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The Dynamics of 2013-Conflict in South Sudan

Dr. Faiz Omar Mohammad Jamie


 The paper analyses the dynamics of the 2013 conflict in South Sudan, reflecting on the root causes of the conflict within the ranks of SPLM/A the ruling body/actor in South Sudan. The paper explores how the conflict started as a political crisis at the political level among the power elite in Juba late 2013, but violence spilled all over the country, more or less along ethnic lines. The President did not spare time to request foreign intervention from Uganda, making things even worse for any possible de-escalation between and among different ethnic groups. The paper casts light on the level of humanitarian emergency that arose due to security constraints on food supplies, as a result of difficulties aid agencies face.  Finally the paper assesses peacemaking efforts initiated by different actors notably the African Union.



Sudan         South Sudan        Comprehensive Peace Agreement            secession                     



South Sudan the newest African country was added to the map of Africa in 2011, after a referendum on self-determination from mainland Sudan, following one of the longest violent conflicts in the continent (1955-2005). The Referendum was part and parcel of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (C.P.A), concluded between the two conflicting parties; government of Sudan (G.O.S.), on one hand, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (S.P.L.M.) on the other. The emergence of South Sudan as an independent country was a dream for many Southern Sudanese elite long before its realization, not to talk on the expectation of ordinary citizens who, all of a sudden, found themselves stuck amidst outright violence and war, between factions of the very elite who dreamed of an “independent country”.



Secession that took place in 2011 was a politically-driven event that had very little social roots. It was the second of its type in Africa, following secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia in the early 1990s.The difficulties that faced the newly independent South Sudan owe much to the necessary stages of nation-building rather than to state building processes. State structures need solid social foundations to rest on, otherwise they will fall apart


Needless to say that the pending issues waiting to be resolved/settled between the two countries, in the aftermath of secession, are still pending, six years later now (2017), new challenges are now emerging, in bad need to be addressed, for better and improved relations between the two neighboring countries.


Background on Current Conflict

Modern studies on peace and conflict confirm that regions in post-conflict situations are most likely exposed to return back to conflict. This is particularly so because peace deals and pacts arrived at after protracted conflicts and violence, often carry forward with them some unresolved issues, remaining from the near past of the conflict. This has happened after Naivash 2005, and they are now happening years after the secession.

SPLA/M was the movement that led the struggle for independence of South Sudan. After its establishment in the early 1980s the Movement managed to mobilize Southern Sudanese, and other Sudanese opposition parties to form an armed opposition front in Ethiopia. The overthrow of Mengestu Regime in Ethiopia shuttered that trend, and the new-born front faded away. The Movement resumed armed rebellion against Khartoum Government until 2005, when Government of Sudan concluded the C.P.A after 22 years of war between the m (Jamie,2007).

The C.P.A. was a bilateral agreement legislating for a power-sharing system of rule between the National Congress Party (N.C.P.) the ruling party on the one hand, and SPLM/A on the other. In consequence John Garang SPLM/A leader assumed power as First Vice-President of Sudan in 2005, with other ministerial posts allocated for the Movement. Some months later John Garang died in an air crash in South Sudan in a presidential plane that belongs to his friend Yuwrei Musevni President of Uganda (Jamie 2017).

 The sudden death of John Garang in 2005, the charismatic leader of SPLA/M, had undoubtedly affected coherence of leadership in the Movement. That was more real than apparent. The leader who succeeded Garang was his deputy, General Salva Kiir, though had promptly assumed power; it seems the far-reaching impacts of that loss were too serious for SPLA/M to easily overcome. Kiir remained leader of the Movement until after secession of South Sudan, when he became the first President appointing Dr. Riak Machar as Vice-President.

