by Cameron Reed. Cameron Reed is a graduate student of International Relations and Public Policy in the US and Germany. He has worked extensively on security and conflict analysis of the Middle East and Africa. Christopher Thompson, an expert on South Sudan and Africa relations, contributed significant sections of this report.
An overview of key conflict drivers in South Sudan illustrates politically steeped motivation, but which manifest through ethnic or resource-oriented violence. However, South Sudan will remain important to the region and to notable international actors, including the US, China, UN, and IGAD, due to its interest in oil reserves and the rising death tolls. As fighting continues between groups lead by President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, the rest of the country will suffer. If protracted peace talks in Addis Ababa, mediated by IGAD, bear no fruit, South Sudan’s people will fall into deeper caustic living conditions and risks of violent outbreaks will increase. The following report sheds light on the root causes, as well as instrumental means for conflict in South Sudan. The first section covers a historical overview of the country and the current situation. The second addresses the major threats of ethnic conflict and security of oil installations. The third section evaluates economic dependence of South Sudan and human insecurity of its people. (The third section will be online in the next weeks). A clearer understanding of the threats to stability will facilitate stronger foundations for peace.
The security situation in South Sudan is characterized by layered, structural, and entrenched sources of instability that are causing an immediate humanitarian crisis that has only worsened since 2013. The country currently is embroiled in a violent internal conflict precipitated by President Salva Kiir’s sacking of his cabinet (including Vice Present Riek Machar) in June 2013 and by a sudden firefight between elements of the Presidential Guard. This crisis has become what can be characterized as a civil war (Isma’Il Kushkush and Nicholas Kulish, “Civilians Flee as Violence Worsens in South Sudan“, The New York Times, February 26, 2014). Recent violence has included alleged human rights violations by both sides. Fighting has largely fallen along ethnic lines, but, as this report — developed from open-source materials — shows, its origins are clearly political.
The current civil war is of foremost significance to the South Sudanese security situation because it will determine whether the country is resilient and cohesive enough to remain viable or if ethnic conflict will divide it. The outcome of the war will undoubtedly shape the immediate future of the country’s political system. Nonetheless, other long-term sources of instability continue to plague the country. In order to map South Sudan’s security landscape, this report includes:
- A general overview of the republic
- An overview of the current crisis and its implications
- An evaluation of major security threats
While its oil reserves make South Sudan strategically important to the international political economy, its status as a newly independent country emerging from a brutal civil war has drawn interest from members of the international community that are concerned about its feasibility as a state. International organizations, non-governmental organizations, and faith-based organizations also have taken particular interest in the country for a variety of reasons, mostly humanitarian.
Notably, the US, which played a leading role in the peace process that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War and enabled independence, has a significant stake in the country’s future. During the height of the current crisis, National Security Advisor Susan Rice briefed US President Barack Obama daily on South Sudan, an unusual level of attention for a Sub-Saharan African nation. American politicians feel a paternal sense of responsibility for South Sudan because of America’s support for the southern rebellion and eventual statehood, but America also fears the humanitarian and energy market impacts that a failed South Sudan would have. Additionally, China’s oil interests in Africa have been consistently challenged by the conflict. As a result, China stepped up its UN peacekeeper presence in the region from 1,800 to 2,500, which follows in tow of the recently extended UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) of 12,500. Even if South Sudan emerges intact from the current crisis, its future is still largely dependent on its ability to confront a slew of structural security issues. This report will explore some of these security issues:
- Ethnic conflict and cattle rustling in Jonglei State
- The security of oil installations and pipelines
- Economic dependence on oil and foreign aid
- Human insecurity
South Sudan’s insecurity and underdevelopment have deep historical roots. During Sudan’s history, as part of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium, the British administered northern and southern Sudan separately until very shortly before independence. The North (particularly the areas along the Nile) was the target of almost all development activities, while the south was almost entirely neglected. The British developed the economy and transportation infrastructure in the north, but the only administrative efforts they undertook in the south were to allocate regions to different religious denominations for missionary activities. Despite being administered separately during nearly the entire colonial period, Sudan became independent in 1953 as one nation.
