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Political and Ethnic Strife in the South Sudanese Civil War

After nearly fifty-five years of civil war, the Sudanese people are no stranger to immense violence and devastation. The First Sudanese Civil War (1955–1972) and the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005) caused the deaths of approximately 2.5 million people due to violence, famine, and disease. In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement promised to grant South Sudan its long awaited independence by 2011, contingent on a successful referendum vote.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar (2020) Jok Solomun | Reuters
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar (2020) Jok Solomun | Reuters

The population voted overwhelmingly for independence and to install as president Salva Kiir, who was previously the president of autonomous South Sudan and the leader of the Southern People’s Liberation Army. Reik Machar, who served as vice president during the autonomous period, was voted in officially. An important distinction between the two leaders is that Kiir is ethnically Dinka, whereas Machar is Nuer. With an unstable government and the lack of a unified military, violence again arose predominantly between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, pushing the youngest country in the world, yet again, into a vicious civil war in 2013—precipitating nefarious war crimes.

The religious divide between Muslims and Christians proved to be central to the violence in the First and Second Sudanese Civil Wars. In 1983, President Numeiry violated the Addis Ababa Agreement by enacting Sharia Law on the entire nation, including the non-Muslims living in the south. This violation led to the outbreak of the Second Sudanese Civil War, causing rebels from South Sudan to form the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Over the course of the war, the SPLA was internally a fractionalized group of enemies each aligned by ethnic roots, yet remained unified in order to obtain their goal of southern independence. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the installment of Kiir and Machar, both leaders were supported by ethnic militias. Two years after the independence of South Sudan, political turmoil ignited instability in the country after Kiir began dismissing government officials, who supported Makar. In 2013, Kiir claimed Makar was planning a coup d’état, provoking Makar’s dismissal as vice president and the beginning of civil war. The South Sudanese Civil War was a struggle for political power that was fought along ethnic lines between the two major groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. A lack of an institutionalized military led to the militias in South Sudan organizing themselves into essentially ethnically armed units based on personal loyalty.

At the outbreak of the South Sudanese Civil War, Elizabeth Shackelford, a consular officer who had previously served her first mission in Poland, was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Juba. In this “moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” we see that Shackelford witnessed the growing political and ethnic tensions within South Sudan prior to hearing some of the first gunshots of the war. In the preceding days, Shackelford received reports of the ethnic cleansing occuring on the streets of Juba. Shackelford led the evacuation of one thousand U.S. and foreign citizens during the violence.

The South Sudanese Civil War has killed approximately 400,000 people and displaced 2.27 million. The violence began to decrease in 2018 after the signing of a peace agreement and the creation of a unity government between Kiir and Machar, yet fighting still persists in certain regions of the country.

Elizabeth Shackelford’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on August 24, 2020.

Read Elizabeth Shackelford’s full oral history HERE.

Read more about the First and Second Sudanese War and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement HERE.

Read more about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement through a project ADST conducted with the U.S. Institute of Peace HERE.

Read more about USAID development projects in Sudan and South Sudan HERE.

Read more about the South Sudanese transition to independence HERE.

Drafted by Kellie McSween

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History and Ethnic Divide of a Young Nation

“The different groups that came together to become part of this new semi-independent government had all, frankly, been enemies for much of the civil war.”

Q: All right because South Sudan is a new country and I think very few people really know what the composition is, take just a moment to describe what the country was like. In other words, people, the demographics, were there different ethnic groups and so on?

SHACKELFORD: South Sudan had been largely independently governed since 2005 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed with Khartoum. But between 2005 and 2011 was a period of time when this kind of new government should have really been getting on its feet but because there was going to be a referendum to decide on independence it was this gap period when you couldn’t really build up national institutions because it wasn’t yet an independent state. So, in a lot of ways, that was really lost time for South Sudan. Because there was this grace period they also weren’t working on reconciliation from the war. The different groups that came together to become part of this new semi-independent government had all, frankly, been enemies for much of the civil war. It’s just that they kind of came together against a bigger enemy, which was Khartoum, and in order to seem sufficiently unified to get backing from places like the United States. So, you had this very tentative marriage of different groups.