Kiir formed his first cabinet of the new-born oil-rich country, with high expectations on petroleum to make the necessary breakthrough improving lives of ordinary South Sudanese. Political bickering with Government of Sudan, led to shutting down of the national oil production six months after independence, where production of petroleum was suspended more than once. The issue was no more than a disagreement with Sudan, over cost of oil passing through pipeline across Sudanese soil to the Red Sea port. Whether that decision was rational or not could be understood in the light of the fact that; more than 80% of South Sudan government revenue depends on petroleum exported through Sudanese ports. The resulting situation is government failure to provide necessary and basic services for citizens. Therefore it goes without saying that, the situation is conducive to political unrest, in the form of riots in the streets of Juba calling for reunification of two Sudans.

What had further triggered the conflict was the declaration by Vice-President Dr. Riak Machar expressing his intension to run presidential election against President Kiir, after criticizing  the latter’s leadership and the managing of the economy. That declaration disclosed silent power struggle within the leadership of the SPLA/M as a ruling party, not being able to produce the institutional decision on who should run for presidency on behalf of the Movement. That led to a situation where the President Kiir suspended/froze the powers of Dr. Machar.

 Deterioration of situation continued to a point where the Vice President, Riek Machar was removed by the President in July 2013, apart from replacement of most cabinet members and suspension the SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amom. Replacement of long serving senior SPLM ministers with outsiders, including former National Congress Party (N.C.P.) members before secession. The sacked officials met on 6 December 2013 as an attempt to fight back within the party and in the public sphere through a press conference. Whereas, the long-delayed National Liberation Council (N.L.C.) meeting held on 14 December and during the very tense gathering, the President gained approval for the removal of the party Secretary General. The dismissed officials and their supporters boycotted the next day’s session.

The armed conflict began that evening on 15 December and most were arrested in the following days Fighting broke out on 15 December due to what was alleged as a coup against the Government of Kiir. It was obvious from the start that; leadership crisis within SPLM/A turned out progressively to have ethnic dimensions between the 2 largest groups in the Country, namely; the Dinka led by President Salva Kiir,and the Nuer  by his  former deputy, Riek Machar. Some analysts view the crisis as a ghost of the 1991 SPLM/A split – may be re-living the show down of Riech Machar and the late Dr Garang. In that incidence Nuer fighters killed more than 2000 Dinka civilians in the town of Bor ( a Dinka hometown).

It was obvious that SPLM/A since its establishment in 1983 aspired to present itself as a mass movement as influenced by the Tanzanian experience of “Chama Cha Mpenduzi”, and the “National Resistance Movement” in Uganda. Both movements provided inclusion of citizens from different political background to belong to them, not necessarily share definite ideological affiliation.  In the case of Uganda that was legislated in the constitution as being the movements all Ugandans belong to (Rolandsen 2007). In this case of South Sudan SPLM is not the ruling party by constitution nor by elections which did not take place yet, but elections of local government disclosed how difficult it was for SPLM to decide on who should run the election on behalf of the Movement where as it will not be that for a political party.

The subsequent events that happened in Dec.2013 owe a lot to such challenges that faced SPLM/A, in the endeavour to facilitate for transformation from a guerrilla movement into a competent political actor. Not only has weak government institutions led to poor performance in provision of basic services for the public, corruption eroded any hope South Sudanese can have. Monitoring of funds and public resources at the local and central levels of government are scanty, further those elite in charge more often than not have military backgrounds or have militias beside their official office, rendering the mission of checking their corrupt tendencies, with high political cost. Therefore neglecting such tendencies is a strategy to keep such cadre from resorting to violence.

