The Root Cause of the Conflict in South Sudan and proposed solutions


By Paul Izaru Bilal, PhD

Many have asked the question: What is the root cause of the conflict in South Sudan? There are many answers to this question depending on who you ask. This article attempts to reveal the overarching root cause of the conflict in South Sudan, while the rest are treated as multiplier effects emanating from the root cause itself. The article aims to reveal the untold story of South Sudan that constitutes the major root cause of the South Sudan Conflict. Many stories have been told about when the concept of liberation was conceived and started in South Sudan and who the pioneers were. This article does not attempt to answer or refute some unsubstantiated narratives commonly speculated about the liberation stories in South Sudan. It will only endeavour to bring out the story that has been deliberately neglected and swept under the carpet.


According to Dr Miamingi , “President Salva Kiir is not the root cause of the South Sudan problem. Neither is Dr. Riek Machar, the Jieng Council of Elders or any other political or military actor the root cause of the South Sudan problem…” In his argument these elements are opportunistic factors. The real problem is lack of “STATE”. He stated that South Sudan is made up of strangers with no sense of national union called state and that is what constitutes the root cause of the conflict. I partly agree with him in the essence that South Sudan needs “State crafting”. However, I disagree that Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) is not the root cause, in fact it is the main root cause which multiplied factors that today have crippled South Sudan. Someone may ask, how can recently founded JCE be the main root cause of South Sudan problems? The chronic tribalism is the root cause, but I want to submit that JCE did not come into being after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and independence of South Sudan. The JCE, as an instrument of ethnic hegemony, was created in the 1970s, immediately after the autonomous regional government of Southern Sudan formed in 1972. It is this mechanism that developed and perpetuated tribalism as the instrument of domination in South Sudan and thus stands out to be the main root cause.

1.Miamingi, R. The root causes of the conflict in South Sudan. Part 1: Problems and Diagnosis

Background of the conflict and missed ‘state crafting’ opportunity

To understand why I identify JCE as the main root cause of the conflict, allow me to dive into the history of South Sudan. South Sudan was governed as a separate territory from the Northern Sudan during the condominium era also referred to as the Anglo-Egyptian rule in the Sudan till 1947. The British element in the condominium ruled as the major power, planned to keep Southern Sudan separate from Arab and Islamic influence. However, for economic conflict of interest between British and Egyptian, the Egyptian element in the government influenced Sudanese Arabs to call for independence of united Sudan with Southern Sudan inclusive. The British were forced to accept the deal for their interest in the Suez Canal, thus Juba conference was organised in 1947 in which the united people of Southern Sudan were forced to submit to the plan of the British and Egyptians, which resulted into the annexation of Southern Sudan to the north as a single country. That disappointed South Sudanese and built a strong bond among different ethnic communities of Southern Sudan. That time, Southerners looked at each other as brothers and sisters without tribal alignment and were ready to face the condominium rule.

The unity was translated to the 1955 mutiny by the Equatoria Corp which marked the beginning of South Sudanese movement for liberation. The seventeen years Anya-nya war was fought with one accord and decisive unity, despite some element of personal self-exultation and greed, which happened here and there. The unity made the penurious Anya-nya movement a powerful entity and brought the Sudan government to the negotiating table that resulted in the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement. By the time the Addis Ababa agreement was signed in 1972, South Sudanese were united. There were no elements known as Equatorians, Bahr El Ghazalians or Upper Nileans. Every South Sudanese embraced each other as brother and sister. The term tribalism was little known to majority of Southern Sudanese. Sudan had a transparent, national patriotic and non-tribal government formed in Juba immediately after the Addis Ababa agreement, the current crisis would have been averted. The minds of Southerners were pure devoid of tribalism and sectarianism. That was demonstrated in Lt. Gen (Rtd) Joseph Lagu, leaving the position of the President of High Executive Council of the new autonomous government to Moulana Abel Alier. I need to make it clear that, under no obligation was Gen. Joseph Lagu relinquishing the position to Abel Alier. He was the head of Anya-nya movement and a rightful person to take the position. He abdicated the position to Abel Alier in a clear demonstration of nationalism, even though Abel was on the enemy’s side during the war and signed the agreement as representative of the enemy. In a normal situation, no guerrilla movement leader anywhere in the world ever surrendered his/her rightful position to an enemy with an intention to bring unity. The best example is that of SPLM/A. Late John Garang de Mabior did not give any leadership position to anybody. He took both positions of First Vice President of the Sudan and President of Southern Sudan after the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) and no complaint was heard. He probably was trying to avoid what happened to General Lagu or followed normal norms. General. Lagu was exceptional and deserves to be applauded for such a strong demonstration of nationalism. General Lagu chose to remain in the army to see to it that the untrained South Sudanese were trained militarily to stop the aggression of Northerners. He demonstrated true state crafting spirit. If General Lagu’s attitude was valued and taken into consideration, South Sudan would be a pleasant place to live in today. Southerners were given the authority to develop their political skills in a self-government, which was the opportunity to develop nationalism and pride as a united Southern Sudanese in the framework of united Sudan. So, what went wrong?

