will south sudan’s recent fighting kill more people?

It’s difficult to tell what has happened over the last week in Juba, South Sudan’s capital city. Early reports suggested a military coup, and President Salva Kiir, donned in a general’s uniform, did his best to convince both South Sudanese citizens and his international patrons as much. The U.S. State Department, among other diplomatic bodies, has issued a travel advisory for U.S. citizens–say what you will about Benghazi, diplomatic security, and threat inflation, but U.S. advisories are often a good indicator that an international crisis is getting bad, quickly. However we describe this week’s events–as a coup, as the early stages of civil conflict, as ethnic infighting–it’s clear that more people continue to die, and that disparate security factions are among the perpetrators. Will South Sudan’s current violence kill more people in the future, and if so, why?

A recent Economist dispatch places the root of the fighting with South Sudan’s tumultuous ethnic politics. This is not to say that “ethnicity” qua identity is responsible, but that there is a particular group of people (in this case, Salva Kiir’s Dinka affiliates) that controversially holds more power than another particular group of people (Riek Machar’s Nuer group), and which often excludes the latter from political decision-making. Inasmuch as South Sudan is a state, it is a state because these groups, as well as tens of others, have decided that this arrangement works–its elites have enough money, and their supporters have enough services to support their livelihoods. That arrangement has crumbled since 8 July 2011, and probably before. It dates to South Sudan’s contested transition from rebel nation, during the Sudanese civil war, to international trustee, in the aftermath of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, to sovereign state. It’s hard to identify the proximate spark, but this context is, as always, important.

The “meaning” of this week’s violence depends in part on your dataset’s timestamp: if you look to 2011, it’s likely a symptom of a decaying proto-state; on the other hand, it may be a longer-term consequence of Kiir’s heavy-handed consolidation. Of course, it may be both: perceiving its own weakness, Kiir’s coterie attempts to seize authority by violently repressing potential insecurity. This is the explanation Jay Ulfelder prefers, and I think he’s right: civilians always suffer as elites scuffle. As I write, UN officials report that multiple hundreds of South Sudanese civilians have died in Juba’s clashes. It appears that South Sudan is well on its way to simultaneous mass atrocities–one in Juba, and one in Jonglei, an eastern region on the capital’s margins. As South Sudan’s crisis deepens, it’s worth thinking about how these crises both overlap and don’t; how the weakness of a corrosive regime and its efforts to shore up authority may cause–both directly and not–greater suffering.

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