Why Is John Kerry In South Sudan? Everything You Need To Know About The Crisis Facing The Country

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in conflict-ridden South Sudan Friday to meet with its president, Salva Kiir, urging Kiir to do his best to halt the ethnic violence that's tearing the country apart. It's not often you hear a top U.S. official talking about averting genocide. On Friday, Kerry got Kiir to agree to talks with his former vice president, now the leader of a rebel movement in the country.

The talks could take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, next week, though the country will need more than talks to get to peace; a previous ceasefire went ignored after it was reached in January. Kerry said a real solution was urgent:

Already thousands of innocent people have been killed, more than a million people have been displaced. If both sides do not take steps in order to reduce or end the violence, they literally put their entire country in danger.

So what's going on in South Sudan, the world's youngest nation? Here's everything you need to know about this nascent country and its rocky start to statehood.

The Basics

  • It probably won't surprise you to know South Sudan is in northeastern Africa, well, just south of Sudan.
  • South Sudan became a state in 2011. You have to go all the way back to Palau in 1994 to find the next-youngest state.
  • Sudan's Arab and Muslim government has been at war with the south for decades. The landlocked south is made up of ethnic groups that are mostly Christian and animist. The conflict between the two groups even pre-dates Sudan's independence in 1956. 2.5 million people were killed in north vs. south wars between 1955-1972 and 1983-2005. That year, Sudan agreed to let South Sudan hold a referendum on statehood, and South Sudan became a state six years later.
  • The country's transition to statehood has been pretty rough, and fighting in the country is nothing new. Conflict in South Sudan didn't end in 2005, nor did it stop for statehood in 2011.
  • The two biggest ethnic groups in South Sudan are the Dinka (about 36 percent) and the Nuer (about 16 percent). The vast majority of the country — 80 percent — relies on livestock for survival. For most people in South Sudan, that means cattle.
  • Many of the ethnic conflicts in South Sudan are related to cattle.
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What's Different Now?

Internal conflict along ethnic lines has been plaguing South Sudan for years, since long before it became a state. Why is the U.S. suddenly interested in averting further conflict in South Sudan? Mostly because the ongoing ethnic violence, perpetrated mostly by non-governmental militias claiming allegiance to various ethnic groups, is beginning to seriously destabilize the government and has more or less devolved into an all-out civil war. Worse, the country's politicians are reportedly using the violence to bolster their own claims to power.

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President Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, whom he dismissed from his post last summer, are fighting for control of the country. Machar is a member of the Nuer tribe, and Kiir has accused Machar of plotting a coup against him.

One unnamed State Department employee told The New York Times that despite attempts to paint the leaders' conflict as ethnic, it's really about power.

This is not a battle of Nuer against Dinka. It is a Riek Machar-Salva Kiir battle, and they have used ethnic tensions and their own ethnicity to foment what has been a horrific war in this country.
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Why Does It Matter?

As if the displacement of million people, ongoing genocidal killings, and the country's apparent disdain for incoming United Nations peacekeepers wasn't enough, the situation in South Sudan could get a lot worse. Most of the people who died during the decades of war with the north died as a result of starvation and drought, and famine is closing in again, the United Nations has warned.

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South Sudanese have been separated from their land, and the conflict's cut off the country from about half of its usual revenue from oil, a UN official working on the humanitarian disaster told the Times. The director of the World Food Program, Ertharin Cousin, said refugees from the country need urgent help in a UN Refugee Agency statement.

Today we witnessed a mother arrive in Ethiopia where help was available, only to lose her youngest child, who was too weakened by their journey. This is a political crisis that is now evolving into a humanitarian catastrophe.