South Sudan: Three Circles of Threat

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011, following the 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war. An overwhelming majority of South Sudanese voted in a January 2011 referendum to secede and become Africa’s first new country since Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1993.

The new nation, that benefit from inheriting the bulk of Sudan’s oil wealth, is however far from being stable and concerns are growing due to the ongoing disputes with Khartoum, tribal unrest and a lack of economic development that could undermine its future as well posing threat to regional security.

South Sudan: origin, civil war and independence

Formed from 10 states, South Sudan is a land of expansive grassland, swamps and tropical rain forest straddling both banks of the White Nile. It is highly diverse ethnically and linguistically. Among the largest ethnic groups are the Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk. Unlike the predominantly Muslim population of Sudan, the South Sudanese follow traditional religions, while a minority are Christians.

Until 1946, the British government, in collaboration with the Egyptian government administered south Sudan and north Sudan as separate regions. The south was held to be more similar to the other east-African colonies, such as Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda, while northern Sudan was more similar to Arabic-speaking Egypt. Northern Arabs were prevented from holding positions of power in the Catholic-dominated south, and trade was discouraged between the two areas. However, in 1946, the British decided to integrate the two areas following pressure from the North. Arabic was made the language of administration in the south, and northerners began to hold positions there. The southern élite, trained in English, resented the change as they were kept out of their own government.

After the February 1953 agreement by the United Kingdom and Egypt to grant independence to Sudan, the internal tensions over the nature of the relationship north-south were heightened. The British move towards granting Sudan independence failed to consider southern needs: Southern Sudanese leaders weren’t even invited to negotiations during the transitional period in the 1950s.

As the 1 January 1956 independence day approached, it appeared that northern leaders were backing away from commitments to create a federal government that would give the south substantial autonomy. This paved the way from the beginning of the long period of civil wars.

The First Sudanese Civil War (also known as the Anyanya rebellion or Anyanya I, after the name of the rebels) started in 1955 when the southern Sudan region demanded representation and more regional autonomy. For seventeen years, the Sudanese government fought the Anyanya rebel army. In 1971, former army Lt. Joseph Lagu gathered all the guerilla bands under his South Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM). This was the first time in the history of the war that the separatist movement had a unified command structure to fulfill the objectives of secession and the formation of an independent state in South Sudan. It was also the first organization that could claim to speak for, and negotiate on behalf of, the entire south. Mediation between the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) eventually led to the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement in 1972, which established the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region. At the end of the war, half a million people died over 17 years.

However, the agreement that ended the First Sudanese Civil War’s fighting in 1972 failed to resolve the tensions that had originally caused it, leading to a reigniting of the north-south conflict during the Second Sudanese Civil War, which lasted from 1983 to 2005. Along tensions generated by the failed application of more religious and cultural autonomy to the south, another factor in the second war were the natural resources of Sudan, particularly in the South, where there are significant oil fields.

In 1983, President of Sudan Gaafar Nimeiry declared all Sudan an Islamic state under Shari’a law, including the non-Islamic majority southern region. The Southern Sudan Autonomous Region was abolished on 5 June 1983, ending the Addis Ababa Agreement. In direct response to this, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) was formed under the leadership of John Garang , to reestablish an autonomous Southern Sudan by fighting against the central government. While based in Southern Sudan, it identified itself as a movement for all oppressed Sudanese citizens campaigned for a “United Sudan”, criticizing the central government for policies that were leading to national “disintegration”.

This war lasted for twenty-two years, until 2005, becoming the longest civil war in Africa. In 2005, Comprehensive Peace Agreement, mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), was signed in Nairobi and autonomous Government of Southern Sudan was formed.

Nearly two million people have died as a result of war, famine and disease caused by the conflict.

From 9–15 January 2011 people from South Sudan voted on whether they should break away from Sudan and declare independence. On 30 January 2011, the results had shown that 98.83% of the population had voted for independence from Sudan. At midnight on 9 July 2011, South Sudan became an independent country under the name Republic of South Sudan. On 14 July 2011, South Sudan became the 193rd member state of the United Nations. On 28 July 2011, South Sudan joined the African Union as its 54th member state.

South Sudan independence was welcomed as the final act of a bloody history of wars between north and south, and with the hope that finally peace could be restored in the region. However, soon appear clear that this was just an illusion or simply a desperate tentative to ignore the reality. South Sudan is a centre of instability and is sitting in central position of three concentric circles: internal, external and regional. The circles respectively represent: the tribal tensions inside the new state, the dispute over the border and a possible new conflict with North Sudan and the regional instability.

The internal circle: Tribal tensions

Alongside the North Sudan issue and rivalry, several disputes continue to undermine the stability of the new state. Inside South Sudan, a cattle-raiding feud between rival ethnic groups in Jonglei state has left hundreds of people dead and some 100,000 displaced since independence. And several rebel forces opposed to the SPLM-dominated government have emerged, including the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) of Peter Gadet and a force led former SPLA general George Athor. Juba says these forces are funded by Sudan, which denies the accusation. South Sudan is currently at war with at least seven armed groups and, according to UN figures, the various conflicts affect nine of its ten states, with tens of thousands displaced. The fighters accuse the government of plotting to stay in power indefinitely, not fairly representing and supporting all tribal groups while neglecting development in rural areas. Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) also operates in a wide area that includes South Sudan.

