In South Sudan, a failed coup, violent confusion -- or the first spark of civil war?
JUBA, South Sudan - It will probably never be clear what triggered the Dec. 15 firefight that broke out at a Juba military barracks and has now brought the world's newest country to the brink of a civil war. In the hours after the barracks shootout, fighting spread rapidly across the city -- leaving hundreds of people dead and tens of thousands displaced.
By the following afternoon, before the army could even launch its investigation, President Salva Kiir -- in full military fatigues -- appeared on a delayed state television broadcast to denounce the fighting as an attempted coup by his former deputy, Riek Machar, a gap-toothed mechanical engineer turned fighter in the Sudanese civil war. Hours later the police detained ten leading political figures.
Machar, who slipped out of Juba and into hiding around the time the other politicians were being rounded up, fired back in an interview with a local newspaper two days later. He called the fighting "a misunderstanding" between soldiers and accused Kiir of using the clash as a cover to remove his rivals.
Whether coup or confusion, the incident has revealed just how fragile the coalitions that once held the country together really were.
Independence has not come easy for South Sudan. After decades of war, a country the United States helped midwife into existence less than three years ago, has come to the brink of war with Sudan and watched its economy crumble after it shut down oil production early last year over a refusal to pay grossly inflated transit fees the government in Khartoum was charging to use its pipeline. Meanwhile, rebel groups have continued to crisscross vast swathes of the country, engaging soldiers and disrupting humanitarian efforts. But now South Sudan faces its most serious challenge: Unresolved political divisions have already caused hundreds of deaths and now threaten to split the country along ethnic lines.
Four days later after the barracks attack, sporadic gunfire continues to disrupt Juba's nights and a dusk-to-dawn curfew remains in place. Traffic is returning slowly, though police checkpoints still dot the major roads. And tension remains, as many people who were displaced by the fighting refuse to return home. Still President Kiir repeats assurances that the situation is "under control."
Meanwhile, one state capital, Bor, has fallen to a group of soldiers who defected from the army and officials are reporting fighting in some of the country's northern oil fields -- near the border with Sudan. On Dec. 19, the United Nations announced that a base sheltering civilians in Bor had been overrun. "There may have been some fatalities but [we] can't confirm who and how many at this stage," a spokesperson told the press.
Now, the country's political leaders -- under pressure from the international community -- are trying desperately to prevent the country from splitting any further. They are stressing the political nature of the conflict, but in a country where the political often bleeds over into the ethnic, there is fear among citizens that what started as a shootout in a barracks could turn into widespread intercommunal conflict.
The country's political fissures have been growing ever since President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet in July. Officials at the time said the cabinet was too large and not enough was getting done. Instead of continuing to pacify rivals, Kiir wanted to bring in technocrats, who would create work plans and deliver results.
It was also clear that the move was something of a power play, with Kiir clearing out potential rivals, like Machar, and bringing his own people on board. If the new cabinet could deliver on Kiir's promises of better roads, schools and hospitals, it would solidify him as the only legitimate candidate in the presidential election scheduled for 2016.
But the reorganization also undid the complicated coalition of different ethnic groups the president had managed to string together with his first cabinet. That included Machar -- a leader in the Nuer community, which is second only to Kiir's Dinka community in size.
Machar and other critics remained diplomatic in the weeks after the reshuffle. Though the former deputy announced he intended to challenge Kiir for the presidency in 2016 elections, it appeared any immediate political crisis had passed with the swearing in of a new cabinet.
But Andrea Mabior, a local political analyst, told Foreign Policy, "The power struggle was only beginning."
Earlier this month, a group of disgruntled members of the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party gathered for a press conference. In a cloak-and-dagger move, they kept the location and participants secret until hours before. The alliance ended up including Machar, former Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor -- now among the 10 politicians who have been arrested -- and Rebecca Nyandeng. Her presence was particularly notable, because she is the widow of John Garang, South Sudan's great martyr, who led southern rebels during the decades-long war with Sudan only to die in a helicopter crash months after signing a peace deal with Khartoum.
Machar read the group's statement, in which he accused Kiir of exacerbating divisions within the ruling party, cutting himself off from SPLM members and, general "dictatorial tendencies" in his leadership.
Nine days later, the fighting started.
Juba saw heavy gunfire and sporadic shelling for more than 48 hours. The city was on almost complete lockdown until forces loyal to the government finally drove the rebel fighters out of the city. The United Nations estimates as many as 500 people were killed and more than 20,000 others were displaced. Many civilians within Juba -- both members of the Nuer and the Dinka communities, along with others -- are still holed up at U.N. compounds or on the grounds of churches and mosques.
As Juba calmed down, fighting spread to restive Jonglei state, with reports that former rebel leader Peter Gadet had re-defected and that he and his troops had taken the state capital, Bor.
Jok Madut Jok, who heads a local think tank called The Sudd Institute, says has no doubts that Machar's recent pronouncements led -- at least indirectly -- to the country's current situation.
Machar's coalition "made this call for dialogue contingent on certain conditionalities," Jok said. "And failing that, they said this situation could escalate into violence. This is kind of their own prophecy becoming fact." Even if Machar did not lead a coup, Jok said, it is possible people loyal to him decided to follow through on his remarks.
It was not a given that the violence in the wake of the barracks shooting would become ethnically motivated, and humanitarian and government leaders have tried desperately to prevent exactly that from happening.
Hilde Johnson, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General in South Sudan, called on leaders Dec. 7 to "refrain from any action that fuels ethnic tensions and exacerbates violence." And in northern Unity state, government leaders took the radio to tell people that President Kiir had not ordered the targeted killing of any communities and there should be no reprisal attacks.
Early evidence is starting to show that they had a right to be concerned.
Twenty-three-year-old Tebisa Albino, lives with her family in one of the areas of Juba that has experienced heavy fighting. She said soldiers came through their area and asked people to speak certain phrases in languages associated with particular ethnic groups. Nuer who failed the test had their houses destroyed or worse.
"The heavy vehicles are coming and are demolishing homes and killing people inside," she said. "And they are shooting people."
Human Rights Watch has already found that Albino's was not an isolated incident, reporting, "South Sudanese soldiers fired indiscriminately in highly populated areas and targeted people for their ethnicity during recent fighting in Juba."
Even loyal members of the SPLM acknowledge there might be some truth to the reports.
"It's unfortunate if some members of the army begin to select some people," SPLM Acting Secretary General Ann Itto said at a press conference today. "But this is not a policy of the army and it's not a policy of the government and we must make sure that it does not happen."
Just as it is not clear how the fighting started, it's also unclear how it ends -- especially if more people come to perceive it as an intercommunal fight. The international community is urging dialogue and President Kiir said he is receptive, though he admitted, "I cannot tell what the outcome of the talks will be."
Jok said the key is to rein in the fighting as quickly as possible. But with every reported flare-up the forces loyal to the government get stretched even thinner. And thousands of people are not waiting to find out what happens if they snap. Hundreds of people are camping out at the airport waiting for spaces on the few available commercial flights. Seats on buses headed to neighboring Uganda are sold out four days in advance. And the American and British governments have already evacuated their citizens.
They do not want to stick around to see if South Sudan escapes from its latest challenge.