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. The following report sheds light on the root causes, as well as instrumental means for conflict in South Sudan. The first section covered 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. A clearer understanding of the threats to stability will facilitate stronger foundations for peace.
Cattle Rustling & Ethnic Conflict in Jonglei State
Jonglei State is the wild west of South Sudan. Even for a country that is enormously developmentally deficient, predominantly rural, and weakly governed overall, Jonglei, South Sudan’s largest and most trouble-filled state, is conspicuously lawless. Since 2005, Jonglei has seen a spate of cattle rustling attacks driven by tribal disputes over land, food, water, long-standing tribal enmities, and personal grievances. The violence has been made deadlier by the large number of small arms (primarily AK-47s) left over in Jonglei from previous conflicts.
During the CPA period, when South Sudan was autonomous, but not yet independent from the North, Jonglei saw a distinct rise in the abduction of women and children, cattle theft, and killings. In an example of the pattern of violence typical in Jonglei at the time, a series of attacks and revenge attacks between Murle and Dinka tribesmen during November and December 2007 resulted in the killing of eight Dinka tribesman and theft of 7,000 cattle in one attack, as well as the killing of 34 Murle tribesman in a counterattack (“UNHCR Suspends Returns to Sudan’s Jonglei State“, UNHCR, December 4, 2007). The Lou Nuer, another ethnic group in Jonglei, also has been involved in repeated clashes with Murle and Dinka. The violence has continued since independence. A string of attacks between Murle and Lou Nuer in late December 2011 to early January 2012 left an estimated 3,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of cattle stolen, according to Pibor County Commissioner Joshua Konyi (“Murle Revenge Attack on Lou Nuer ‘Kills 23’ in Jonglei’s Akobo County“, Sudan Tribune, January 9, 2012).
President Salva Kiir launched Operation Restore Peace, an effort to disarm Murle and Lou Nuer tribal groups in Jonglei state, in March 2012. The controversial operation, considered necessary to stop the escalating tribal violence, was marred by human rights abuses and accusations of the Dinka-majority Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) disproportionately targeting Nuer for disarmament. Watchdog organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both issued reports documenting systematic sexual violence, torture, and executions carried out by the SPLA (“South Sudan: End Abuses by Disarmament Forces in Jonglei“, Human Rights Watch, August 23, 2012). Instead of having the desired effect of reducing the amount of firepower in the restive state, Operation Restore Peace had the unintended effect of further angering Murle and Nuer tribesmen in the region. The attacks have not stopped.
Of particular concern is the astounding number of people displaced due to cattle raiding attacks. It is not uncommon to see figures reported as high as hundreds of thousands. Jonglei is a vast expanse of territory and parts of it are some of the most isolated areas in the world, so when a family is forced away from its home, there is a significant risk of starvation and dehydration. Lack of infrastructure means that there are virtually no medical facilities or shelters for the displaced. Medecins Sans Frontieres, which is the only primary health care provider in many parts of the state, has had to pull out of many locations after its facilities were overrun and staff members were killed (“South Sudan: MSF Condemns Large Scale Attacks on Civilians“, Medecins Sans Frontieres, August 23, 2011).
Most cattle raids in Jonglei follow a similar pattern. A loose band of ethnic tribesmen will attack herdsman when the cattle are poorly defended, kill those who resist, perhaps kidnap some women or children, and drive away tens of thousands of heads of cattle. The victimized ethnic group will then mount a counterattack to recover cattle and tribespeople lost, which leads to more casualties, kidnappings, and stolen cattle. The Murle, a marginalized ethnic group, have taken the brunt of the kidnapping accusations and rumors have spread about the tribe kidnapping children to compensate for its low birth rate. However, both the Dinka and Lou Nuer ethnic groups also have engaged in the kidnapping of women and children in Jonglei during cattle raids.
Security of Oil Installations & Pipelines
South Sudan has historically contested certain oil-rich areas on its border with Sudan. But, in 2011, with officially demarcated borders in place, fighting intensified between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the SPLA, the military arm of the Government of South Sudan, over the regions of Abyei, South Kordofan (and the Heglig oil installation), and Upper Nile state. Oil has the potential for stoking or reconciling tensions between President Bashar of Sudan and President Kiir of South Sudan. For South Sudan, oil leads to economic prosperity and conflict — a “blessing and a curse” of a new nation (Sudarsan Raghavan, “With oil at stake, South Sudan’s crisis matters to its customers“, The Washington Post, January 20, 2014).