In the SPLA/M’s attempt to disarm rebellions among the Shilluk and Murle, they burned scores of villages, raped hundreds of women and girls and killed an untold number of civilians. Civilians alleging torture claim fingernails been torn out, burning plastic bags dripped on children to make their parents hand over weapons and villagers burned alive in their huts if rebels were suspected of spending the night there. In May 2011, the SPLA allegedly set fire to over 7,000 homes in Unity State. The UN reports many of these violations and the frustrated director of one Juba-based international aid agency calls them “human rights abuses off the Richter scale”.

In 2010, the CIA issued a warning that “over the next five years, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan.” Inter-ethnic fighting intensified in 2011 in Jonglei state between the Nuer White Army of the Lou Nuer and the Murle.  The White Army warned it would also fight South Sudanese and UN forces. The White Army released a statement, to “wipe out the entire Murle tribe on the face of the earth as the only solution to guarantee long-term security of Nuer’s cattle.” Activists, including Minority Rights Group International, warn of genocide in the current Jonglei conflict.

The external circle: North-Sud war

Tension still remain with Sudan, such as sharing of the oil revenues, as an estimated 80% of the oil in both Sudan is from South Sudan, which would represent amazing economic potential for one of the world’s most deprived areas. The region of Abyei still remains disputed and a separate referendum is due to be held in Abyei on whether they want to join North or South Sudan.

Long based on subsistence agriculture, South Sudan’s economy is now highly oil-dependent. While an estimated 75% of all the former Sudan’s oil reserves are in South Sudan, the refineries and the pipeline to the Red Sea are in Sudan.

Under the 2005 accord, South Sudan received 50% of the former united Sudan’s oil proceeds, which provide the vast bulk of the country’s budget. However, that arrangement was set to expire with independence.

In January 2012, the breakdown of talks on the sharing of oil revenues led South Sudan to halt oil production and halve public spending on all but salaries.

Despite the potential oil wealth, South Sudan is one of Africa’s least developed countries. However, the years since the 2005 peace accord ushered in an economic revival and investment in utilities and other infrastructure.

Following new disputes on the border, an armed conflict erupted between the two nations of South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan.

Relations between the two states have been marked by conflict over the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline and the disputed region of Abyei, even though Sudan was the first state to recognise South Sudan. In January 2012, South Sudan shut down all of its oil fields in a row over the fees Sudan demanded to transit the oil.

In May 2011, it was reported that Sudan had seized control of Abyei, a disputed oil-rich border region, with a force of approximately 5,000 soldiers after three days of clashes with South Sudanese forces. The precipitating factor was an ambush by the South killing 22 northern soldiers. The northern advance included shelling, aerial bombardment, and numerous tanks. Initial reports indicated that over 20,000 people fled. The interim South Sudanese government declared this as an “act of war,” and the United Nations sent an envoy to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, to intervene. South Sudan says it has withdrawn its forces from Abyei. A deal on militarization was reached on 20 June 2011. The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei, consisting of Ethiopian troops were deployed under a UNSC resolution from 27 June 2011. In early December 2011, Jau, a town in Unity state in South Sudan, was occupied by Sudanese forces. In early March 2012, the Sudanese Air Force bombed parts of Pariang county.

Both countries accuse the other of supporting rebels on their soil as part of the ongoing internal conflict in Sudan and internal conflict in South Sudan.

The President of the Republic of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, suspended a planned visit to South Sudan after the conflict broke out. Sudan began a general mobilisation of its armed forces as South Sudanese forces penetrated as far north as 70 kilometres into Sudanese territory, according to Rahmatullah Mohamed Osman, Under Secretary for the Foreign Ministry of Sudan. Vice President Al-Haj Adam of Sudan formally declared that a state of war existed between the two countries late on 11 April and declared that all negotiations between the two states were on hold.

On 16 April, Sudan’s parliament met and voted unanimously to declare that “South Sudan is an enemy of all Sudanese state agencies”. The parliamentary speaker called for Sudan to mobilise all its resources to fight South Sudan and topple their government. Rabie Abdelaty, a spokesman for the Khartoum government, ruled out peace talks with the south, saying it would hurt national pride if Sudan did not take back Heglig by force.

The President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, suggested that the Republic of Sudan was responsible for initiating the conflict, and that further clashes could lead to war: “This morning the Sudanese air force came and bombed areas in Unity state. After this intensive bombardment our forces were attacked by the Sudanese military and militia.” It is a war that has been imposed on us again, but it is [the Sudanese] who are looking for it.” The spokesman for the South Sudanese military suggested that the conflict was “the biggest confrontation since independence”.

