South Sudan's hopes of peace dashed after decades of warfare

When South Sudan became independent from Sudan five years ago, hopes were high that independence would bring peace and development to the nation devastated by decades of civil warfare.

But after the world's youngest nation marked its fifth independence anniversary on Saturday, hardly anything seemed to have changed as the country again saw scenes of fighting, bodies on the streets and people fleeing.

From the moment Sudan in 1956 achieved independence from Britainand Egypt - who had jointly ruled the country since 1899 - conflictbetween southern rebels and a string of northern governments becamethe norm.

The first war between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south lasted from independence until 1972, when a peace dealgranted the south autonomy.

Some 500,000 people died in the conflict - a number that was to bedwarfed by its next stage, which broke out in 1983.

The fragile peace was shattered when the north was seen asviolating the 1972 agreement by attempting to control the south - amove partly prompted by the discovery of oil straddling thenorth-south border - and impose Islamic law, or sharia, on a regionthat did not practice the religion.

This time the war, fought in the south, lasted over two decades and claimed an estimated 2 million lives - mainly from hunger anddisease.

It took until 2005 for peace to arrive in the form of an agreementthat gave the south autonomy until a referendum on independence was held.

No less than 99 per cent of the South Sudanese had backed the referendum, leading to the independence of South Sudan on July 9, 2011.

Yet independence brought little improvement for the South Sudanese, as it only took a few years for the country to sink into a new spiral of violence.

A long-running power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, turned violent in December 2013.

The conflict divided the presidential guard and the army, partly along ethnic lines, sparking massacres between the Dinka - Kiir's ethnic group - and the Nuer, to which Machar belongs. South Sudan's two main ethnic groups represent about 36 and 16 per cent of the 11-million-strong population, respectively.

Fighting spread around the country, with tens of thousands killed and more than 2 million displaced.

The conflict took its toll on farming, with up to 4.8 million people now facing food insecurity, according to the UN.

The military conflict calmed down after Kiir and Machar signed a peace deal in August 2015, with mainly independent armed groups continuing to operate in the country.

But hopes of peace were again dashed as the five-year independence anniversary saw a flare-up of the conflict, which spread from Juba to other locations and threatened to plunge the country into a new full-scale war.

Last update: Mon, 11/07/2016 - 14:58
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