Sudan has seen more than its fair share of conflict over the past six decades, with two major bouts of fighting between the north and south lasting a total of 38 years before a peace agreement in 2005 paved the way for the separation into two autonomous states. So it was with great optimism and a significant amount of fanfare by local standards that the creation of South Sudan was greeted in July 2011, creating Africa’s newest country. The young nation’s prospects looked good. Despite minimal levels of infrastructure and a largely agrarian population, the southern part of Sudan had produced 85% of the country’s oil before separation and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which ended the second civil war, stipulated that it would be allowed to keep 50% of the proceeds. With less than a third of the population of rump Sudan, 65% of which is under the age of 24, and large tracts of fertile land coupled with plenty of good will from Western donors, the South looked set to prosper.
Yet the decades of civil war between the predominantly Arab and Muslim North and the largely Christian and Animist South had only partially resolved Sudan’s many rifts and fissures. Made up of over 60 different ethnic groups, the South strode toward independence with myriad smaller conflicts left festering, the largest of which, between the Nuer who make up around 10% of the population and the Dinka, who constitute around 15%, duly resurfacing with a vengeance.
A series of events in December 2013 that each blames on the other led to Salva Kiir accusing his Vice President of plotting a coup. Widespread fighting quickly broke out between forces loyal to Kiir and Nuer elements of the army. The fighting along ethnic lines spread across the country like wildfire, leading to 100,000 people being displaced by fighting across South Sudan and 1,000 losing their lives in the first week of the conflict. Despite various attempts at ceasefires and peace agreements brokered by regional and International bodies, the fighting has continued unabated. President Kiir has also angered the Equatorians, another ethnic group, by redrawing state boundaries, pushing them into the arms of Machar’s Nuer rebels.
By early 2018, over a quarter of the population of 12 million had been displaced by four years of fighting and some 300,000 people had died. Ethnic groups caught up on the wrong side of the constantly shifting battle lines have fled in their tens of thousands to IDP camps in Juba, the capital, and other locations, protected and cared for by the United Nation Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The disruption caused to the agricultural cycle is threatening up to 6 million people with severe food shortages and starvation and the country’s economy, already almost exclusively reliant on oil revenues, has nosedived.
Parts of the country, already very difficult to access during peace time, have become virtually impossible to reach other than by helicopter, resulting in minimal reporting from some of the worst affected areas. Mads Nissen spent 10 days in Upper Nile province with a small team from UNICEF airlifted in to provide basic health provision to the local population.