

In 2005 the south got substantial autonomy and its own government, which after death of Garang was lead by Salva Kiir with Riek Mchar as vice president until 2013. For the people though very little changed. The majority is still living below the poverty line and is illiterate. There are hardly any doctors or schools.

The fact that large oil reserves were discovered in the South didn't help the farmers. The riches didn't reach the population, instead there were more conflicts over exploitation rights and oil transportation. The only pipeline that can be used to export South Sudan's oil runs through Sudan in the north. For months, exports were halted over border conflicts between Sudan and South Sudan, the region never calmed down.

UN staff

The UN is planning to double its troops in the country

Wrong expectations?

The current unrest is rooted in conflicts within the still-existing rebel movement. In Juba alone, the death toll exceeds 500. "Independence has drawn a cloak over what was really going on," Schomerus said. It drew attention away from the problems and even international organizations preferred to hope for the best rather than have a closer look at reality.

But now, the old conflicts are back in the focus of international attention. Juba is the place where all international organizations and representatives are located. Maybe the expectations were wrong from the start, Schomerus said. "What was this place going to be in 2013?" Maybe international norms and regulations wouldn't work for them, she added.

Just over two years since independence, the world is once again looking at South Sudan. Yet despite all the problems, Kiir's Christmas speech sounded optimistic. "I have expressed that I am open to dialogue with Riek Machar in order to put down our differences and achieve peace for this new nation."

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