Adding yet more for the political complication was the decision by the President Kiir to divide the states of the Country into 28 states instead of 10, during the conflict, and in critical economic conditions in the country. Critics believe that the decree by altering state boundaries bear intensions of intensifying competition between the Dinka and the Nuer over land and resources, to the benefit of first. It was clear fact that location of most oil fields is in lands that belong to the Nuer (Sperber, 2016).[i]

Violence Spill over

The atrocities that happened in Juba, massive killings of military and civilian citizens in Dec. 2013, was directed against the Nuer community in the Capital city. The fighting initially started in Juba between presidential guard soldiers from the Dinka and Nuer communities. The fighting soon spread to Jonglie State and the oil-producing states of Unity and Upper Nile.The news travelled quickly around the cities and villages across the country, where the Nuer engaged in retaliation wars against the Dinka, who are pro-government. As the Nuer have their own armies warlords, they waged indiscriminate wars against weakened government army backed by the Dinka. The war spread all over South Sudan main cities and villages between government army on the one hand, and other armed opposition notably the Nuer who managed to recruit many non-Dinka communities as allies. It became as critical as ever for the government to fight different wars, Kiir did not spare time to ask military assistance from Uganda who promptly sent troops to restore government control over main cities, not necessarily all of them.

The spill over of violence caused unprecedented casualties in the history of South Sudan which experienced one of the longest internal wars in Africa. It has been reported that the day violence broke out in Juba death toll reached up to 10,000+ deaths (of course no reliable figures can be found). More than 100,000 people have sought refuge at various UN compounds across the country (In Juba, 80 percent of displaced people are women and children).  Over 7 million people became at risk of food insecurity and 4.9 million of them are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. Over one million people fled their homes and are now displaced within South Sudan. More than 350,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries; all figure are definitely rising as the conflict escalates.

The scope intensity and severity of the current conflict out-weighs by far, what happened in South Sudan during the confrontation with Sudan (1955-2005). International Humanitarian Law by then was not activated nor taken care of, the way it is today, nonetheless, nothing of mass killings, rape, or even burning of humans was heard of. Control over conduct of Militia is hardly possible in circumstances in post-2013 South Sudan. In the light of rumours on special presidential forces, outside ranks and budget of the government army, the number is estimated to be around 15 thousands and were drawn up mainly from Warrap and Northern Bahr El Gazal Sates whereas the rest of Dinka soldiers from other states were not involved in these selective recruitments (Daniel Wur Wor 2016).


Humanitarian Impact of the War

It is common sense to say that such situation causes critical humanitarian conditions, where insecurity affects all aspects. South Sudan alongside Yemen Afghanistan and Iraq are classified as nations of highest humanitarian emergency in the World over, S. Sudan being the only case in Africa. Local food prices skyrocketed since the fighting broke out. Food stocks belonging to U.N. agencies were repeatedly looted, sometimes by government soldiers. Famine is expected to affect almost 40% of the population in the light of mounting challenges facing aid agencies operations.

South Sudan after the current conflict is second only to Afghanistan in as far as major attacks on humanitarian workers is concerned (Humanitarian Outcomes 2016). This is of course in consistence with non-availability of food supplies in rural and urban centres. It is worth noting that in the few years following secession the country was heavily dependent on food and other commodities supplies/coming from Ugandan and Kenyan producers who found in South Sudan markets with high purchasing power. That motivated an expert like Alex de Waal to assert that:

If you look at the public expenditure per capita of South Sudan at independence, it was eight or nine times higher than that in Ethiopia. It was five times than in Uganda. This was a middle-income country with a lot of money. Whatever you may think of the Ethiopian government—and their human rights record leaves a lot to be desired—if you go to Ethiopia, you see that that money is being used for public good—a lot of infrastructure, a lot of health services—a huge physical material transformation of the country and economic development. In South Sudan, it was just either stolen by elites or spent on the military”. (Alex de Waal 2016).

This narrative by de Waal is indicative of mismanagement by power elite of post-conflict resources available to build the new country. This paper asserts that South Sudan is the only African country born as an oil-exporting country from the start. Nonetheless the widening scope of food insecurity is valid to be classified as signs of famine, expected to hit the country, in case the current conflict continues. Some households in Northern Bahr el Ghazal are already classified as in “catastrophe”—the most severe stage of food insecurity, The conflict also affects humanitarian access to some 260,000 Sudanese refugees sheltering in camps in South Sudan.

