What’s behind the violence in South Sudan?

January 6, 2014

Lee Wengraf provides the background to understand the crisis gripping South Sudan.

SOUTH SUDAN is hovering on the brink of civil war and humanitarian crisis.

Fighting broke out on December 15 in Juba, the capital of this newest African nation, which split from Sudan following a 2011 referendum.

The violence spilled over from a simmering conflict between South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar, who was removed from power in July along with the rest of the cabinet. It began with skirmishes between sections of the Presidential Guard and quickly reverberated beyond.

Kiir claims Machar attempted to stage a coup, which Machar denies. Earlier in the month, Machar accused Kiir of dictatorship. Fears abound that the conflict will descend into ethnic warfare between followers of Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Machar's Nuer supporters. Those fears were dramatized by a massacre of 2,000 Nuer in Juba. Retaliatory killings of Dinka in areas controlled by Machar's forces have likewise been reported.

Fighting between the national army, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and supporters of Machar spread northward from Juba to the towns of Bor and Bentiu, located in the strategically critical oil-producing region near the border with Sudan. A buildup of SPLA troops outside rebel-held cities threatens to unleash a full-blown civil war as the government attempts to regain control.

Refugees flee the intensifying violence in South Sudan
Refugees flee the intensifying violence in South Sudan (Roman Majcher)


ADDING TO the instability is the fragmentation of military forces that existed in years before the referendum establishing South Sudan. As the Guardian wrote:

While demobilization and disarmament schemes were announced, for much of the time between 2005 and the referendum, governing consisted of farming out oil and aid money to civil war-era military commanders in order to keep the peace. Little was done to break up old units and forge a truly national army. The SPLA had become a big tent into which armed ethnic militias with no uniform, training or shared identity had wandered in order to get paid.

Thus, the current mobilizations on the basis of ethnicity are underpinned by the crumbling of weak multiethnic national institutions. As Sudan experts Adreas Hirblinger and Sara de Simone wrote in late December:

Attempts to create a decentralized system of governance based on democratic principles have in many places created tensions between different ethnic communities, which perceive access to government services as well as political representation at the local level of government more often than not through an ethnic lens.... The threat of ethnic conflict is used by both sides as a strategy to legitimize the crackdown on the alleged perpetrators of violence.

On January 3, President Obama announced the evacuation of U.S. personnel and suspension of all consular services in the country. Several dozen recently arrived Marines currently guard the U.S. Embassy in Juba.

Last month, three U.S. aircraft came under fire during an aborted attempt to airlift U.S. citizens out of the country. Four Navy SEALs were wounded, prompting a stern warning from the Obama administration. "Any effort to seize power through the use of military force will result in the end of longstanding support from the United States and the international community," the White House said in a statement. More than 100 Marines were moved into position nearby for a potentially rapid deployment.

The Obama administration played a key role in supporting South Sudan's 2011 secession from the north. Its goal was to secure a friendly government in an oil-rich area. The possible breakup of the state threatens U.S. attempts to build its influence in the region.


HUNDREDS OF thousands of South Sudanese face a humanitarian disaster. The United Nations reports that 1,000 people have been killed--the real number is probably higher.

An estimated 200,000 people have been displaced. Tens of thousands have sought shelter in UN camps, and aid organizations are struggling to gain access to those in need. Approximately 75,000 refugees have gathered across the Nile River from Bor in makeshift camps, threatening a deterioration of deadly health conditions.

In neighboring Uganda, Mohamed Adar, the representative of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the country, described the unfolding crisis: "It's a very fast-moving and dynamic situation. We are experiencing significant spike of refugees fleeing the fighting in South Sudan. We are now receiving about 1,000 people per day. We expect to surpass 10,000 by [early January]."

"There is no clean drinking water," David Nash of the medical charity Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) told the BBC. "People are drinking water straight out of the river Nile. And there are no latrines, so open defecation is happening. Conditions for an outbreak of watery diarrhea are perfect."

South Sudan already suffered massive poverty before the latest fighting broke out. In the state of Unity, the leading oil producer among the country's 10 states, almost half of all children are malnourished. Just 2 percent of households have water on the premises. Some 80 percent of the population is illiterate, and more than 50 percent live below the poverty line.

These living conditions for the vast majority are a stark contrast to the untapped oil wealth that lies beneath the ground. South Sudan is thought to have Africa's third-largest oil reserves, after Angola and Nigeria. Oil revenues account for 98 percent of South Sudan's budget, making it arguably the most oil-dependent country in the world.

Disputes over access to oil drove the two-decade civil war in the formerly united Sudan: Most of the oil lies in the South, but the refineries and pipelines to transport it out of the landlocked country flow through Sudan. This conflict continued to drive fighting, even after independence.


A CIVIL war in South Sudan threatens to drag the country's East African neighbors into the conflict--another reason for the heightened concern of U.S. officials.

Looking to shore up its buffer zone with Sudan, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a close ally of the U.S., announced his country's decision to send troops into South Sudan in mid-December.

To the north of South Sudan, Sudan has its own fears about disruption in the oilfields of the region. Sudan faces an internal crisis resulting from continued rebellions in Darfur and the oil states of Blue Nile and Kordofan. Rebel forces in these conflicts have ties to both South Sudan and Uganda. Tens of thousands of refugees, mainly Dinka, have poured into South Sudan as a consequence of these conflicts.

