Revisiting the Role of International and Regional Actors in the South Sudan Conflict

South Sudan has been engulfed in protracted intra-state conflicts. The most conspicuous of these erupted in 2013 following the dismissal of the then Vice President, Riek Machar by President Salva Kiir citing a plan to oust him. This sparked violence in Juba pitting President Salva Kiir’s Dinka ethnic soldiers against Riek Machar’s Nuer. The conflict has grown in complexity, entrapping a fragmentation of factions that are threatening the country’s integrity and social fabric. This article examines the role played by various international and regional actors in an effort to resolve the nagging conflict. The conflict between Salva Kiir against Riek Machar has sucked in a number of international actors including key global powers; the United States of America (USA) and China. It has also attracted the interest of international intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union (EU) plus regional actors under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU). While these actors have played what could be considered magnanimous roles in resolving South Sudan’s political standoff, some experts argue that the involvement of most of these actors has been driven by vested political and economic interests. For South Sudan, a key argument has been that external actors are motivated by interests in the country’s economic resources. The following section looks at the conflicting roles played by some of the international and regional actors.

The Role of USA

The USA has a tradition of engaging with South Sudan that can be traced back to the pre-independence era. In the context of the Salvar Kiir-Riek Machar conflict, the USA has supported the mediation process led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The effort led to the signing of the Agreement to Resolve the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) in 2015. This saw the return of Riek Machar from exile under the terms of the ARCSS paving way for the formation of Transitional Government of National Unity. Besides, the USA has been a key player in providing humanitarian aid to the South Sudanese citizens displaced by the war. In 2014, the US spent over 1.2 billion dollars on emergency relief in South Sudan. However, there have been reservations about USA’s prominent role in South Sudan with some linking USA’s conduct to the rivalry with China. The latter has invested heavily in South Sudan’s oil sector and it appears to threaten the interest of US in the oil-rich country. The government of South Sudan had previously accused the US of using its leverage to influence the mediation process. Consistent with this thinking, US is keen to promote regime change in South Sudan with the aim of having a friendly government that is willing to renegotiate the latter’s oil deals in favour of the former.  These allegations have, however, been dismissed as “reckless and inaccurate” by the three-nation block known as the Troika (or South Sudan peace guarantors) where the US is a member.

The Role of China

China, too, has been involved in the mediation process in South Sudan through its various diplomatic and peace keeping initiatives. China’s military contribution to the United Nations Mission for South Sudan (UNMISS) contradicts Beijing’s traditional doctrine and policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign countries.  It is clear that China has been driven by its huge economic interests in South Sudan especially in the oil sector. China’s involvement in South Sudan is also controversial. A section of experts argue that China’s military forces deployed in South Sudan are meant to protect Chinese interests and investments.  The troops are deployed at the oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile states. China has also been accused of prolonging the conflict by supplying weapons to South Sudan. For instance in   2014, China was accused of supplying weapons valued at over twenty million dollars to the South Sudanese Military. Some scholars and policymakers argue that China’s involvement in South Sudan has undermined the mediation process by creating a recalcitrant party in Juba.  There is also a possibility that China’s activities are meant to counter the US in South Sudan resulting in a proxy war that undermines the peace initiatives.

The Role of Regional Actors


Uganda’s involvement in South Sudan is age-old, and this can be traced to the 1990s when the East African country became suspicious of Khartoum’s desire to expand its Arab and Islamic influence southwards. Against this backdrop, Uganda supported the South Sudan’s Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) in the North-South Sudanese civil war as Khartoum supported the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The 2013 political crisis saw the intervention of Ugandan troops in support of the South Sudan government. The presence of Ugandan troops in South Sudan initially raised questions around interference in the internal affairs of the latter but the South Sudan government clarified that it had invited the Ugandan troops. However, there have been arguments that Uganda’s intervention and subsequent behavior towards South Sudan was motivated by economic and security considerations. It is believed that Museveni wanted a semblance of stability in South Sudan especially around the Equatorial region to avert a disruption of the South Sudanese market for Ugandan goods and also promote a sense of security along the Uganda – South Sudan border point (forestall a spillover of the conflict into Uganda). The Role of Sudan Sudan and South Sudan have had mixed relations going back to the latter’s independence in 2011. In fact, the ruling parties in both countries were fierce enemies for decades until the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. Some of the differences between Juba and Khartoum spilled into the post CPA era. In the context of the 2013 violence that erupted in Juba, Khartoum tried to portray itself as neutral arbiter and even seconded an envoy, Gen. Ahmed Mohamed al-Dabi, to IGAD’s mediation team. It is this move that reincarnated the Sudan-Uganda proxy machinations. Uganda’s absence in the IGAD mediation team triggered accusations and counter-accusations between the two countries. Additionally, there was a sense of rapprochement in May 2016 when Sudan’s President al-Bashir traveled to Uganda to attend the inauguration of President Museveni despite being under the International Criminal Court’s of warranty of arrest. In the process of peacebuilding in South Sudan, there have been concerns that Sudan might have, at various points, supported the opposition forces financially.  The consequence of the Sudan-Uganda tiff and intrigues around Khartoum’s political machinations inside South Sudan is a frustration to the peacebuilding process.


Ethiopia, under IGAD, has created numerous platforms for mediation and negotiation in the South Sudan conflict. It is in Ethiopia’s capital City, Addis Ababa, that the various peace agreements have been signed. While Ethiopia has largely been seen as neutral party in the South Sudan conflict, critiques argue that Ethiopia has given support to the opposition in South Sudan and has sought to use IGAD’s peace and security endeavors to promote its regional and international leverage.


Kenya midwifed the CPA and has been involved in peace initiatives under the tutelage of IGAD. It nominated one of the IGAD mediators, General Lazarus Sumbeiywo and has also sent troops to South Sudan under the UNMISS umbrella. However, it is imperative to note that Kenya also has commercial interests in South Sudan and critiques argue that Kenya’s economic interests, some linked to Kenya’s elite, have collectively and individually sacrificed South Sudan’s stability for short term economic expediency. There have been accusations that Kenya and other regional actors have resisted the issue of imposing targeted sanctions on South Sudanese individuals that are hell-bent on undermining peace efforts.


It concludes by noting that the peacebuilding approach adopted by international and regional actors that largely focus on the Salvar Kiir-Riek Machar impasse is inadequate in addressing South Sudan’s structural problems. It’s clear that international and regional actors have played a role in undermining the peace efforts in South Sudan by creating an environment of mistrust in the peace process. It is ironical that these actors are advancing their selfish interests while some of them would benefit more from long term stability in South Sudan. Continued conflict in Africa’s newest state threatens the region’s security while internally, its protraction will continue to entrench internal fragmentation, poverty and other social ills. In the broadest sense, the role of the external actors in mediation processes is important. These actors can bring political, economic and other resources at their disposal to reinforce the mediation process. They can, on the flipside, also undermine the mediation processes especially if their involvement does not reflect broad support for peace. Due to divergences in interests, external actors to the South Sudan conflict have failed to appreciate the dynamic nature of the conflict often focusing on their interests and those of key leaders to the conflict. Currently, South Sudan has many diverse and conflicting groups that, even a mutual agreement between the main parties, may not necessarily guarantee peace. A lasting solution to South Sudan conflict calls for a carefully directed process that addresses the conflict not from the external actors perspectives but rather one that legitimately addresses local concerns and root cause.

Ian M. Micheni is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute

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