The U.N. has never experienced cases where citizens seek refuge and security within its compounds, which were never intended for large, long-term settlements. The influx of South Sudanese seeking protection at U.N. bases around the country when the war started was an unprecedented situation for the U.N. These compounds have now sheltered tens of thousands for almost three years.


The United States which played a key role in supporting South Sudan’s independence has long been its leading donor and is a key diplomatic actor, and by far the largest bilateral humanitarian donor, allocating almost $1.9 billion in emergency relief since the conflict began, and as wellthe largest financial contributor to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country and a key donor for ceasefire monitoring and other efforts to mitigate conflict (Blanchard,2014).This heavy involvement and investment by the U.S. in South Sudan, before and after this current conflict, justifies implicit and explicit orchestrating of events during implementation of 2015 agreement. Whereas most regional actors including A.U. did not consent appointment of Taban Deng as Vice-President by President Kiir, it seems the position of the U.S. in favor of the appointment was some sort of casting ballot on that.In the words of John Kerry U.S. Secretary of State:


“it’s quite clear that legally, under the agreement, there is allowance for the replacement in a transition of personnel, and that has been effected with the appointment of a new vice president.” (Sudan Tribune, August 22, 2016). 


The Context of the Conflict

It was obvious that the current conflict started as a political crisis, but the reason why it turned into war between communities was not only because of ethnic division between South Sudanese (which is a phenomena almost all over Africa), but because the army was not a professionalized, institutionalized army, rather a collection of militia, each of which was organized on the basis of personal loyalty to its commander—in effect, ethnically based armed units. What is more important about this country is the legacy of the previous conflict in pre-secession era, where intra-SPLA confrontations were still in the memory of everybody. Surprisingly there seemed to be   militia around the President, notably those who committed the massacre in Juba Dec. 2013.

The divide was not that exclusive between the Nuer and the Dinka, there are some Nuer groups and some members of the Nuer elite that, for whatever reason, have brought their communities onto the government side, Taban Deng is a case in point, appointed by the President Kiir as Vice-President replacing  Dr. Riek Machar. And some members of the Dinka elite, particularly around Bor, who have tried to stay out of the conflict entirely, or are even sympathizing with the opposition.


Peacemaking Efforts

The fighting between the warring parties continued unabated for more than 20 months while regional mediators including Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda and Eretria, made some progress in peace negotiations under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The parties periodically recommitted themselves to a January 2014 cessation of hostilities deal, but repeatedly violated it. Later on  May 2014, they agreed to form a transitional government, but failed to agree on its composition and responsibilities.

The presence of Ugandan troops fighting on the side of the government against the Nuer ethnic group was the most unfortunate event for the internal public opinion of South Sudanese on the image of their government. That would generate an impression that the government lacks popular support, even of her allies including the Dinka themselves. Making things even worse, Sudanese armed opposition movements from Darfur were also there fighting the Nuer upon presumed request by the government. Bitter memories that accumulate out of the involvement of these foreign actors, adds up to mistrust, leading to slow-down of any perceived peacemaking efforts.

After months of failing to abide by any ceasefire initiative and under international pressure, including a proposed arms embargo, the conflicting parties reached an agreement in August 2015. Although both sides (Kiir and Machar) signed the agreement, it was appealing to none of them. Unlike normal procedures of making  peace treaties, this  agreement seemed not to have been an outcome of negotiation processes between the conflicting parties, who are the stakeholders of the agreement. Therefore failure of the whole process was a matter of time.

The U.N. Security Council, has emphasized that it views the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan as “the framework for durable peace, reconciliation and national cohesion.”. This is an international recognition of this agreement despite evident associated shortcomings.

In fact August 2015 Agreement was a hasty arrangement by I.G.A.D. mediators, fed-up by repeated dishonor of agreements, pre-supposed that a power-sharing deal was  enough to end  the issue of conflict between the parties. Not only that but IGAD mediators trusted that; security of the Capital city, after failing to demilitarize it,  would be guaranteed through cooperation between the two rival armies, who were only recently engaged, red-handed, in massacres and atrocities between each other.  