The Emergence of South Sudan conflict

The opportunity to build a strong sense of statehood was given to the hands of Abel Alier when the autonomous government was organised in 1972 and Abel became the first President of the regional government. Instead of continuing with development of the existing nationalism among Southern Sudanese, Abel Alier with the advice of some who are current members of the JCE planted seeds of tribalism among peaceful Southern Sudanese by creating Dinka Hegemony. The famous word “BORN TO RULE” emerged. As this hegemony started to take root, the non-Dinka began to feel the pinch from the marginalization caused to them by those they called brothers and sisters during the liberation war. As such they demanded General Lagu to come and rescue the situation. Thus, General Lagu retired from the army and took the position of President of the High Executive Council in 1978 through democratic election;

however, by that time the damage was already done, the root of hatred had been planted. The nationalism of Southern Sudanese had been dealt with a lethal blow. This was followed by wrangling for power between Abel Alier and General. Lagu. This caused General Lagu to release a small booklet listing all personnel working in all the Ministries of Southern Sudan government. Starting from Minister to labourers, showing the domination of Dinka in every Ministry. This warfare led to a political rift between Joseph Lagu’s supporters, majority of whom were Equatorians, although they were some supporters from Bahr El Ghazal and Upper Nile and Abel’s supporters mostly from Dinka ethnicity.

The whole episode paved way to the call for decentralization of Southern Sudan by majority of non-Dinka South Sudanese. Although, there was no referendum conducted the call became popular in South Sudan and crippled the normal functioning of the autonomous government in Southern Sudan. Therefore, President Jaffar Mohamad Nimeiry had to decree the division of Southern Sudan into Upper Nile, Equatoria and Bahr El Ghazal regions. Of course, the division was a disadvantage to Southern Sudanese as it took away the power of unity that claimed South Sudan as a nation-state with African identity. Nevertheless, it was better than continuous conflict including fights among students and ordinary citizens throughout Southern Sudan. Juba became a chaotic city marred with violence on daily basis. So, President Nimeiry’s decree was a rescue.

2.Moulana is loosely an honorific title given to legal practitioners or Islamic figures.

Decentralisation Hangover, the SPLA/M, and Land Grabbing Agenda

Many may argue that the mutiny of Kerubino Kwanyi Bol in Bor on 16 May 1983 was due to an administrative problem in the military command, but many may agree with me that it was a hangover of the decentralization rhetoric that catalysed the mutiny. A significant recruitment for SPLA force at that time in Dinka land was conducted on the basis that the fighters will return to Juba and own land in Equatoria. This is something not secret. Many former SPLA soldiers recruited with such message are around to testify. This explains the exodus of Dinka with their cattle after the conclusion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to Equatoria to fulfil this parochial objective.

However, although the start and continued development of SPLA did not give space to realizing stability and development in the decentralized regions of South Sudan, it put a break to hostility and hatred that developed when Southern Sudan was not divided. In fact, it reinstalled the sense of unity among South Sudanese that they had before 1972; thus, all Southern Sudanese joined SPLA in good numbers after the division of South Sudan. Unfortunately, this unity did not transform into nationalism. The word COMRADE was used throughout SPLA war and that is a common word as far as being colleague in the military is concerned. However, this comradeship did not translate into any unity. It reveals the true meaning of comradeship, and that is two or more individuals come together to achieve a goal and after that they have nothing in common. SPLM/A demonstrated that precisely.

Missed nationalism and the emergence of a club of Robbers

Why do commentators mistakenly characterise the current problems as the root cause of the conflict? From the foregoing information, we can see why the virtue of “NATIONALISM”, which gives the sense of ownership of the country called South Sudan, is missing and an opportunity squandered. It has been eroded from the minds of South Sudanese right from the time of political wrangling in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That explains why corruption is rampart until today. Every leader who comes to the government does not epitomize the feeling of patriotism and nationalism, but rather one who is there to amass wealth and fulfilment of his/her ego at the slightest opportunity that avails itself from the office he or she holds. It is becoming evident by the passage of time that there is no sense of social and economic development in the mindsets of today’s leaders in South Sudan. Everybody has that feeling that the country and its people are not his/her priority or responsibility; thus, they are there to grab whatever they can lay their hands on. South Sudan Government leaders have no idea whether the country needs infrastructure, services or economic development. It also explains why South Sudan is governed without a system and no sense of responsibility and accountability. That portrays South Sudan government as a club of Robbers or a gang of Drug dealers who are rule by guns and intimidation. All the above are multiplier effects; not the overarching root cause, which Dr Maimingi postulates as the opportunistic factors of the root cause.

So, the question is how do we fix this?