The ethnic and religious differences between the north and south, compounded by the economic and political inequalities that were institutionalized after independence, led to the First Sudanese Civil War, from 1955 to 1972. The signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in March 1972 officially ended the conflict, but peace would only last for a little more than a decade. In 1983, Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry declared all of Sudan to be under Sharia law and abolished the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region that had afforded the South political autonomy after the first war.
Nimeiry’s abrogation of the Addis Agreement plunged Sudan into renewed conflict, known as the Second Sudanese Civil War, from 1983 to 2005. It left an estimated 2 million people dead from war-related killing, famine, and disease. Millions were displaced due to the fighting. The Second Sudanese Civil War officially ended with the signing of the US-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA—also known as the Naivasha Agreement) in 2005, a deal that allowed the south to hold a referendum to determine whether it wanted to remain part of the north or become independent. After a period of joint administration of the south from 2005 to 2011, the referendum was held on schedule in January 2011—and 98.83% of southern citizens voted for independence (“South Sudan Backs Independence – Results“, BBC, February 7, 2011). South Sudan officially became an independent nation on July 9, 2011.Post-Independence State Building
Even though the South Sudan’s independence brought it political independence, its economy is still closely connected to the North. Notably, the only pipeline that can bring Southern crude petroleum exports to port goes through Sudan to the city of Port Sudan on the Red Sea. South Sudan also does not have any oil refineries located south of the border. The South’s dependence on the North for oil pipelines and refineries gave the North significant leverage during the post-independence negotiations over oil transit fees. During the negotiations, the South proposed paying $1 per barrel and the North countered by demanding at least $32 per barrel. Tensions escalated considerably and came to a head in January 2012, when the North began seizing Southern oil shipments as payment for unpaid oil transit fees. The South then shut down its oil production instead of paying the North what it considered to be an exorbitant fee. The oil shutdown had a devastating impact on the southern economy, which relies on oil revenue for 98% of its budget. After more than a year of negotiations, the two countries reached a deal on September 27, 2012 that allowed the South to pipe and process its oil through the north for between $9 and $11 per barrel (depending on the facility), plus compensation for previously unpaid fees (“Sudan and South Sudan“, US Energy Information Administration, September 3, 2014).
A lack of development, two brutal civil wars, and the recent oil shutdown have made South Sudan very dependent on foreign economic aid, which comes in the form of unilateral transfers from the US and other international patrons and through the programmatic efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have entered the country following the CPA in 2005. Government budgetary shortfalls, mismanagement, and the predominance of NGOs have combined to severely limit government capacity to perform basic state functions, such as providing education, healthcare, and infrastructure development.
The current crisis and its implications
South Sudan is in the midst of a power struggle that has the making of turning into a civil war between the Dinka contingent of the state military, known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and Nuer rebel elements, which include Nuer contingents of the SPLA. Violence erupted on December 15, 2013 after a dispute during a meeting of the Presidential Guard resulted in gunfire, but the true origins of the political crisis can be traced back to President Salva Kiir’s efforts to consolidate his power throughout 2013 and particularly his dismissal of the cabinet in July 2013 (“South Sudan’s Presidential Guards Clash in Juba“, Sudan Tribune, December 16, 2013; Simon Tisdall, “South Sudan President Sacks Cabinet in Power Struggle“, The Guardian. July 24, 2013). Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer and former SPLA commander during the Second Sudanese Civil War, and Pagan Amum, the prominent Secretary-General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (the government’s political party), were also sacked.
Machar responded to his dismissal by declaring his intention to challenge Kiir in the 2015 presidential elections and urging his Nuer supporters not to take up arms. Meanwhile, Kiir appointed loyalists into the empty cabinet and party leadership positions in order to consolidate his power.
