Why Ethnic Violence Is Ravaging the World's Newest Country

The conflict in Jonglei showcases the hurdles that South Sudan will have to overcome on its path to becoming a stable state.

A SPLA soldier looks at warplanes as he lies on the ground to take cover beside a road during an air strike by the Sudanese air force in Rubkona near Bentiu. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Hundreds of people have been wounded in ethnic violence over the past few months in South Sudan, the world's newest country. Nearly two years after its independence, the country continues to face a myriad of obstacles to political stability and economic self-reliance. Its leadership is fragmented and is dominated by former military commanders. The government itself is largely inaccessible outside of Juba, the capital. The lack of a state apparatus in many areas, alongside large caches of small arms from the civil war, have led to the rise of militias. With little or no legal protection, conflicts over property, land, and water rights have become commonplace in the countryside. Since the South's separation from Sudan, Jonglei, the largest of the 10 states of South Sudan, has become the epicenter for ethnic division and anti-government spoilers.

What is the conflict in Jonglei?

The situation in Jonglei consists of two separate but interrelated conflicts. The first is an insurgency campaign being waged between a renegade former general, David Yau Yau, and the South Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The second conflict is the ongoing tribal violence between the Lou Nuer and the Murle communities within Jonglei.

As in many African countries, South Sudan is ethnically heterogenous, and the Lou Nuer and the Murle have a history of rivalry. Since South Sudan's independence, the United Nations estimates that 1,600 people have been killed in Jonglei due to tribal fighting, largely over cattle raiding and grazing rights. The proliferation of small, ethnically based militias have accelerated the violent tendencies of both groups, spiraling into tit-for-tat theft and massacres.

Who are the people involved in the violence?

The rebellion stemmed from a disagreement between Yau Yau and the government after regional elections in 2010. Yau Yau lost to a candidate from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, and he accused the government of electoral tampering. He was co-opted into the SPLA in exchange for ending his rebellion, but he defected from the SPLA in 2012.

However, Yau Yau is a member of the Murle ethnic group, and his troops have supported other Murle militia against the Lou Nuer. Both the Murle and the Lou Nuer have access to unemployed youths and reserves of leftover weapons. The government has accused Yau Yau of acting with considerable support from Sudan and the Sudan Armed Forces, while the Murle fault the government for being dominated by other ethnic groups.

This rebellion has exacerbated tensions between the Murle and the Lou Nuer. The virulent hatred between these two groups is summed up in a 2011 statement made by a Nuer militia, the White Army, that their massacres were meant to "wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth." The limited infrastructure and the rainy weather within Jonglei have made it easier for ethnic militias to carry out guerilla attacks on villages. While atrocities abound on each side, the SPLA has been accused of carrying out reprisal attacks on Murle civilians and displacing civilians across Murle territory.

What does the situation reveal about South Sudan?

Jonglei showcases the hurdles that South Sudan will have to overcome in its quest to build a lasting, democratic state that is inclusive and stable. The widespread access to weapons, lack of state intervention, and limited economic prospects has bred a climate where violence becomes the pathway to retributive justice -- whether it's directed at another tribe, or at the state itself.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.