7 Apr 2022

South Sudan: Rivalry between strategic and conflicting groups

Hippolyte Eric Djounguep

Since 15 December 2013, South Sudan, Africa’s youngest state, which became independent on 9 July 2011, has been engulfed in a civil war with unprecedented violence: 10,000 dead and 352,000 displaced people at the end of January 2014.[1] Presented as a conflict between the Dinkas and the Nuers, two of the 62 ethnic groups that make up the ethno-linguistic patchwork of a population of 10 million,[2] this war is in fact a civil war between political factions, fanned by the prospect of the 2015 presidential elections and fuelled by greed for enrichment from oil (which accounts for 98% of the revenues of the South Sudanese State).[3] The main factions are led by the current President, Salva Kirr, on the one hand, and by the Vice-President, Riek Machar,[4] on the other hand. Although the conflict has been simmering since its independence, it is not the first time that South Sudan has been plagued by internal dissension. In 1991, in the midst of the civil war against the Northern forces, when the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was still led by John Garang, the armed militias of the two political protagonists were already clashing violently, causing 2,000 deaths in the town of Bor.

One of the causes of the South Sudanese civil war lies in the imperfections of the 2005 Naivasha Agreement. This peace agreement, which put an end to the war between the South and the North and initiated a transition, specified that the provinces of Blue Nile and South Kordofan would remain in Sudan, even though they were partly held by militias affiliated to the SPLA. In both regions, fighting resumed as soon as the South became independent in 2011. Until very recently, the regime in Juba supported its former brothers-in-arms. However, mindful of the personal and political dimensions of the mobilisation, Salva Kirr changed sides. By dropping his former comrades, he hoped to put an end to the tensions with the Khartoum regime, which was threatening to cut the pipelines linking the oil fields to Port Sudan. This situation displeased his lieutenants, and in particular Riek Machar, who had close fraternal ties with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in North Sudan (SPLM-N).

Beyond the analysis that points a finger at the main leaders in this political brutalism littered with violence, what appraisal can be made of the inter-South Sudanese conflict?

                                                                          The 10 States of South Sudan (Credit: MAPgrafix 2019/OpenStreetMap)

  • The influence of external forces

The direct involvement of the Southern sponsors in the new state and its regime should be mentioned, notably Uganda, which is said to have around 1,200 troops in Juba and Bor and its air power at the disposal of the loyalist forces; and, to a lesser extent, Kenya, which strengthens the military capacity of President Salva Kiir’s regime. When the civil war broke out, the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) was quick to provide military assistance to the Government of South Sudan (GoSS), without which GoSS troops would probably not have been able to stop the rebels from advancing towards Juba. This significant dependence on Uganda made GoSS appear weak, and undermined President Kiir’s policy of normalization with Sudan. The Ugandan government also regarded Machar as Sudan’s agent and alleged that he was associated with the Lord Resistance Army (LRA). The Ugandan government particularly paid attention to the role played by Machar at the Juba talks with the LRA in 2006, when LRA members were given supplies including cash in assembly areas in South Sudan.[5]

Kenya became a key peace-maker under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa. Through IGAD, Kenya’s General Lazarus Sumbeiywo was appointed as a mediator to lead the peace negotiations. Kenya also supported South Sudan by sending its military personnel to enforce security in the country through the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). However, it is important to note that Kenya was also interested in the economic developments in South Sudan as it had a large market potential for investment. Kenya took advantage of this potential in South Sudan and invested in a number of sectors from banking, insurance, wholesale and retail trade to transport and communication networks.[6]

These interventions show that these two states now have an East African foreign policy. This is certainly not new. Uganda has been involved in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for 20 years and Kenya in Somalia for 10 years. But this time the speed and official nature of the reaction as well as the moral register of the arguments invoked – both being the paragons of electoral legitimacy and the established order against dangerous trouble-makers – consecrate the diplomatic maturity of these states that claim the status of regional power. However, this diplomatic maturity and the discursive registers used do not hide the economic appetites of the protagonists in question. The ‘frontier’ that Southern Sudan represents for the East African economic and political elites, the prospects of enrichment, the interests, and even the role that the stability of Southern Sudan plays in the planning of the national territory of these two states, also explain this interventionism – which is also looked upon with benevolence by the Western powers, in particular the USA.

