The Church in South Sudan Promotes Peace

March 14, 2019

At the end of their Plenary Assembly on February 28, 2019, the bishops of South Sudan voiced their alarm; the peace agreement that put an end to five years of murderous civil war is about to evaporate into thin air.

According to a study published on September 26, 2018, the number of victims of the civil war in South Sudan has been underestimated. The terrible total is believed to be at least 380,000 victims. The clashes began on December 15, 2013, between the forces of President Salva Kiir and those of Vice President Riek Machar, who did not accept being fired from their positions after several political disagreements. Long united by their joint combat for independence from Khartoum in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, the two strong leaders of the government, precipitated the planet’s youngest country into the nightmare of a fratricidal war. A peace agreement was signed on September 12, 2018, but it is still quite fragile.

The bishops of South Sudan are rightly worried: “The level of open conflict has decreased, but the agreement to cease hostilities is not holding up.” The prelates added that “all parties are involved either in active fighting or preparations for war,” and none are “addressing the root causes of the conflicts.” 

In this context, the current president of the country, Salva Kiir, will be received at the Vatican by the Holy Father and the Secretary of State for the Holy See on March 16th. There is little hope of holding further violence in check. The Catholics in the country represent almost 40% of the population.

A War Since 2011 

The terrible massacres causing such bloodshed in South Sudan, since its independence in 2011, are a consequence of the war between the Dinkas and the Nuers, the country’s two major ethnic groups. The president is a Dinka and his vice president is a Nuer.

From 1956 to 2005, the Christian and Animist populations of the southern part of Sudan struggled against the northern Muslim power of Khartoum. The war of independence was waged by the Dinkas, while the Nuers regularly changed sides, going back and forth between the Dinkas and Khartoum. This attitude did not leave the Dinka separatists with much trust.

The electioneering logic explains the rest. There were more Dinkas than Nuers when the time came to choose a government after the independence, so the Dinkas naturally took control. But the Dinka supremacy was not accepted by the Nuers. Khartoum fanned the flames of the conflict by supporting the Nuers in order to keep a foot in the region that is very rich in petroleum.