South Sudan: How Bad Can it Get?

“The key facets of a civil war are already there,”  Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa director at the International Crisis Group told reporters from Bloomberg. “There is fighting in the capital, there are units in the army not loyal to the president and there are armed groups that have taken action against civilians.” Barnes was speaking of the growing crisis in South Sudan, which UN diplomats in New York on Tuesday said has claimed as much as 500 lives, with 800 wounded.

The fighting in the capital, Juba, has forced more than 16,000 people to seek shelter at two United Nations compounds. The United States flew 120 American citizens out of South Sudan on Wednesday, and all non-essential personnel have been ordered to depart immediately. A dusk-to-dawn curfew has been in place with police and army units on patrol.

It’s unclear how bad things could get in the youngest country in the world. South Sudan officially gained its nation status in 2011.  This July, President Salva Kiir fired his entire cabinet, including Deputy President Riek Machar. He gave no clear reasons for cleaning house, but it was understood that tensions had been escalating between the two men for some time.

President Kiir belongs to the Dinka group and former Deputy President Machar, to the Nuer people. The two sides have a historically hostile relationship, only coming together in a bid for independence from Sudan, a common enemy. Government officials of both sides have plundered the country’s oil wealth and have not managed to curtail and, at times, even stirred up local ethnic conflicts.

On December 15, the Kiir accused Machar of an attempted coup and is seeking his arrest. Macher denied this, but also told journalist Hannah McNeish that Kiir was not a “legitimate leader.” Nuer troops who support Machar are defecting from the army who is under the control of President Salva Kiir, who belongs to the Dinka. There has been violent fighting between the two groups in the unit of the Presidential Guard known as the Tigers.

Machar is reported to have headed north to restive Jonglei state, where Nuer rebel commander Peter Gadet has allegedly taken his militia into the bush in a new rebellion against the government. If Machar and Gadet join forces against the government that could mean civil war.

Secretary General  Ban Ki-moon stated that he was “deeply concerned” about the situation in South Sudan. A league of ministers from East Africa are expected to arrive in South Sudan on Thursday to try to mitigate the conflict.

It is hard to tell what to expect next.  But things could get much, much worse.