Faced with this situation, the Khartoum regime – already struggling with three rebellions in Darfur, in the East, and in South Kordofan and Blue Nile – was tempted to intervene in order to secure the oil zones, on which its budget and its political survival depend. Finally, with the agreement of the Juba regime, it is doing so with a view to cutting off the SPLM-N rebels from its rear bases.

  • IGAD’s efforts: Peace agreements still on the table

The signing of the umpteenth and most recent peace agreement took place in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, during a summit of East African leaders in September 2018. IGAD, which comprises eight countries including Sudan, launched this initiative to put an end to the South Sudanese conflict. The two protagonists, Kiir and Machar, had already signed several other agreements, including one for a permanent ceasefire and one for power-sharing. These agreements included the return of Riek Machar, who had been in exile since August 2016, to take up the post of First Vice President in a government of national unity. None of the previously signed peace agreements lasted, but this latest agreement signed in Addis Ababa is unique in that it is supported by the UN Security Council, the African Union, IGAD and the United States. Today, we note some progress in relation to this peace agreement; in particular, the return of Riek Machar to Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, to the post of First Vice-President of the Republic. While fighting has ceased in the urban area of Juba, it continues to rage in other urban centres, such as Bor. However, this agreement focuses more on process tracing[7] (a method based on the analysis of a sequence of events to identify cause and effect) and not enough on the endogenous variables[8] of the South Sudanese conflict, the causes of which go back well before the country’s independence in 2011.

To this end, in January 2014, participants at a seminar in Nairobi at the Rift Valley Institute had emphasised the more structural aspects of the crisis and pointed to the legacies of the civil war (1983-2005), the absence of internal national truth and reconciliation work in Southern Sudan, and the persistence of poverty as causes of the tensions and outbreaks of violence. Southern Sudanese elites, and even more so the diplomatic sponsors of the young State, behaved as if independence and the joy it brought were enough to erase 20 years of corrupt, factious and violent politics. The referendum’s approval of secession[9] did not have the healing qualities that Western observers and diplomats hoped it would have. The political dissensions of the war were thinly veiled but certainly not healed. Moreover, over the 8 years of independence, the corrupt management has done nothing to dispel the malaise, nor, above all, to instil a democratic culture in the South Sudanese elite (essentially the SPLA members), and has become quite accustomed to settling its disputes by arms. While the country has seen an outpouring of aid and investment, development has not reached the majority. Poverty and illiteracy have continued as before, made even more unbearable by the arrogant exhibitionism of the corrupt in Juba. The local kleptocrats and their international partners — from Chinese-Malaysian oil giants and British tycoons to networks of traders from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Uganda — have accumulated billions of dollars. The country’s natural resources have been plundered, lethal militia and military units responsible for atrocities have received financing, and kleptocrats have lined their pockets with untold billions of dollars allocated by government programs for the livelihood of some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the world. The spoils of this heist are coursing through the international financial system in the form of shell companies, stuffed bank accounts, luxury real estate and comfortable safe havens around the world for the extended families of those involved in violence and corruption.[10] The mobilisation of unemployed youth into militias is made easier (particularly at the beginning of the dry season), especially as the habit of cattle raiding has not ceased. All these endogenous variables make any peace agreement null and void, because it focuses on universal values and not pragmatic values.

  • Internal geopolitics: Rivalries over oil fields

One of the major obstacles to the South Sudanese conflict is the fact that each faction controls at least one state and its contiguous resources, notably oil, which leads to each belligerent blackmailing the other. The fate and resources of the States (Sudan and South Sudan) and their elites depend on the continuity of the oil flow. This oil dependence therefore weighs heavily on the political life of the region and vice versa. After 15 months of inactivity due to the tug of war between the North and the South over the amount of royalties demanded by Khartoum for the transit of oil through its pipelines to Port Sudan, and after Salva Kirr’s retreat on this issue (the royalties now amount to 27 euros per barrel),[11] the pipelines have resumed operations, and South Sudanese oil production has restarted, once again bringing in a significant amount of money. The prospect of presidential elections in Southern Sudan in 2015 had made access to resources a sine qua non for success. The South Sudanese civil war is therefore the collateral damage of a rather banal geopolitics of pipelines, exacerbated by the context of electoral rivalries that are too often adopted as a rule of political functioning. It is thus not an expression of the opening up of a remote and landlocked region (which it is, in fact, from a logistical point of view), but of its real integration into the logistical, commercial, and normative networks of globalisation. The relationship with post-Soviet Caucasian situations is clear. However, the instrumentalization of the ethnic dimension, if only for the convenience of military recruitment, facilitates the mobilisation of identity and amplifies grievances, which explains the ethnic dimension of the violence. Even if they have little to do with each other, and should not be confused, neither in their origins, nor in their nature, nor above all in their actors (who do not jump from one to the other), the proximity of these ‘grey areas’ facilitates the coalescence of their effects and impacts, making the work of international and humanitarian organisations[12] and the reading of observers difficult.