However later developments showed that replacement of Machar by Taban Deng was problematic for internal and external public opinion, over the sustainability of the agreement. Taban Deng’s appointment has been highly controversial, and its legitimacy under the terms of the peace deal remains in question, as does Kiir’s replacement of most of the opposition ministers in the TGNU and more than 20 legislators who were seen as loyal to Machar. As we have already indicated.



South Sudan is a country born with many challenges ahead. Internally citizens have high expectations as they have opted for secession to meet their immediate needs as promised by the advocates of self-determination, whereas the elite are busily engaged in securing power and wealth, leading to failure and collapse of the whole state system. One South Sudanese bureaucrat has jokingly described the situation as pre-failed state. Being the only African country to be an oil-exporting from day-one of its independence, apart from abundant natural resources, South Sudan is not among the poor nations of the continent. Nonetheless the current suffering South Sudanese are encountering is second to none; in as far as humanitarian situation is concerned. Terms like; food insecurity, famine, starvation, catastrophic, are commonly used by aid agencies including the U.N.

The very many peacemaking interventions by regional actors notably the African Union have focused on power-sharing as a formula for conflict resolution in South Sudan, whereas there is no problem in power-sharing between the President and the Vie-President in the same cabinet. Other formula options need to be explored to produce self-sustaining, self-perpetuating social peace among different political actors in South Sudan, Including even revisiting the feasibility of secession itself, as a decisive factor in shaping the situation that produced this conflict.

The international community is not one block, there are individual states like the U.S. and others who have their own policy options on the one hand, and intergovernmental organizations, who more often than not, can be influenced by  these very countries, on the other. If you look at U.S. policy towards South Sudan, it swung from being very close, very intimate, to being one of bitter rejection and discontent, just as the attitudes of pro-South Sudan activists in Washington, DC, swung from support to skepticism, mounting anti-Americanism is emerging in response in South Sudan (Alex de Waal 2014).

Without underestimating the role of various external actors, peaceful coexistence between the two warring parties in South Sudan depends very much on the internal will of the leaders. The neighboring countries have a role to play, including Sudan, the predecessor state, whose ties with the current power elite in South Sudan dates back to the pre-secession period. Military intervention of Ugandan troops upon request by South Sudanese President, and any other potential foreign military interventions, does only further complicate the situation. It won’t be wise for the international community to impose sanctions and embargos on South Sudan, a trend that emerged at some point during successive peace talks, that would only double the suffering of South Sudanese, who deserve to be saved of the impacts of civil war, not to face additional pressures from the international community.




1.       Alex de Waal, 2014 interview by Noel, CFR Editorial Intern, Council on Foreign Relations.


2.       Blanchard,Lauren Ploch (2014),” Conflict in South Sudan and the Challenges Ahead”, report by Congressional Research Service prepared for U.S. Congress members, available online; www.crs.gov



3.       Humanitarian Outcomes, Aid Worker Security Report 2016, August 15, 2016. 


4.       Jamie, Faiz Omar (2007), The Dynamics of Conflict in Sudan, The National Centre for Diplomatic Studies, Khartoum, Sudan.


5.       Jamie, Faiz Omar (2017), “The Emergence and Development of the National Congress Party in Sudan 1998-2005”,  International Journal of Social Science Studies Vol. 5, No. 2; February 2017  


6.       [1] Sperber, Amanda, “ South Sudan Next Civil War is Starting”, Foreign Policy, January, 2016.


7.       Daniel Wuor Joak 2014, “ Major Causes of the Conflict in South Sudan”, African Centre for Human Advocacy (ACHA) This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


8.        US official says appointment of S. Sudan’s first VP ‘legal,’” Sudan Tribune, August 22, 2016 





المصدر: مجلة العلاقات الدولية - العدد السابع - فبراير 2017


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