In the case of Abyei, disagreement over the 1% of land officially under dispute between Sudan and South Sudan dates back to the 2005 CPA. A Congressional Research Service Report notes that, “[T]erritorial claims to Abyei were…considered particularly contentious because of its oil reserves, estimated in 2004 to represent almost a quarter of Sudan’s annual oil production” (Lauren Ploch Blanchard, “Sudan and South Sudan: Current Issues for Congress and U.S. Policy“, Congressional Research Service, October 5, 2012). The Ngok Dinka tribe, a South Sudanese ethnic group, which occupies the area of Abyei, has historically crossed paths with the Arab nomadic tribe that travels south three months out of the year, the Misseriya, a Sudan-backed group (James Copnall, “Sudan: Why Abyei Is Crucial to North and South“, BBC, May 23, 2011). Though ethnically Sudanese people do not occupy Abyei, Sudan will not give up Abyei because of its oil value, especially after conceding 75% of their oil reserves after the split. A part of the CPA referendum intending to bestow choice upon Abyei’s residents to determine whether they want to join Sudan or South Sudan was never reached in January 2011. In May 2011, fighting broke out between the SAF and SPLA over Abyei, displacing 20,000 local residents and ushering in UN forces to demilitarize and patrol the area. Still unresolved, the history of Abyei indicates a latent potential for future violence between Sudan and South Sudan, especially due to the presence of oil.
Additionally, on the 1,300-mile border between Sudan and South Sudan lie the richest oil blocks in South Kordofan, a region officially in Sudan, and Upper Nile state in South Sudan’s northeast corner. In South Kordofan, the oil installation of Heglig continues to be disputed under the guise of allegations that each side is harboring insurgent groups. Trading aerial bombardments and accusations, the SPLA took over the Heglig area in May 2011, but it withdrew under international pressure shortly thereafter (Blanchard, 2012). Abyei will remain an official symbol of disagreement between Sudan and South Sudan, but the underlying desire is oil.
Two key events in July 2013 and December 2013 transformed the international disputes over oil into an internal ethnic conflict. The first sparked ethnic tensions between the two predominant ethnic groups in South Sudan — the Nuer and the Dinka — when President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, expelled his entire cabinet and Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. These events precipitated the descent into civil war detailed above. Since December 2013, SPLA and rebel forces have been jockeying for control over oil-rich areas in Unity State, Upper Nile, and Bor. The value of the oil in these areas makes it an important bargaining chip in the backdrop of the ceasefire in January 2014, though deep-seated ethnic ties to each state make it difficult to distinguish motivations for killing the ethnic groups indigenous to the states being attacked, such as in Bor, the capital of the most ethnically diverse state of Jonglei. These two conflicts epitomize the fragility of South Sudan — it plummeted into deeply ethnic and violently politicized conflict in a single week (“South Sudan: the state that fell apart in a week“, The Guardian, December 23, 2013). But, this fighting disrupts the crucial link between the financial lifeblood of the state, oil, and stability.
On February 20, 2014, rebel groups aligned with Riek Machar took control of the capital of the oil-rich state of the Upper Nile, Malakal, which produces 80% of the South Sudan’s oil currently. Malakal is seen as a strategic location due not only to its oil but also its fertile grounds downstream from the White Nile and its airport. Unity State provides the other 20% of production, which Nuer forces aligned with Machar claimed to have taken in December 2013 (Lauren Ploch Blanchard, “The Crisis in South Sudan“, Congressional Research Service, Jan. 9, 2014). Again, these areas are considered strategic bargaining chips in the grand scheme of ethnic rivalry and the prospect of future negotiations over representation in government. Yet, the inter-state disputes over oil-rich blocks have taken a backseat in early 2014 to ethnic infighting and to growing international pressure to disarm contentious factions of the Dinka and Nuer.
Most recently in late January of 2015, an alleged rebel group allied with former Vice President Riek Machar destroyed an oil installation in the northern part of the Unity state. Leading the accusations within the Government of South Sudan, the Minister of Information, Michael Makuei, unleashed a heavy-handed statement, “These installations belong to all of us. If there is any group of people who do not care about public properties, then it is our duty to make them understand that these are public properties and the Government of South Sudan is under duty to defend and protect these properties” (“South Sudan Government Says Rebels Torched Oil Facility“, Voice of America, January 21, 2015). Furthermore, Makuei pointed the finger at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan for failing to protect South Sudanese people and installations, which falls within its mandate. Clearly, the debate over oil installations is both drawing in responsibility of international actors and transforming the previously conventional security issue into one of humanitarian and sovereign necessity. After 14 months, steady negotiations in Addis Ababa could crumble at the whim of an oil infrastructure attack.
Oil is the apple of discord of modern day South Sudan. Historically the object of desire and volatility between Sudan and South Sudan, recent events in South Sudan have concentrated fighting and violence of reprisal inside its borders, which could lead to mass atrocities between ethnic groups — a future scenario could be civil war. Clearly, the fragility of the state is closely linked to its oil. As evidenced by the opportunistic contention for South Sudan’s capitals in oil-rich Unity (Bentiu), Jonglei (Bor), and Upper Nile (Malakal), oil is a strategic ace, as factions perceive it as a core element to the functioning of the state. Oil could also act as a spoiler to recent negotiations. Knowing oil’s geopolitical and economic importance, another scenario in the near future, peace, will require more advanced securitization of key oil installations and pipelines to preserve stability in the region — a condition fully supported by the international community and private investors. Whether contested areas along the border between Sudan or South Sudan or internal ethnic battling over oil-rich fields, oil is undeniably linked to political leverage.
Read the third section of this series, an evaluation of economic dependence of South Sudan and human insecurity of its people.