South Sudan's secession created a massive economic crisis in the north by taking away 75 percent of Sudanese oil, the country's main source of foreign currency. As East Africa expert Alex De Waal described, this "required the [Sudanese] government to undertake painful austerity measures. Shut off from access to the IMF and other international concessionary finance by U.S. financial sanctions, and encumbered by more than $40 billion in international debt, Sudan had to face this economic crunch alone."

Moreover, Sudan's problems have been reinforced by the factional conflict in newly independent South Sudan. According to the think tank Stratfor in mid-December:

Cooperation in the oil sector is the only sustainable option for both [South Sudan and Sudan] to guarantee meaningful and ongoing revenues...In the past, [Sudanese President Omar al] Bashir has accused South Sudan of supporting Sudanese rebel groups, leading to a dispute over oil exports. At the time, there was some speculation that Machar and others had in fact been supporting the rebel groups to undermine Kiir's authority as well as his ability to placate Bashir and get oil production back online. Continued competition between these separate factions in South Sudan could lead to a repeat of these events.

The Guardian recently made a similar point:

Until this new crisis erupted, international engagement was focused on the border issues with Sudan and encouraging Kiir to reconcile with his former enemy, President al-Bashir of Sudan. The unintended consequence of this strategy was to increase internal tensions within the party of government in South Sudan, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

On top of the external pressure from Uganda and South Sudan, Sudan is dealing with the consequences of a massive diversion of the Nile River when Ethiopia completed a new dam in May--this threatens to disrupt water supplies in both Sudan and Egypt.


MUCH IS at stake for Obama in the South Sudan conflict. South Sudan's independence was seen as one of the few visible successes of the administration's policy in Africa.

Pressure is mounting for Obama to do something before South Sudan becomes the next failed African state. "Humanitarian hawk" Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has been lobbying behind the scenes for an increase in UN troops deployed to the region.

On January 3, the administration pledged an additional $49.8 million in humanitarian aid to assist the refugee crisis. The emergency aid, however, pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions spent on military assistance.

Understanding the importance of South Sudan for the U.S. requires recognizing the growing value of the region and the continent for American foreign policy overall. East Africa is geostrategically critical, both with regards to competition over oil resources and to the Obama administration's anti-terror agenda.

Uganda under Museveni is a lynchpin to U.S. aims in the region. It has been a willing supplier of African Union troops to back up a U.S.-supported government in Somalia. The U.S. also provides large amounts of military aid to Kenya and Ethiopia, the location of a drone base.

Vast tracts of oil have been discovered in Uganda, but they have not been procured. Thus, South Sudan's importance is that much greater, especially with Washington's imperial arch-rival, China, leading the way in South Sudan's oil production. In addition to China's National Petroleum Corp., India's ONGC Videsh and Malaysia's Petronas are the other main firms running the oilfields, although the French multinational Total has exploration concessions in the area.

According to the International Crisis Group:

South Sudan is very much "open for business", actively seeking foreign direct investment from West, East, and everywhere in between. Historical ties may be strongest with the West, but Juba has made clear that if the Chinese are first to come and partner in developing the new nation, they will not hesitate to welcome them.

Thus, the U.S. faces a delicate balancing act with South Sudan, as former Africa Action executive director Nii Akuetteh explained on the Pambazuka website:

The U.S. would love to get rid of Bashir and get some more compliant person in Khartoum, and...they definitely would like it if they were the big recipient of the oil instead of the Chinese. [T]he other thing that is important to the U.S. is to build up South Sudan as a strong, self-reliant, rich country because it has a lot of oil. The U.S. has a number of dictators in the region that are its friends--Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and even the Kenyans. So it doesn't sound credible or smart to me that the Obama administration's policy would be to destabilize the area, because if they do, the country that they support, South Sudan, is likely to lose that war.

The intensifying rivalries between international and regional powers explains the presence of U.S. troops in Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan and Washington's rapidly expanding network of bases. Together, these represent a major escalation of the U.S. military presence on the continent. According to Nick Turse writing at TomDispatch, "[R]ecent U.S. military involvement [entails] no fewer than 49 African nations...While AFRICOM commander David Rodriguez maintains that the U.S. has only a 'small footprint' on the continent, following those small footprints across the continent can be a breathtaking task."

AFRICOM's funding has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching $836 million between 2010 and 2012. As Turse wrote for Huffington Post, "After 10 years of U.S. operations to promote stability by military means, the results have been the opposite. Africa has become blowback central."

With this escalating militarization of the region, it's clear that U.S. and Western actions are driven by strategic interests--while ordinary people in the region pay the price.

Thus, fears run high about the threat of further violence and suffering. As 51-year old Nuer refugee Peter Bey told the Guardian, "We see from history that the UN has left people behind before in Rwanda. They put their own people on helicopters and left the people who died."

Over the weekend, U.S. and UN officials were overseeing peace talks in Ethiopia, but reported little progress. But whether or not a negotiated settlement is reached in this round, the long-term prospects for renewed fighting and perpetual nightmare for the South Sudanese will remain as long as the drive for control over oil resources and geopolitical rivalries continue.

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