Source: Dr M Izady/www.Gulf2000.Columbia.edu

  • Highlights of 10 years of protracted war

Despite the signing of a revitalised peace agreement and the formation of a so-called coalition government, insecurity persists in Southern Sudan. High levels of violence and trauma have resulted in an estimated 400,000 deaths,[13] highlighting the unresolved nature of the conflict. In spite of the Revitalised Conflict Resolution Agreement in South Sudan in 2018, armed violence remains at a high level and shows little sign of abating. The rate of violent events remains high, averaging 733 incidents per year since 2017.[14] Acts of violence in 2021 exceeded those of 2019 and 2020. The state of Central Equatoria has been a focal point for violence in recent years, experiencing 180 episodes per year, 25% of the national average. Nevertheless, a map of violent events in South Sudan highlights the scope of the violence. Jonglei, Unity, Lakes, Upper Nile, Western Equatoria, Eastern Equatoria and Warrap states have all seen significant fighting since 2018. Violence in South Sudan is also concentrated around the country’s main roads. These events highlight the strategic importance of roads in this vast territory. South Sudan has only 300 km of paved roads in a country of 650,000 km2, roughly the size of France. The concentration of violent events around transport networks also highlights the vulnerability of people and goods on the roads. Each violent event therefore increases the insecurity and isolation of populations whose movements are even more restricted.

The extent and persistence of violence in Southern Sudan is a key factor in the extraordinary levels of displacement. More than a third of the population, or about 4 million people, are displaced. However, the majority of these people are externally displaced, which is unusual in African conflicts since the displaced normally find refuge within the borders of their own countries. This reality has contributed to South Sudan’s notorious distinction of having more refugees among its citizens than any other country in Africa. Since 2018, more attacks on civilians have occurred than battles between combatants. These persistent threats to the safety of civilians prevent them from returning home. The 2.3 million refugees represent a particularly heavy toll on South Sudan’s neighbours, who find themselves forced to host these displaced populations for many years. Uganda hosts almost one million South Sudanese refugees, the largest refugee population in Africa. Sudan follows closely behind, hosting almost 800,000 refugees.[15]

The proportion of the population of South Sudan facing acute food insecurity has been steadily increasing since 2013, when the civil war began. Today, more than 6.5 million people, or 63% of the population, are acutely food insecure, and more than 100,000 are facing famine (Phase 5).[16] These sustained high levels of food insecurity in Southern Sudan are a direct consequence of the political violence. With their displacement, the Southern Sudanese have lost their livelihoods. The violence has also interrupted planting, harvesting, food transport and the functioning of markets. The central and north-eastern states of Southern Sudan, including Jonglei, Pibor, Warrap and Upper Nile, are the most food insecure. These areas are also the site of conflict and disruption due to restrictions on food transport and access to food aid. The north-eastern states are particularly isolated as they are only served by one main road. The region is also particularly vulnerable to flooding, further amplifying the disruptions to food systems caused by the violence.


