A teacher leads a mixed class of South Sudanese refugee children and Ugandan children in singing during class in a tarpaulin tent on June 7 at the Ombechi Primary School in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda. (Ben Curtis/AP)

South Sudan is 6. The government has canceled its birthday party. The treasury is empty. Neither the army nor rebels have command and control in a civil war that stumps peace mediators. Three million have fled their homes.

This situation escalated from a shootout in the presidential guard on the night of Dec. 15, 2013. The misunderstanding spread through the army barracks, to the capital, and then the rest of the country.

But the civil war has older roots, in 50 years of Sudanese conflicts. When British colonizers left Sudan in 1956, Khartoum’s carousel of military juntas continued a British policy of mistreating southerners. Dissidents formed the Anyanya (“snake venom”) rebels in the ’60s, going dormant in 1972, to resurface as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) under the leadership of John Garang.

From 1983 to 2005, the SPLA/M fought a bloody war with Sudanese armed forces and a patchwork of rival southern militias. These fighting fronts multiplied in 1991, when Garang, an ethnic Dinka, fell out with his deputy, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. The faction rejoined in 2002, but had killed the SPLA/M’s multiethnic spirit.

In 2005, after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Sudan, the SPLA/M took charge of a semiautonomous south, then held a secession referendum Jan. 9, 2011. South Sudanese received independence six years ago today — with internal divisions still raw.

Here are six things to know about the world’s newest country on its independence day.

1. Accidental independence?

The SPLA/M had not always pursued independence. Up until 2005,  Garang wanted to remain within Sudan. But after his death in a helicopter crash, secessionists took charge. The new leadership under now-President Salva Kiir stopped promoting unity.

Political scientist Matt Qvortrup’s thorough review and analysis of referendums argues that secession votes only bring peace if ruling elites reach consensus on how to solve the conflict. The SPLA/M, however, was internally divided. Garang’s loyalists distrusted Machar’s faction, and party intellectuals distrusted Kiir’s supporters.

These divisions explain how violence exploded Dec. 15, 2013. Kiir had put his security in the hands of a presidential guard — the “Tiger Division” — answerable only to him. Nuer and Dinka Tiger Division soldiers turned their guns on each other amid rumors of a coup. Machar’s militia took to the bush the following day as a new insurgency, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO).

2. Corruption fuels the conflict

South Sudan was born rich. On independence, it received half the former Sudan’s oil wealth — comprising 98 percent of government income, and pushing its GDP per capita above Kenya’s. The SPLA/M used this wealth to rule by kleptocracy, embezzling funds and using suitcases of cash to persuade rival rebel militias to “integrate” into a South Sudanese national army.

But in 2012, the government escalated a dispute with Sudan over an oil transit fee by closing its oil wells (South Sudan relies on a pipeline through Sudan to bring its oil to market). A leaked World Bank report predicted fiscal collapse. The number of South Sudanese in extreme poverty jumped by 50 percent, while the elite had to delve deep into Swiss bank accounts to maintain their fleets of SUVs.

No oil meant no army salaries. When SPLA commanders could no longer pay their soldiers, they brought in relatives to fight without remuneration. Historian Clemence Pinaud writes that during the civil war with Sudan, SPLA/M generals tied subordinates to them with gifts of wives and bridewealth. These relationships added to the recipe for the army to disintegrate on ethnic lines after the Tiger Division shootout in December 2013.

3. Civilians pay the price

My research on deaths in South Sudan shows that the civil war has killed many more ordinary citizens than soldiers. For instance, 2015 proved a bloody year, even though Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement. Their armies fought despite this deal, disproportionately killing civilians. They destroyed or disfigured many corpses so badly that investigators had to record them as “unknown.”


This graph transposes data from the UCDP Geo-referenced Event Dataset 5.0.

The living now endure cholera in the shadow of famine. While South Sudanese once dreamed that their country would become Africa’s breadbasket, fighting has obliterated agriculture. The government and the rebels have blocked food distribution while people starve. (When I tried to fly with the World Food Program to rebel-held territory in July 2015, the government denied flight clearance. They eventually let me through on a charter flight, but not the food.)

4. The victims are changing 

In the midst of the slaughter, the government and SPLM-IO sent delegates to peace talks in Ethiopia. Drawing daily expense allowances of up to $2,000, negotiators took 18 months to reach a peace deal in August 2015. These talks changed but did not end the violence.

Armed men with concealed identities began attacking civilians in towns originally spared. Government soldiers also killed and raped aid workers for the first time. This pattern matches political scientist Stathis Kalyvas’s predictions about what happens when fighting forces are unequally matched but neither has full control: They sow fear by selectively killing civilians, forcing others to denounce neighbors to save themselves.

According to UNICEF, both the government and rebels have abducted children to use as soldiers. Political scientist Dara Kay Cohen has found that recruitment by abduction often leads commanders to use rape to build bonds among their troops. The “epic proportions” of government and rebel sexual violence fits this trend.

5. The peace agreement is dead

The 2015 peace deal established terms for a cease-fire, reconciliation process and power sharing between Kiir and Machar. None of that has happened.

A war crimes court is yet to migrate from paper to practice. Machar lives under house arrest near Pretoria, after a multilateral deal with South Africa to restrict his movements. Meanwhile, Kiir has unilaterally launched his own “national dialogue” for South Sudanese to discuss the country’s future. Political scientists Andreas Hirblinger and Thania Paffenholz argue that neither the peace accord nor national dialogue have a hope without a cease-fire.

6. Prospects

A stable future under Kiir or Machar seems far-fetched. Military hard-liners are threatening to step in and take over the country. But chaos and dictatorship need not reign.

Amid government intimidation, torture and detention of journalists, some young South Sudanese intellectuals have nevertheless insisted on speaking out. The Sudd Institute has delivered evidence-based research about political reform options — even when its staff has literally dodged bullets. The South Sudanese Young Leaders Forum has denounced the ethnic platforms of the government and SPLM-IO leadership.

These community organizers and policy analysts could run the ministries and fill the cabinet of a professional, deliberative and inclusive government. The question is how to get them there.

Sophia Dawkins is a PhD student in political science at Yale University.