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Case Analysis 27 January, 2014

The Conflict in South Sudan: Background and Likely Consequences


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

On December 15, 2013, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit announced that an attempted coup had been staged by his dismissed vice president Riek Machar and some of his supporters. Right after this announcement, armed conflict broke out in the nation’s capital Juba and rapidly spread to others, including Bor, capital of Jonglei; Bentiu in the oil-producing Unity state; and Malakal, capital of the Upper Nile state. South Sudan thus entered into a full-blown confrontation, complicated by conflicts over power, wealth, and tribal divisions.


In July 2013, President Salva Kiir removed his vice-president Riek Machar and all members of the government in a sweeping cabinet reshuffle. In a separate decision, Pagan Amum, secretary-general of South Sudan’s ruling party the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), was chastised for publicly criticizing the government’s performance. These decisions came as a result of an internal power struggle among the leadership of the SPLM that had been building since July 2005, shortly after the death of the movement’s leader John Garang in a suspicious helicopter crash.

Conflicts among the South’s leadership surfaced following Machar’s dismissal, when he announced his intention to run for president in the 2015 elections. Machar was supported by a number of former officials who had been sacked by President Kiir, including Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the SPLM; Deng Alor, Sudanese minister of state for foreign affairs before partition; and Rebecca Garang, widow of the movement’s founder John Garang.

On November 10, 2013, The Sudan Telegraph, an English-language newspaper, reported that a meeting of the South Sudanese leadership would take place from November 23-25 to make long overdue decisions on fundamental issues, including the constitution. President Salva Kiir’s opponents have continued to accuse him of tailoring the constitution to concentrate power in his hands, and claim that he is rapidly turning into a dictator with absolute power. On the basis of party rules, elections should be held every five years, but have been delayed since April 2010. Those criticizing President Kiir and his government’s performance began spearheading a drive within the party to change its leadership, as well as the government’s, through tactical political action alongside a media campaign, both of which should focus on how Kiir is running a security state and restricting freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Conflict among the Southern Tribes

South Sudan is a home to dozens of tribes that derive from three main groups. The largest is the Nilotic group, representing 65 percent of the population and the tribes with the greatest political influence. Within this group, the Dinka—President Kiir’s tribe—make up 40 percent, and the Nuer—the second major group and former vice-president Riek Machar’s tribe, accounts for about 20 percent. Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the SPLM, and Lam Akol Ajawin, one of the historical leaders, belong to the Shilluk, which represents 5 percent of the population. Ajawin disagreed with John Garang, and became an ally of Khartoum, where he lived until the SPLM split. He only recently returned to Juba after having received assurances.

In 1984, during the civil war between north and south and following the collapse of the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement, Riek Machar joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the SPLM’s military wing. In 1991, he led an uprising within the SPLA after he and others, including Lam Akol, disagreed with Garang’s desire to maintain the unity of Sudan. Machar and his supporters were in favor of complete secession. As a result, a bloody conflict ensued, causing more casualties than all the wars between the North and South. In 1997, Machar made an agreement with the Khartoum government. The agreement enabled President al-Bashir’s regime to use Machar’s forces to secure the oil fields in the war-stricken areas, and in doing so, weakened the SPLA. However, Machar returned to Garang’s movement a few years later, and after Garang’s death, he was chosen as Kiir’s vice president.

Likely Consequences of the Conflict

Even though both sides have agreed to meet for talks in Addis Ababa as a result of regional and international pressures, armed clashes have been ongoing for the last two weeks, and the rebels have recaptured Bor, Jonglei’s state capital, from the government’s army. President Kiir agreed to negotiations without preconditions, and released eight of the eleven officials detained in the aftermath of the proclaimed military coup.

In light of the most recent confrontations, it is clear that the rebels’ two main objectives are the oil fields and securing a military presence on the ground. Should the South split into more than one state, the oil fields would become the controlling party’s economic pillar. This is particularly important as oil is the only revenue source for the Republic of South Sudan, making political concessions over the control of the oil fields key to any negotiations. Currently, Machar’s forces are in control of strategic areas, strengthening their negotiating position. The present conflict shows that two centers of power exist in South Sudan, regardless of the outcome of any negotiations. As a result, the structure of the South Sudanese state will continue to be drawn on tribal lines.