The conflict, marked by ethnic atrocities including killings and rapes, has left more than 380,000 people dead in six years alone[17] and caused a severe humanitarian crisis. The establishment of the Government of National Unity follows months of international pressure, particularly from Washington, which welcomed on 20 February 2020 the “strong commitment made by Dr. Machar,” the First Vice-President. In essence, it is a kind of power-sharing whose goal is the immediate cessation of fighting to promote the resumption of hydrocarbon exports.[18] Since the outbreak of war in December 2013, the South Sudan government has given significant financial incentives and monetary rewards to various armed groups and individual commanders in response to their willingness to fight against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO). Political alliances have often realigned at the speed of a marketplace transaction. This has prompted allegations that the government has been seeking to purchase loyalty. These political marketplace transactions have not been limited to government politics, as the SPLA-IO has also been accused of using promises of money to buy loyalties.[19]

The United States, the main donor to the young African state, provides Juba with about a billion dollars a year, mainly in humanitarian aid. “The international community provides food, medicine and all the basic necessities that governments are normally responsible for. They are basically doing nothing,” said Tibor Nagy, the former US State Department’s Africa desk officer.

However, trust in the elites has a downside in that they can skilfully initiate and orchestrate ethnic conflicts or tensions for individualistic purposes, and maintain political patronage among themselves at the expense of the real interests of the masses they claim to represent at the national level. This trust also runs the risk of crystallising Barth’s ethnic boundaries[20] and making identities constructed by elites to maintain and justify pseudo-regional claims politically paramount. The de facto mutual veto power that power-sharing confers on the belligerents negates democracy per se and paralyses the political decision-making process. The merit of power-sharing lies in this politically pragmatic arrangement for the establishment of a relative peace.


[1]“South Sudan Crisis Fact Sheet #15.” USAID, January 13, 2013, https://www.usaid.gov/crisis/south-sudan/fy14/fs15.

[2] James Copnall, “Ethnic Militias and the Shrinking State: South Sudan’s Dangerous Path,” African Arguments, August 21, 2014, https://bit.ly/3qJXEsk.

[3] African Development Bank Group, South Sudan: An Infrastructure Action Plan, 2013, https://bit.ly/3LqyWFl.

[4] Aaron Maasho, “South Sudan’s President, Rebel Leader Sign Peace Deal,” Reuters,  September 12, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southsudan-unrest-idUSKCN1LS2PW.

[5] Johan Brosché  and Kristine Höglund, “Crisis of Governance in South Sudan: Electoral Politics and Violence in the World’s Newest Nation,” Journal of Modern African Studies 54, no. 1 (February 2016), pp. 67-90, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022278X15000828.

[6] “Kenya Envoy in South Sudan to Push for Peace Implementation,” The East African, August 9, 2019,


[7] Henry R. Nau, Perspectives on International Relations: Power, Institutions, and Ideas (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2021).

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Ethiopian Opposition Leader Denies Supporting South Sudan against Rebels,” Humanitarian Response, April 6, 2015, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/ethiopia/article/ethiopian-opposition-leader-denies-supporting-south-sudan-against-rebels.

[10] The Sentry, The Taking of South Sudan, September 2019, https://cdn.thesentry.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/TakingOfSouthSudan-Sept2019-TheSentry.pdf.

[11] Lesley Anne Warner, “South Sudan Oil Town Changes Hands for Fourth Time. Why?” The Christian Science Monitor, May 5, 2014, https://bit.ly/3uEnSxs.

[12] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Annual report 2014, May 19, 2015, https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/OCHA_AR_Flipbook_Low2014_0.pdf.

[13] Council on Foreign Relations, Global Conflict Tracker: Civil War in South Sudan, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/civil-war-south-sudan.

[14] “10 Years after Independence South Sudan Faces Persistent Crisis,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, September 13, 2021,  https://africacenter.org/spotlight/10-years-after-independence-south-sudan-faces-persistent-crisis/.

[15] The UN Refugee Agency, South Sudan Refugee Crisis, https://www.unrefugees.org/emergencies/south-sudan.

[16] World food Programme, South Sudan,  https://www.wfp.org/countries/south-sudan.

[17] Council on Foreign Relations, Global Conflict Tracker: Civil War in South Sudan, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/civil-war-south-sudan.

[18] “South Sudan Rivals Salva Kiir and Riek Machar Strike Unity Deal,” BBC News, February 22, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51562367.

[19] An unpublished work by Alan Boswell on the wars in the Equatorias has documented how the 2015 peace agreement allowed the SPLA-IO to promise future salaries in exchange for loyalty to the SPLA-IO.

[20] Barth’s view is that ethnic groups “are not discontinuous cultural isolates, or logical a prioris to which people naturally belong.” Further information at:  https://www.bu.edu/anthrop/profile/frederik-barth/

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