South Sudan’s Parliament met, with the speaker calling on the people to prepare for war: “Khartoum might be meaning a real war … if you don’t defend yourself, you will be finished, so you should go and mobilise the people on [the] ground to be ready”

In Juba, South Sudan’s parliament decided to rise military spending and bolster the army by cutting salaries of all deputies by 10 percent for three months.

In case of conflict what will be the current position, strength and options for the two countries? The Sudanese Army is equipped with predominantly Chinese and Soviet-made weapons while Armed Forces of South Sudan weapons vary, having few vehicles and mostly small arms and no air force. On a chart, Sudan military strength is superior; however, as demonstrated after nearly 50 years of wars, South Sudan has shown resilience and could be still able to resist a Sudan attack. Although Sudan has the advantage of the air force and more heavy weapons, both countries will have difficulties in financing this war. As it happened for the long civil war, this will mean an inevitable request for support from outside. This request will open the way for the risk to an enlargement of the conflict.

Another element of risk for both countries is that rebels in both Sudan can be a valid support to carry actions in the enemy field, thus destabilising the opposite government.

The last circle: regional instability

Two elements will support the extension of the Sudanese conflict in the region: history and the regional outlook. Looking back at the civil war period, as well at the map, it appears clear that an eventual war between the two Sudan will have repercussions in all sub-Saharan Africa.

On an international side, both countries could manage to have some sort of support. Sudan has received assistance from Iran, as well other Muslim countries, Egypt above all and Libya in the past. Russia, that used to be a supporter of African revolutions during the cold war, has now different plans and are not Africa-related. Sudan was backed by Soviet Union at least until Moscow then decide to put all is chances on the Ethiopia of Menghistu. That left space for the US to support Sudan at least until the Gulf War of 1991, when the Sudanese approval for Saddam Hussein severed forever the relations between the two countries.

Since the end of the cold war, and even in recent times, the international scenario changed around Sudan; if on one side the US are the main big power against Khartoum, on the other they can still count on the Arab world. Latest developments in Libya and Egypt, that replaced the regimes of Gaddafi and Mubarak traditional allies of Khartoum, will not have great consequences. The new governments will have likely an islamist majority and the mood in both countries is for a more active policy towards Muslim world, meaning that they will back Khartoum without hesitation. This is not only because of common ground of religion but especially because South Sudan can count on two major antagonists of the Arab world: US and Israel. Khartoum therefore will easily obtain support from Tripoli, Cairo, as well Iran and other Arab countries, plus the non-interference of Russia that has now abandoned African hegemony plans. Except US, the only other big power with interests in Africa is China, but also their plans are different if compared with the past; from ideological opposition to soviet influence, Beijing is now more interested in financial and economic development in the continent and a war will be seen as an obstacle rather than an opportunity. The above will suggest that big powers will move only with regard a point, secure the resources and on this south Sudan will obtain a strong diplomatic support from the west.

However, this leave the regional powers directly involved in the eventual war, and the destabilization of the area, that commenced with the Libyan civil war, will have effects also in Sudan. The war could be easily presented as religious based, as well as tribal, and the recent influx of armament in Libya has already shown deadly effects in the recent escalating violence in Mali and Nigeria. A war in Sudan, backed by Muslim countries, will attract also in the circle Chad, where the Darfur issue is far from be resolved, as well involving Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. Ethiopia and Eritrea were in the past traditional supporters of south Sudan, and they could resume assistance in case of war. However, they are also far from being solid and peaceful countries and a war between the two could restart easily. Uganda’s involvement would be principally due to the presence of the LRA in south Sudan, whilst the religious character of the conflict could easily involve terrorist organisation as Al Shahab in Somalia to destabilize the Horn of Africa.

In this scenario, we can easily understand why the solution of the independence, that at the time was seen as the only way out, is starting to follow the Ethiopia-Eritrea legacy. By giving independence, western countries and especially the AU thought to eradicate a source of instability or conflict, in reality the new entities soon used the new powers and independence to get revenge. The AU is now on a very difficult position; having since its constitution backed a protection of the colonial borders and of the state as born from independence. AU agreed to an exception with Eritrea and this second case is showing more sinister results, especially after the recent proclamation of Azawad and the risk of balkanisation of the African continent. The balkanisation has always been the principal concern of the AU, conscious that tribal, ethnic and religious disputes could easily inflame the whole continent posing a risk for every single country. The other problem for the AU is that whilst the West does not have usually an intervention policy for Africa (a difference of Middle East), the bulk of a peacekeeping force is left to the Africans. However, most of the time they put together a peacekeeping force whose composition sometimes will generate hostility from population rather than joy and support.

South Sudan is at the centre of these three main circles, the joy and hope that accompanied the born of the new state have gone now, leaving the way to the usual, tiring and bloody motif of African politics: tribalism, religion, economic interests. These will destroy not only the countries involved but will inflame the whole sub-Saharan Africa area as easily as throwing a cigarette in a sea of petrol.


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