Tensions simmered through late summer and fall until the events of December 15, 2013 precipitated a descent into ethnic violence that is ongoing as of February 2014. After the firefight during the Presidential Guard meeting late on the night of December 15, 2013, President Kiir accused Machar and other opposition leaders of attempting a coup (Isma’Il Kushkush, “President Says a Coup Failed in South Sudan“, The New York Times, December 16, 2013). The charge, dismissed by Machar and his allies, led to a roundup of Nuer opposition leaders in Juba and the declaration of a curfew for the city. Allegations based on eyewitness accounts, such as Human Rights Watch’s January 17, 2014 report documenting “ethnic targeting and widespread killings”, have emerged accusing Dinka SPLA soldiers of carrying out targeted killing of Nuer civilians in Juba in the days following the firefight (“South Sudan: Ethnic Targeting, Widespread Killings“, Human Rights Watch, January 16, 2014).
Terrified civilians, mostly Nuer, fled to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compounds in Juba after fighting broke out. International reporters, notably from the BBC, The Guardian, and Reuters, collected eyewitness testimony in the compounds that told of human rights abuses and war crimes committed by SPLA soldiers against Nuer civilians. One such story, told by a 20-year-old Nuer student named Simon K. to The Guardian, described one such case of targeted killing during those days (Daniel Howden, “South Sudan: The State that Fell Apart in a Week“, The Guardian, December 23, 2013). Simon said that he observed Dinka soldiers going door-to-door in Juba and asking people “What is your name?” in the Dinka language. If the person could not understand, then the soldiers identified them as Nuer and arrested them. Simon and 252 others were detained in this way and taken to a police station in the Gudele market district of Juba, where they were thrown in a locked room with other Nuer civilians. According to Simon, the Dinka soldiers then “put guns in through the windows and started to shoot us.” The soldiers would periodically return and shoot through the windows for the next two days. Simon and 12 others survived by hiding under dead bodies.
South Sudan’s descent into chaos caught the international community off-guard. Toby Lanzer, the UN’s Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in South Sudan and a vocal advocate for international intervention, said, “It would have been difficult one week ago to imagine that things would unravel to this extent.” (Howden, 2013). What began as ethnic clashes in Juba soon escalated and spread across the country. Machar, who denied attempting a coup, nevertheless saw the events as a point of no return and decided to take the reins of what had become a full-blown Nuer rebellion. During his time as leader of the SPLA-Nasir and the Nuer White Army during the Second Sudanese Civil War, Machar was responsible for carrying out the killing of an estimated 2,000 Dinka civilians in the town of Bor in 1991. This event, for which Machar has since issued a tearful apology, has been a source of enmity between Nuer and Dinka ever since (“Riek Machar In Tears As He Admits to 1991 Massacres“, The London Evening Post, August 16 2011). Machar’s decision to embrace the armed rebellion in late December 2013, and the concentration of fighting in Bor and other Nuer-populated areas, had ominous connotations as the country descended into full-blown Civil War.
On December. 19, 2013 a Nuer militia led by defected SPLA commander Peter Gadet, took control of the strategically important town of Bor, which lies just down the Nile River from the capital of Juba (“South Sudan Rebels Take Flashpoint Town“, Al Jazeera, December 19, 2013).
Nuer fighters overran the UNIMISS compound in the town, a development that caused a mass civilian exodus (“UN Says Base in South Sudan Stormed“, Al Jazeera, December 19, 2013). Kiir immediately mobilized Dinka SPLA soldiers in Juba and prepared for an invasion to recapture Bor. Over the following days and weeks, Bor changed hands between government and rebel forces numerous times and accusations began to mount of both sides targeting civilians of the opposite ethnic group. Mass graves already have been discovered that may be evidence of significant human rights violations and war crimes (Goran Tomasevic, “South Sudan Violence: UN Says 75 Bodies Found in Mass Grave“, CBS News, December 24, 2013). Current government control of the town has limited the extent to which UN investigators and international journalists can work unhindered to uncover evidence of war crimes committed by both sides, but mass graves containing the bodies of Dinka civilians have been found.
Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, and Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, also have seen fierce battles. These two cities are of significant concern for the international community because oil installations have been targeted in both areas. The rebel movement, essentially divided into professional, defected SPLA elements and loose bands of armed Nuer youth, has engaged in opportunistic fighting under a mostly decentralized command and control structure in these regions. For this reason, South Sudan watchers have been concerned about the ability of the opposition leaders to control their fighters. Other Nuer elements, such as the feared Nuer White Army, are highly disciplined, but relatively autonomous.
Government and opposition leaders signed a ceasefire agreement on January 23, 2014 in Addis Ababa that pledged to halt hostilities until a political resolution could be achieved (Jason Hanna and Susanna Capelouto, “South Sudan, Rebels Reach Ceasefire After Weeks of Fighting“, CNN, January 24, 2014). However, renewed fighting soon erupted between rebel elements and government forces in northern Unity State and eastern Jonglei state in spite of the agreement (“South Sudan Fighting Despite Ceasefire“, The Daily Star, January 26, 2014). Both sides blamed the other for the attacks, a pattern during the entire conflict. Both returned to the negotiating table, but fighting has not ceased in the flashpoint areas of Unity state and Jonglei, as nearly 40,000 civilians and many aid workers sought refuge in UNMISS compounds in Bentiu as recently as August of 2014 as a result of fighting (Associated Press, “South Sudan: Fighting Erupts After Lull“, The new York Times, August 15, 2014). Though, the credibility of the mediators in the spotlight, Ethiopia and IGAD, is dwindling as neither side can come to an agreement. Other international actors, including the UN and EU, have imposed sanctions targeting actors that “[undermine] political stability and [abuse] human rights”, which signals increased involvement (Louis Charbonneau and Michael Nichols, “U.S. Says to Propose U.N. Sanctions Regime for South Sudan“, Reuters, November 4, 2014; EU, “EU Imposes Sanctions on South Sudanese Military Leaders“, European External Action Service, July 15, 2014).
The international community remains deeply concerned that South Sudan could collapse entirely into prolonged ethnic violence unless a broad-based political agreement is reached between President Kiir and the opposition leaders. The next few months are crucial, as the rainy season begins in South Sudan in late spring and the roads will be impassable for large troop convoys until late summer or early fall. If the country can pass the next few months without major clashes, then the rainy season could conceivably give the two sides a window to carry out wide-ranging negotiations and reach a comprehensive resolution. If such an agreement is to resolve the root causes of political and ethnic tension in the country, Kiir must agree to include Nuer opposition figures in his government. Furthermore, Kiir and the parliament must agree to reduce the power of the presidency and empower the parliament and state governors. Government corruption, a scourge that continues to plague the country and has been a chief talking point for Machar, must be mitigated and reduced to boost public trust in any new or reformed government. Additionally, Machar has raised serious concerns during the most recent peace talks about the presence of President Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) in South Sudan. A staunch ally of Kiir, Museveni has, in the media, allegedly had ties to Ugandan-native Joseph Kony, who has been known to operate in South Sudan. Museveni claims his concern is with the integrity of Juba and will pull out his troops as long as Machar can ensure its protection. Machar also claims that the UPDF has meddled in the internal affairs of South Sudan and provided cover for Kiir’s forces to continue violence, instead of working towards peace (“S. Sudan Rebels Decry Museveni’s Non-withdrawal Position“, Sudan Tribune, December 28, 2014). Solid peace will results from resolution of these key sticking points.
Read the second section of this series, a continuation of the analysis of key threats to stability, namely ethnic violence, Jonglei dynamics, and oil installation security.