Here's a quick explainer on what's going on, and why it matters.
1) Politics or tribe or both
In South Sudan politics and tribe are intertwined and that makes the deepening crisis there so very dangerous. Political rivalry between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his former deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, over who should run the ruling party and therefore the country is at the core of the armed conflict that began in mid-December.
But because each man’s constituents are mostly his tribesmen, their political battle is being fought along ethnic lines. The current conflict is not only about tribe, but to pretend tribe has nothing to do with it — as some in South Sudan’s diaspora, Juba’s internet-enable elites and politically-correct Western charities would have us believe — is dangerously wrong.
2) No ragtag rebels
The army is splitting. Some generals defect taking their soldiers with them and others remain loyal, for the time being, meaning that the conflict spreading across South Sudan is between armies, and not bands of ragtag fighters. Both sides have tanks, artillery and heavy weapons and both sides are using them. But even outside of the uniformed ranks South Sudan’s long history of violence comes into play. Generations have grown up immersed in war. Even in times and places of peace there is violence: cattle raids and battles over scarce resources. Life is for many a fight and there is no shortage of young men who know how to use the guns that are plentiful after decades of civil war. Even the formally “untrained” militias have a lot of military experience and should not be lightly dismissed.
3) Fighting and talking
Peace talks have made a stumbling start in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Regional neighbours including Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia don’t want the conflict to spread and are pushing both sides hard to the negotiating table. Khartoum also loses when South Sudan fights as the conflict disrupts the oil production on which north and south both depend, so President Omar al-Bashir is due in Juba on Monday for talks with Kiir.
China and the US, too, are putting on pressure: China because it buys up Sudanese oil, the US because it was the midwife to South Sudan’s birth in 2011 and is heavily invested in the new nation’s stability. Despite all the pressure, the fighting goes on — particularly around Bor, a town rightly described as “strategic” on the single road running north from the capital Juba. Both sides want to be in the strongest position before talks get underway, and that means the focus is on grabbing and holding territory, not negotiating a ceasefire.
4) What’s the solution?
Despite the killing (at least 1,000 dead so far) and the chaos (over 180,000 forced from their homes) and the spreading conflict in South Sudan, it remains at root an internal party political issue. The conflict has exploded dangerously and still threatens to become a full-blown civil war, but the immediate solution lies in a negotiated settlement between Kiir and Machar over the disputed leadership of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The big fear however is that once open it will be very difficult to force shut the lid on South Sudan’s Pandora’s Box of politics, power and ethnicity.