This assessment is confirmed by the speed with which President Kiir sought assistance from neighboring states, such as Uganda—which threatened to intervene to prevent the president’s forced removal—after the rebels exposed his military’s weakness. It appears, then, that negotiations will take place to simultaneously maintain Kiir’s government and grant some of the rebels’ demands.

The Effects on Sudan

The South’s secession had a major impact on the North’s economy, with the loss of more than 70 percent of its oil revenues. To meet the resulting annual budget deficit, Sudan relied on transit fees imposed on the South’s oil, estimated at two US billion dollars. The importance of this revenue was confirmed when President al-Bashir stopped the flow of the South’s oil across the North’s territory in retaliation for the South’s support for the rebel movements in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile state. An economic crisis ensued wherein the value of the Sudanese pound fell sharply against the US dollar, reaching only 13 percent of its former value. The economic downturn and budget deficit pushed the Sudanese government to remove fuel subsidies, leading to the outbreak of wide-scale protests in September 2013, which the authorities put down after the deaths of hundreds of people.

Sudan will most likely experience further economic difficulties as the South’s conflict could halt the flow of oil. It will be difficult for the government to take any economic measures to meet the deficit, such as imposing additional taxes, after the latest protests. Additionally, the Sudanese government cannot seek Arab financial aid as a result of its controversial foreign policy and alignments. 

Furthermore, the conflict over the oil fields in the Unity and Upper Nile states, both of which have long borders with Sudan, could lead to the flow of large number of refugees into Sudan. This will create financial, logistical, and security burdens on the Sudanese government that it will be unable to cope with. Instability in the border regions will also have a negative effect on border trade, which benefits both countries.

Lastly, the border regions have witnessed considerable tension between the North and the South over the past year, with armed clashes occurring in the Abyei region, in addition to the South Sudanese Army’s attack on Sudanese oil facilities at Heglig. The Sudanese government also accused South Sudan of backing the revolutionary front fighting the Khartoum government in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, which also led to a serious economic downturn in the North and South. However, the South was more affected because of its economic vulnerability. After several rounds of talks, however, the two came to an agreement and the flow of oil resumed. After this crisis, President Kiir developed a more realistic and understanding position regarding the North; his opponents, Pagan Amum and Deng Alor in particular, however, have adopted a more hardline stance.

International and Regional Perspectives

South Sudan represents a confluence of interests for the US, Europe, and China. For the US, South Sudan holds special geostrategic importance, especially following the creation of the US Africa Command AFRICOM. At the same time, the presence of Chinese companies in the region represents an economic challenge for the Americans, who seem interested in investment opportunities in agriculture, mining, and forestry. Before the secession, the Sudanese government held long-term contracts with China that prevented it from gaining a foothold in the South’s vital oil industry. The British also have interests by virtue of having been the colonial power in Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya. All of these parties, along with their regional partners, are now moving fast to contain the situation in South Sudan before it spirals out of control. Neighboring states, such as the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, are concerned as they are witnessing unrest on their own soil. Additionally, the outbreak of a new civil war in South Sudan would have significant effects on its neighbors Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, as they each have growing economic interests in the country. Hence, these regional and international parties will exert substantial pressure to restore internal consensus and stability to South Sudan. They will also be keen to maintain the flow of the South’s oil since without the production and marketing of oil, the South will become a burden on the international community.

It is clear that South Sudan is facing its most serious crisis since coming into being two years ago; it also seems that the seeds of this crisis were inherent in its very existence. Separation, which was touted as a solution to centuries of dominance by the Arab and Muslim North over the Christian and African South, has not ended the problems of the nascent Southern state, thereby implying that the secessionist solution was not, in fact, the right choice. The solution was, and remains, tied to a state of citizens with equal rights and responsibilities. South Sudan does not need to undergo another long and bitter conflict to realize this fact.

**This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on January 2nd, 2014 can be found here.