South Sudan is one of those spots in the world that has seen nothing but strife for many a decade. The background to the current situation goes back over a 100 years.
In the middle (and towards the end) of the 19th century, Sudan was under the nominal control of Egypt which in turn was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The British occupied Egypt in the 1880s and thereby got indirect control over Sudan though they never really went in there as an occupying force.
Sudan was a fighting (squabbling actually) ground for the Egyptians, Ethiopians, Belgians, French and the British in the last two decades of the 19th century. Matters escalated till finally the British got control over Sudan and the territory south of Sudan around 1898. The British wanted full control over the Nile from source (Tanzania / Uganda) to mouth (Egypt). They wanted to build a big dam at Aswan and did not want anyone to control any part of the river.
This led to the artificial joining up of Sudan and parts South into ONE country. Africa, I always feel, was a land forged by the power of the gun. There was almost NOTHING in common between the 2 Sudans. North Sudan was essentially Islamic Arab (not to be confused with the Arabs in the Emirates or Saudi Arabia) whereas South Sudan comprises primarily Nilotic people with Christianity / animism as the primary religion. The relations between the two parts were not really based on mutual trust and brotherhood. In fact hostility and hatred were more like it.
When the British upped anchor and left in 1956, they put the North Sudanese Arabs in charge in Khartoum. That was the beginning of the oppression of the Southerners. It meant that ‘development’ of any infrastructure in the South was minimal. Southerners rarely reached high positions in officialdom. The southerners were not going to take that lying down and that led to 50 years of civil war and unrest in the country. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 brought some relief to the country. The referendum of 2011 led to South Sudan being an independent country. This has meant near cessation of overt hostilities, though bombing in 2 disputed border States and forcible repatriation of ‘southern’ Sudanese staying in the North continues.
The South of Sudan has comprised two main groups – The Nuer and the Dinka. These groups have had differences over economics, politics and social customs for a long time. They had, sort of, buried their differences when faced with a common enemy – the government in Khartoum. However, ever since South Sudan has won independence, these differences have surfaced – even more acutely. At stake is power over the country and the immense oil resources.
Very recently matters came to head when the President Salva Kiir (a Dinka) dismissed his deputy Riek Machar (a Nuer). One must remember that the country is awash with weapons, especially small arms. Almost every adult can use guns. Violence is a part of life (cattle raids for meeting bride price leads to thousands of deaths every year). The Nuers have always resisted disarmament and have arms and warriors available. The Dinkas have the police and army. Clashes were inevitable between the two.
What happens now that there are clashes?
In the short term there will be a huge humanitarian problem of internally displaced people, political uncertainty and deaths. Foreigners are getting caught in the warfare. They are not targets of it. There may be some collateral damage, like the UN Soldiers killed 3 days ago, but nothing more may happen. Foreigners will be evacuated from embassies, UN Missions and NGOs crippling efforts of humanitarian support. This will lead to further deterioration of conditions of those affected.
In March 2011 I had written about South Sudan being on the cusp of destiny and how the leaders could make or break the nation in the next few years. Sadly, it is the break that they seem to be heading towards. Sad.
In the long term
- There will be little impact, if at all, of this violence on any other country. South Sudan is a small (less than 10 million people) and geopolitically insignificant country.
- The unrest will break (North) Sudan economically and then politically because almost all the oil that the economy is dependent on is in the South and if there is unrest, it cannot be safely harvested.
- The unrest will actually be a relief to Egypt because then South Sudan will be too busy trying to sort out the mess within and will not be able to take up the long pending matter of redistribution of Nile waters (South Sudan wants more water and that will mean Egypt gets less). Of course it is not as if Egypt is in any position to do any long term thinking.
I wrote this as an answer on Quora.