The Three Main Curses of South Sudan

By Ian Mwenda

Access to land, water, and oil are major causes of conflict in South Sudan. Since 2011, when the country overwhelmingly voted to break away from Sudan, South Sudan has been involved in a protracted conflict. It is alleged that land played a critical role in the conflict between the Dinka and Equatorians in South Sudan. The Equatorians (composed of the Azande and the Bari) practice farming and live in Western Equatoria. This is the main area and home for South Sudan farmers and, most importantly, virtually all agricultural production for the whole of South Sudan takes place in Western Equatoria. Additionally, it is the main trade route between South Sudan and neighbouring countries, and the only all-weather land connecting South Sudan with any other country.

 The Dinka and Equitorians have competed and fought for the land. This competition dates to 1991 when 700,000 Dinka pastoralists were displaced by conflict and forced to inhabit the areas of western Equatorians. This resulted in violent conflict over land. In addition, in mid-2016, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) (an opposition party that is composed of Nuer community) was pushed out of Juba, and settled in parts of Equatorial region.  The group was forced to  form alliance with the Equatorians. The government then responded by conducting security operations in central Equatoria and parts of western and eastern Equatoria, targeting any person suspected to be aligned to the opposition. This operation has profiled all Equatorians, and given land to the Dinka community. In recent incidents, a raid by government forces in a village on the Juba–Nimule Road has led to accusations of the forces raping at least six women, and arresting and torturing 42 men.

Lack of enough safe water in South Sudan has also forced the two antagonists to compete for the little that is available. The situation has been exacerbated by drought that has affected more than half of South Sudan population. According to World Health Organization, lack of safe water and poor sanitation has set the stage for the emergence of killer diseases. In 2015, 1,818 cases of cholera were reported in the country. The impact has been felt by the pastoralist communities who need pasture for their animals. The situation has often led to cattle raids between the Dinka and the Nuer communities. In these two communities, ownership of cattle is regarded as a personal account that allows members of the community to purchase food, clothing, and even get married. In a survey conducted in 2010 and released in 2013, one in three people use contaminated water, and only 2% of households have piped water to their homes. In rural areas where there the infrastructure is poor; many boreholes have been destroyed in the conflict. Girls under the age of 14 years are forced to walk for many hours to fetch water and this is often from a dry swamp. Cases such as cholera have been on the rise with over 47 deaths been reported in 2015.

Access to oil (a natural resource here) has escalated the conflict between the South Sudan government, rebel groups, and the larger Sudan. South Sudan acquired most of the oil fields from Sudan when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Sudan maintained the mandate of exporting the oil. However, a combination of factors in the mining, transportation, and usage of the oil set the stage for a civil war that has on many occasion targeted the oil-producing areas.

Oil constitutes 98% of South Sudan source of revenue. However, bombing of the Unity State, an oil producing area and the only oil refinery in the country has seen government revenues reduce further. The country has then been forced to depend on the small portion of oil found in the upper Nile, at Palouch.  Currently, South Sudan produces 120,000 barrels of oil per day half as much it did at its peak in the period 2011-2012. As a result, prices of oil have reduced to half what it was in 2011. Often, lack of revenues and financial resources has led to inflation and high cost of living. According to trading macro-economic global macro model, inflation in South Sudan is likely to hit 352% by end of 2017, and is expected to rise to 420% in in the next one year. This impact has been felt on the South Sudan pound. The value of South Sudan pound has decreased forcing the government to print fresh bank notes. Such measures have reduced the rate of inflation, but the government is still overspending despite it having no new source of revenue.

The ongoing conflict has become the epicenter for a war where regional actors have actively been involved. States that have interest in oil have focused their attention on oil producing regions. Often, Loyalty of states changes depending on the availability of oil resource hence making the conflict to be multifaceted. The shift of allegiance has opened avenues for states such as China and Sudan to take sides in the conflict. It is alleged that China has interest in the South Sudan oil.  On many occasions, Chinese troops have been seen patrolling in the oil-producing areas.

Scholars argue that border issues in Abyei region, the oil fields in Heglig region and land dispute in Jonglei State escalated the conflict between the Sudan and the South Sudan. However, following the independence of South Sudan from Sudan, the two governments signed an accord to demilitarize the disputed Abyei region and let in an Ethiopian peacekeeping force. In the aftermath, peace and security improved in the region. In December 2013, two years after the country gained its independence, conflict erupted again. An attempted coup d’ etat had occurred in Juba and President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar and ten others of the act. Machar denied trying to start a coup and he was forced to flee to lead the SPLM-IO escalating the protracted conflict further. In January 2014, the first ceasefire agreement was reached leading to the first peace talk between the government and the opposition in Ethiopia.

A Compromise Peace Agreement (CPA) deal was finally signed in 2013 under threat of UN sanctions for both sides. Machar returned from exile to be sworn in as first vice president of the new government. However, in April 2016, he was sacked and replaced by Taban Deng Gai. The sacking was prompted by the renewed conflict that emerged between the conflicting parties.  Various attempts have made to maintain peace and security in South Sudan. For instance, as part of its role of maintaining international peace and security, the Security Council commissioned the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to maintain peace and security in the region. The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has also been providing a platform for negotiation and mediation. In addition, The CPA was signed between the two main antagonist’s parties in Ethiopia under strict observation of IGAD.

Dealing with these issues will require a collaborative approach that will involve all the actors involved in the conflict. Struggle and competition for pasture and water, especially in the dry season, cause conflict between the pastoralist and farmers in the country. Countering the challenge will require construction of hafirs and boreholes that will provide water for livestock during the dry season, and for irrigation and farming.  A comprehensive plan that entails access to Nile River should be incorporated that will in return lead to self-sufficiency in agriculture and will be achieved through collaborative cooperation with all riparian states. In addition, there is need for transparent allocation of oil revenues. This will minimize corruption and misuses of public resources. In addition, there is need to involve the civil society and governance specialists. Such measures will minimize the possibility that ethnic and religious groups who feel marginalized by allocation of resources. South Sudan government must also allow the participation of small-holder farmers in designing land use legislation to prevent exploitative land grabs on behalf of politicians.

Ian Mwenda is a research assistant at the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies


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