Looking at the background, the reading of the overarching root cause of the conflict must start with Abel Alier himself who squandered the opportunity to rally the society into building “Nationalism” as a foundation of self-government in the then autonomous Southern Sudan. If he were to do that, the patriotism of Southern Sudanese that united them in Anya-nya Movement could have developed political maturity in South Sudan, and consequently South Sudanese would have not been divided along ethnic lines in their political orientations now, but take pleasure in participating in modern democratically healthy division that is based on political parties. Although with defect, a good example of State Crafting on the African continent was that of Tanzania, the Ujamaa, which focused on community coexistence practices and promoted brotherhood. Tanzania has many ethnic communities, but nobody can see that difference in today’s Tanzania, crafted by Julius Nyerere who was dubbed ‘Baba wa Taifa’ (the Father of the Nation). Today, Tanzanians are divided only along political lines; not on tribal or ethnic lines. Their various political orientations do not breed violence. No military takeover has ever been recorded in Tanzania since its independence. When in Tanzania in 2015, I can recall one example when they were campaigning for general elections, two members of a family were in two different political parties, but at home they eat together and sleep in the same bed (husband and wife). That would have been the situation in South Sudan today, if Justice Abel Alier were to lay that foundation like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. However, since we are now trapped in a situation we cannot reverse, we need to find a solution to the problem.

Solution to the problem

The current situation in South Sudan is a replica of what happened in the late 1970s, which resulted to the decentralization commonly known as ‘Kokora. The decentralization yielded positive outcomes. Although its positive outcomes were not fully realised due to SPLA expansion, it brought stability with significant reduction in violence among Southern Sudanese in all the three regions and created a sense of unity that culminated in consolidated effort for liberation that delivered us independent South Sudan. Therefore, if sustainable peace, unity in diversity and development are to be realised in South Sudan, South Sudanese should consider the following factors:

1.Establishment of a federalism                                  I. Federal system that gives full powers to the States as opposed to the current theoretical decentralised system falsely called federal States.
II. The States under the federal system should be charged with full function of sovereign state. It should oversee internal security (police and other organised services, prison service and wildlife) without interference from the Federal (National) government,
III. It should independently oversee its own economic planning and natural resource exploitation, including agreement with investor without interference from the Federal government (National). That will eliminate the current scramble for power and looting of resources experienced in the central government.
IV. It should oversee Local Government in aspect of governance and flow of wealth generation independence of Federal authorities.
V. States should also oversee taxes accrued from businesses and natural resource exploitation without interference of the federal government, but should ascribe an agreed percentage to the federal government for developing national infrastructure.
VI. The head of the State together with members of parliament and local government councillors must be elected through general state elections.
2. The Federal system should be a presidential system of government. They are people who are sceptical of presidential government due to the bad presidential system being practiced in South Sudan currently. However, I would like to propose why a Presidential, and not a Parliamentary, system of government:

I. Parliamentary system of Governance
a) The Parliamentary system of governance is a system where the head of government is a Prime Minister and usually, the Prime Minister comes from the party that wins the majority in the parliament in democratic elections as specified by the constitution. In the absence of the required majority, two or more parties collude to make the majority required to form a government. That works well in a country where people are divided mainly on political parties NOT on tribal basis like in South Sudan. In South Sudan many small tribal parties may be formed and their collusion may be tribal collusion. A government formed on this basis will bring the worst face of democracy in the world, because democratically they are the majority.

b) Secondly, experience has shown that governments formed on the basis of party collusion tend to breed political instability. This will be worse in South Sudan which is characterized with inherent volatility. Therefore, it is rational that preventive strategies are mooted to avoid the likelihood of continued crises and, at worst, disaster, such as genocides and total breakdown of peace.

Il. Presidential system of governance

This system is where the President of the federal government is elected from the grass root masses of the nation regardless of party affiliation. The president can form executive cabinet from his own party or can appoint from other parties without being restricted to parliamentary membership. The election of the president is independent of election of Member of Parliament. Although the weakness of the presidential system is that a president can become dictatorial if the constitution gives him/her such leverage, this avenue can be closed through the constitution-making process such that the executive cannot take any major decision without approval of the parliament. More importantly, this system has advantages over the Parliamentary system of government, in the case of South Sudan, as this can keep the country from slanting into further fragmentation in similar scale and magnitude of the Balkan states, or the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Why is that so?

The reason is clear. Any presidential candidate must command the popularity of the whole country to ascend to office. This is an added advantage as it will eliminate the regional and tribal boundaries. Secondly, when in office the president is motivated to serve the entire nation without discrimination. In other words, this system will usher and sustain unity and cohesion in South Sudan. This is because to be elected, a presidential candidate has to promise national social and economic development to all. He/she is president for the Country and would treat citizens as his de facto employer, and not the party that may be influenced by regional cleavages. Presidential system of government is best suited to South Sudan’s situation.


We have seen the overriding root cause of the conflict, which emanates from ‘Tribalism Crafting’ instead of ‘State Crafting’ and we have also seen that decentralization (devolution of powers) of Southern Sudan brought relative peace and unity. Therefore, the best option is to follow similar ethos by creating stronger system of government through FEDERALISM, to achieve the anticipated sustainable peace, stability and development in South Sudan.




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