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Instability in South Sudan

Updated July 11, 2024
Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers and a journalist leave a helicopter after a flight to Bor, in Juba, South Sudan on January 25, 2014
Andreea Campeanu/Reuters
Girls play in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside the UN base in Malakal, South Sudan on July 24, 2014.
Andreea Campeanu/Reuters
Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) rebels fire weapons during an assault on Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers in the town of Kaya, on the border with Uganda, in South Sudan on August 26, 2017
Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir (L), Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (2L), Somalia’s President Mohammad Abdullahi Mohammad (R), and Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli (2R) look on after offering flowers at John Garang Mausoleum during a peace ceremony in Juba, South Sudan on October 31, 2018.
Akout Chol/AFP/Getty Images
Brigadier General Lemi Lomukaya (front R) of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), a South Sudanese antigovernment force, poses with rebels at a base in Birigo, on the South Sudanese side of the border with Uganda, on September 22, 2018.
Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images

Despite repeated attempts at peace agreements and cease-fires in 2015, 2017, and 2018, political violence and instability have persisted between government forces and opposition factions in South Sudan. After nearly five years of civil war, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar—the heads of the two main opposing political coalitions—participated in negotiations in June 2018, resulting in the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan. The peace deal led to a cease-fire and the formation of a unity government, but implementation of the agreement has been slow, and violence has persisted. In 2024, additional peacekeepers and urgent forces were deployed to hotspots in South Sudan after an escalation in inter-communal violence led to an increase in civilian deaths, abductions, and displacements. Meanwhile, South Sudan continues to suffer from one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, magnified by the worsening effects of climate change, macroeconomic shocks, and spillover from the nearby civil war in Sudan. Long-delayed elections are scheduled for December 2024. However, many fear the country is unprepared to hold free and fair elections and have advocated for their postponement.


In December 2013, following a political struggle between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar that led to Machar’s removal as vice president, violence erupted between presidential guard soldiers from the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan. Soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group aligned with Kiir, and those from the Nuer ethnic group supported Machar. Amid the chaos, Kiir announced that Machar had attempted a coup, and violence spread quickly to Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states. From the outbreak of conflict, armed groups targeted civilians along ethnic lines, committed rape and sexual violence, destroyed property, looted villages, and recruited children into their ranks.

Under the threat of international sanctions and following several rounds of negotiations supported by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Kiir signed a peace agreement with Machar in August 2015. As the first step toward ending the civil war, Machar returned to Juba in April 2016 and was again sworn in as vice president after spending more than two years outside the country. Soon after his return, violence broke out between government forces and opposition factions, once more displacing tens of thousands of people. Machar fled the country and was eventually detained in South Africa. In 2017 and 2018, a series of cease-fires were negotiated and subsequently violated between the two sides and other factions.

After almost five years of civil war, Kiir and Machar participated in negotiations mediated by Uganda and Sudan in June 2018. Later that month, Kiir and Machar signed the Khartoum Declaration of Agreement for a cease-fire and a pledge to negotiate a power-sharing agreement to end the war. Despite sporadic violations over the ensuing weeks, Kiir and Machar signed a final cease-fire and power-sharing agreement in August 2018. This agreement was followed by a peace agreement to end the civil war signed by the government, Machar’s opposition party, and several other rebel factions. The Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan included a new power-sharing structure and reinstated Machar as vice president. Kiir and Machar formed a unity government in 2020 after delaying the original deadline twice.

In late October 2018, Machar returned to South Sudan for a nationwide peace celebration to mark the end of the civil war. However, reports of continued attacks and violations, coupled with the collapse of multiple previous peace deals, highlighted concerns that the fragile peace may not hold. Although official casualties are difficult to confirm, one April 2018 study estimated that nearly four hundred thousand people were killed during the five years of war, and an additional almost four million were internally displaced or fled the country.

In late December 2013, the UN Security Council authorized a rapid deployment of about 6,000 security forces, in addition to the 7,600 peacekeepers already in the country, to aid in state-building efforts. In May 2014, the Security Council voted in a rare move to shift the mission’s mandate from state-building to civilian protection, authorizing UN troops to use force. Since reprioritizing protection, the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan has faced extreme challenges due to the deterioration of the security situation and its complex relationship with the government of the Republic of South Sudan. The UN authorized the deployment of an additional four thousand peacekeepers as part of a regional protection force in 2016, although their arrival was delayed until August 2017.

Violence also prevented farmers from planting or harvesting crops, causing food shortages nationwide. In July 2014, the UN Security Council declared South Sudan’s food crisis the “worst in the world.” Famine was declared in South Sudan during the first few months of 2017, with nearly five million people at risk from food insecurity. Critical food shortages have continued since then, with the number of people facing food insecurity surpassing peak civil war levels.

Recent Developments

In reaction to overwhelming violence against civilians in the civil war, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country (UNMISS) established large-scale camps meant to protect civilians from ongoing violence. UNMISS began to scale back personnel at these civilian protection sites in the fall of 2020 in favor of responding more flexibly to violence in the country, raising questions about the return of refugees and government provision of security across the country.

Since the end of the civil war, increasing intercommunal violence and attacks, the threat of the peace process unraveling, and dire humanitarian conditions across large swaths of South Sudan have placed renewed urgency on improving security and meeting basic protection needs for South Sudan’s civilians. The situation worsened in April 2023 when fighting erupted in neighboring Sudan, sending an exodus of refugees, including many South Sudanese, fleeing southward to South Sudan. Violent clashes and hunger have afflicted overcrowded camps, and the government and aid organizations in South Sudan lack the resources to meet humanitarian needs. In 2023, more than 7.7 million people, or two-thirds of the population, faced severe food insecurity—the worst hunger crisis the country has ever faced. Moreover, the UN also extended sanctions on South Sudan through 2024, citing human rights violations.

Years after President Salva Kiir and former opposition leader Riek Machar formed a unity government in 2020, there has been slow progress in implementing the 2018 peace agreement [PDF]. Many issues remain unaddressed, including security arrangements, institutional reforms, and electoral preparations. Although the unity government remains intact, security sector reforms have languished as skeptical parties do not trust each other and hold back their best fighters in anticipation of a possible return to fighting. Implementation of the 2018 peace agreement was initially scheduled for February 2023, but the government has since extended the transitional period to February 2025. Long-delayed national elections are set for December 2024. President Salva Kiir has declared his intention to run in what he claims will be a free and fair race. However, a persistent rift between Kiir and Machar, the leaders of the largest civil war factions, has raised fears that violence could flare up in the lead-up to elections. Meanwhile, an armed insurgency [PDF] in the south of the country, led by Thomas Cirillo and his National Salvation Front (NSF), poses a severe threat to civilians and further endangers the peace process.

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