…There are a lot of different ethnic groups. There are two that are the most influential and powerful, the Dinka and the Nuer. And so, they tend to dominate a lot, although the Dinka for—this is one of the big political problems that was leading up to the war that would start a few months later was that the Dinka-led government was really increasingly closing opportunities, political opportunities and economic opportunities for people outside that community. So, that was becoming a very serious rub. And it wasn’t because of ethnic hatred, it was because of power and control in the hands of certain people who were trying to get more of it, as is often the case.

Q: Now, as the—okay, so now as the war takes place, what are—you alluded to it earlier, but how do the sides divide?

SHACKELFORD: Well, it’s at the outset you have a political rift between the president, Salva Kiir, and basically everybody else who is not in his cohort. So, the opposition is ethnically very diverse. It includes Dinkas, Equatorians, and Nuer. The government side is—has different ethnic representation, but it is very, very clearly dominated by this core Dinka group. So, the ethnic divide really comes from the government side, initially. And you can see this because the day that the—well, the night that the war breaks out, it starts with a skirmish between different sides of the presidential guard force because again, like so many countries post-independence, the nation’s military is really just a collection of ethnically based militias that are brought together and they all have loyalties to their different commanders, they don’t necessarily have loyalty to the state. So, these rifts happen quite quickly and very violently.

Tension Building

“I turn my lights off because you hear fighting in town. And it’s just occurring to me then, is this how a war starts?”

SPLA soldiers at Bor airport (2014) George Philipas | Reuters
SPLA soldiers at Bor airport (2014) George Philipas | Reuters

SHACKELFORD: But I will say, before I go into all of the reasons for the war, just to give you a picture of that weekend, right. So, I wake up Saturday morning. Friday the special envoy has left. My boss has left. A lot of people have left town. My boss had given me a list of people to call because there was a big political event happening that weekend. The SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) is the lead political party, the political party in power, and they were holding the National Liberation Council—their big political meeting to discuss the future of the party and approve of core party documents.

So, Saturday morning this event’s supposed to happen. I was supposed to go with the ambassador as one of our two seats to take notes. I get a message from our DCM, Deputy Chief of Mission, in the morning saying … I think we’re going to stand down, we’re not going to go.

So, we’re getting reports throughout the day of how rough things are. And it’s a two-day meeting….

I’ll fast forward to the fact that it doesn’t go well. The opposition members don’t end up staying for the second day. Things are very tense. Sunday night comes. I’m watching a Christmas movie quietly in my little metal container… and a contact of mine from OXFAM [Oxford Committee for Famine Relief] calls and he tells me, “Things are really rough. Things are getting really tense. The meeting today went very poorly. We need to meet.” I looked at my calendar for Monday and saw that I had a conference all day, so I asked if we could meet Tuesday. He tells me, “Tuesday it’s going to be too late.” So I say, “Okay, let’s grab breakfast at 7:30.” He calls an hour later, shooting has broken out in town. He calls me an hour after that, says, “Riek Machar needs to talk to the ambassador.” He calls me after that, saying, “Why haven’t you called Riek Machar? I gave him your number.” I’m thinking this is way above my paygrade. By this point it’s midnight, I’m hearing from a lot of people in different parts of town. I turn my lights off because you hear fighting in town. And it’s just occurring to me then, is this how a war starts?

Civil War Begins

“So, at 2:00 in the morning I’m thinking, I can’t talk to Riek Machar, way above my paygrade.”

SHACKELFORD: But at the time we don’t know it [that this is the start of civil war]. We don’t know if this is just going to be a skirmish. I mean, there’s shooting in Juba a lot at night. But that was how it started. That was the night the war started. And at 2:00 a.m. I got a phone call on my little Nokia cellphone from Riek Machar, the former vice president, trying to reach our ambassador, and that was my entry into the war.

