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 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 once again sworn in as vice president, after spending more than two years outside of 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 that included 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 and Machar’s opposition party, along with several other rebel factions. The agreement, called the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, included a new power-sharing structure and reinstated Machar as vice president.
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 nearly 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 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 even peak civil war levels.
The United States was a lead facilitator of South Sudanese independence, which was decided in a 2011 referendum [PDF], and provided diplomatic support and humanitarian aid. Prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2013, the United States supported and advocated for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which became the new country’s government. Though largely taking a back seat in mediation efforts run by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and neighboring countries, the United States and its international partners have an interest in ensuring a lasting settlement to the conflict in South Sudan, addressing the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, and preventing destabilizing regional spillover.
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. Years after President of South Sudan Salva Kiir and former opposition leader Riek Machar formed a unity government in 2020, there has been slow progress on implementing the 2018 peace agreement [PDF].
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 fall 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. The situation worsened in April 2023 when fighting erupted in 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.
The UN warns that the conflict in neighboring Sudan has intensified stress on South Sudan and distracted from the implementation of the peace deal. The unity government remains intact, but 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. The UN also extended sanctions on South Sudan through 2024, citing human rights violations. Long-delayed national elections are set for December 2024, and 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.