South Sudan's civil war began on the night of December 15, 2013, when a firefight erupted between soldiers serving in the presidential garrison in the capital city, Juba. "Between" is an important word. The battle pitted soldiers from the Dinka tribe (largest in South Sudan) against soldiers in the Nuer tribe (second largest). The government, led by president Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and the rebels, led by Riek Machar, a Nuer, agreed to their first ceasefire on December 31.
Fire and combat, however, never ceased. Instead, it spread. Every ceasefire and peace declaration since has failed to hold. Poor communication between negotiating teams and fighters in the field is one reason ceasefire agreements quickly collapsed. Though South Sudan has several major oil fields, which generate oil export revenue, the country remains largely undeveloped and has few roads. Radio and telephone communications are iffy. An agreement might take hold in one area but fail in another. Word that fighting continued elsewhere would spark skirmishes where the ceasefire was initially observed.
Inter-tribal distrust also undermined ceasefire agreements. Smaller tribes have reasons to fear political domination by the Dinka and Nuer.
UN observers and non-governmental aid organizations operating in South Sudan estimate the death toll at somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 human beings. A couple of sources speculate 30,000 dead is more likely. They base their speculation on poor communications and the number of internally displaced persons .
The UN has around 12,500 peacekeepers in South Sudan, serving with the UN Mission in South Sudan. A substantial number of these troops defend 185,000 IDPs living in six large camps. Relief agencies estimate there are another 1.5 million IDPs inside South Sudan. Some 650,000 South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries. That last number is fairly solid. The math suggests that at one time or another, the war has forced over 2.3 million people to flee their homes.
That number -- 2.3 million refugees and IDPs -- is the only one big enough to bring occasional international attention to South Sudan's agony. But it is a despairingly big number, isn't it?
The August 2015 peace agreement -- the last major ceasefire -- was the most promising. That agreement even has a name and a diplomatic acronym: Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan.
Unfortunately, ARCISS failed to stop the fighting. Major ceasefire violations occurred in Oct. and Nov. 2015. This January the rebels accused the government of launching an attack in South Sudan's Unity state.
However, a decision made by President Salva Kiir may completely gut the deal, and gut it by design. On Dec. 24, 2015, Kiir announced that he would reorganize South Sudan into 28 constituent states rather than its original 10. He then proceeded to swear in new governors.
The rebels contend Kiir's move violated power sharing agreements central to the ARCISS peace deal. The rebels are right. Kiir imposed a most dangerous gerrymander reminiscent of the worst 19t century European imperialists. Borders of the new states break up tribes, some of which belong to the rebel coalition.
The Shilluk tribe is the country's third largest. Shilluk live in northern South Sudan along the east and west banks of the Nile River in what was Upper Nile state. They now live in two states, Eastern Nile and Western Nile states. The Shilluk are not pleased.
Rebel leaders say Kiir's reorganization will reignite the civil war. It could. If it does, in South Sudan we will witness another example of a leader and his elite cadre undermining a political agreement that would have halted an impoverishing war. And why did the leader do it? Over the short term, the 28 state structure strengthens Kiir's personal control of state power.