So, at 2:00 in the morning I’m thinking, I can’t talk to Riek Machar, way above my paygrade. So, I strapped the boot on my foot and hobbled over in the dark to the ambassador’s residence and knocked on her door in the middle of the night. She’s up taking phone calls, of course, and over the course of a few hours we pulled together the key people on the Emergency Action Committee. Every embassy has an Emergency Action Committee. That was the first of what would be a hundred meetings of the Emergency Action Committee over the next few months. We met twice a day. Everybody was trying to navigate every issue from how do we talk these leaders into coming back together before everything turns into a total war? To how do we deal with American citizens?

There were several hundred in the country or more, and we didn’t have a great system setup for that.

Do you evacuate parts of the embassy? Do you evacuate Americans? Do you shut down the embassy? At what point do you? What are the tripwires happening now? And you go through all of those steps and decisions and I kept thinking back to September, I think it was, when we had—a team came out from Washington from the Crisis Training Center to do some war gaming on what do you do in a crisis. And I mean, every day of this crisis I was like, thank God they came out there. I’ve got these checklists and ideas and we’d done preparation in the consular section after that workshop to have information on the hospitals and the prisons and the airport. And we’d had town halls to get contact information for Americans. So, we were probably as prepared as a tiny, understaffed consular section could be. But yeah, you’ve got two different things in an embassy in a crisis. You’ve got the political questions, which primarily the ambassador’s dealing with and the special envoy and John Kerry. And then you have the American Citizens Services, what do you do for Americans who are stuck in harm’s way. Washington stands up a task force at the State Department Operations Center and you’re on speed dial with them all the time.

Q: Were most of the Americans there related to USAID or AID contractors?

SHACKELFORD: There were a lot of those. But there were also a lot of missionaries, dual nationals, folks working for different humanitarian organizations. You had a lot of businesspeople too who either had family ties or other ties to South Sudan, and all those folks we’d encouraged to come invest…And it was the holidays so you had people coming back to visit family as well.

I talked to a lot of people who had just arrived that week after being away for several years, wanting to spend the holidays with their grandmother in the village and they got caught in a war.

Q: What happens in terms of security for the embassy?

SHACKELFORD: So, after the Benghazi attacks the East Africa Response Force, the EARF, another acronym, was set up in Djibouti to be a rapid response team from, I believe, the army, ready to go to places in that broader region, whether it’s North Africa or the Middle East or Africa. And we were their test case. We were their first launch. And they came out for what I think they thought was going to be a few days and stayed for about six months.

Ethnic Cleansing

“There are truckloads of bodies being driven down the street.”

Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response helps U.S. citizens evacuate (2014) U.S. Marines | Reuters
Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response helps U.S. citizens evacuate (2014) U.S. Marines | Reuters

SHACKELFORD: The backdrop of this is that there’s a slaughter happening in—an ethnic cleansing happening in Juba in these first few days. They have set up checkpoints. There are truckloads of bodies being driven down the street. There are tanks rolling through the streets. It’s a very organized, orchestrated effort to go through the Nuer neighborhoods to slaughter the men. And we don’t get the reports of that initially. The same contact of mine who put me on the phone with Riek Machar sent me a text on that Monday and said, they’re slaughtering Nuer in the streets. And that was—I remember, I can see it on the screen of my Nokia. Just seeing that and just getting chills. That’s what’s happening just beyond our walls. It’s ethnic cleansing. So, that’s the backdrop to all of the decisions that we have to make. Do we bring people in? Local staff who are supposed to be working for us. Do we send them all home? Do we bring some of them in because they’re Nuer and they’re not safe? You know, these are the types of questions that we’re dealing with. Do we start—a lot of people are calling the embassy and wanting to come into the embassy for security. What do we do about that? We didn’t necessarily have enough security for ourselves, we certainly didn’t have the capacity to take care of others. So, luckily, on the afternoon of the first day, the UN, under duress, opens their doors and says that people can come there for safety.

Table of Contents Highlights

BA in History, Duke University 1997–2001
JD in International Law, University of Pittsburgh 2003–2006
Joined the Foreign Service 2010
Warsaw, Poland—Consular/Political Officer 2011–2013
Juba, South Sudan—Consular/Political Officer 2013–2014
Mogadishu, Somalia/Nairobi, Kenya—Political Officer 2015–2017