South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name
South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
South Sudan’s oil sector needs to become more transparent
South Sudan’s oil sector needs to become more transparent
Report 217 / Africa

South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name

Refocusing international engagement as well as the peace negotiations is essential to stop South Sudan’s raging civil war from claiming ever more lives.

Executive Summary

On 15 December 2013 the world’s newest state descended into civil war. Continuing fighting has displaced more than 1,000,000 and killed over 10,000 while a humanitarian crisis threatens many more. Both South Sudanese and the international community were ill-prepared to prevent or halt the conflict: the nation’s closest allies did little to mediate leadership divisions within the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM). The SPLM and its army (SPLA) quickly split along divisions largely unaddressed from the independence war, resulting in the formation of the SPLA in Opposition. Were it not for the intervention of Uganda and allied rebel and militia groups, the SPLA would likely not have been able to hold Juba or recapture lost territory. The war risks tearing the country further apart and is pulling in regional states. Resolving the conflict requires not a quick fix but sustained domestic and international commitment. Governance, including SPLM and SPLA reform and communal relations, must be on the table. Religious and community leaders, civil society and women are critical to this process and must not be excluded.

Although the dispute within the SPLM that led to the conflict was primarily political, ethnic targeting, communal mobilisation and spiralling violence quickly led to appalling levels of brutality against civilians, including deliberate killings inside churches and hospitals. Dinka elements of the Presidential Guard and other security organs engaged in systematic violence against Nuer in Juba in the early days. Armed actors, including the Nuer White Army, responded by targeting Dinka and other civilians in more than a dozen locations. Other communities are being drawn into the conflict and there is an increasing possibility of more significant foreign intervention.

The regional organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), responded quickly. Three envoys, Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin (Ethiopia), General Lazarus Sumbeiywo (Kenya) and General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dhabi (Sudan) shuttled between Juba, Addis Ababa, where peace talks have been held, and opposition-controlled territory and, after weeks of pressure and negotiation, obtained a cessation of hostilities. However, this was violated almost immediately, and fighting continues, as a monitoring and verification mission struggles to establish itself on the ground.

Neighbouring Uganda (also an IGAD member), as well as forces associated with Sudanese armed opposition groups, notably the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), intervened early in support of the South Sudanese government. That in turn may yet trigger Sudan government support to the SPLA in Opposition. Announced plans for an IGAD-led force, about which there are critical mandate, composition and funding questions, raises the prospect of even greater regional involvement in the civil war.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is hosting almost 70,000 civilians fleeing ethnic reprisals, but its badly outgunned peacekeepers are no match for the thousands of heavily armed forces and militias. It has already come under attack, including a fatal one in Jonglei, while protecting civilians. In at least five locations, South Sudanese seeking protection have been targeted and killed by armed actors in or around UNMISS bases. Increasingly hostile rhetoric from government officials and some opposition commanders and limitations on its freedom of movement are additional challenges. The reprioritisation of its mandated tasks has essentially divided the country in two for the beleaguered UNMISS: it remains impartial in one part, while supporting the government in another. This decision will do little to clarify its role for South Sudanese and should be reviewed before the mandate is renewed.

As peace talks stall, the civil war rages on. To prevent further catastrophe, the country’s leaders and its international partners need to consider a radical restructuring of the state. Propping up the government in Juba and polishing its legitimacy with a dose of political dialogue and a dash of power sharing will not end the conflict. New constituencies have to be admitted to a national dialogue and their perspectives respected, including armed groups and disaffected communities that go beyond the contending forces within the SPLM/A, as well as women and civil society more generally. These constituencies are critical to rebuilding the SPLM, increasing democratic space within and beyond the party, drafting a national constitution and preparing for credible national elections. If these processes are to be viable, they will not be able to proceed according to the pre-war timeline. Political commitments must match the new realities. The country needs fundamental reworking of the governance agreement between and within elites and communities if a negotiated settlement is to lead to a sustainable peace.

Op-Ed / Africa

South Sudan’s oil sector needs to become more transparent

Originally published in The African Report.

South Sudan’s fortunes have always been tied to its oil. The discovery of oil in the late 1970s deepened tensions between the South Sudanese and the regime in Khartoum and fueled violence after the outbreak of Africa’s longest-running civil war as both sides vied to control the region’s oil fields.

Oil then laid the groundwork for South Sudan’s secession. A landmark 2005 peace deal granted Juba half of the South’s oil revenues, pumping billions into the new semi-autonomous government.

But the sudden wealth gravely compromised the country’s stability. By 2013, only two years after independence, the elite scramble for South Sudan’s oil riches helped trigger a fresh war that may have killed 400,000 people while displacing millions.

Nowadays, despite a 2018 peace agreement and a government of national unity, Juba’s monopoly on oil revenue obstructs a broader political settlement the country desperately needs.

South Sudan’s leaders siphon off the bulk of the petrodollars, leaving much of the population starved of basic services and, in some parts of the country, on the brink of famine.

Pervasive corruption has become a huge source of frustration for donors, including the US, which allocates a billion dollars a year primarily to sustain humanitarian relief. South Sudan produces roughly 150,000 to 170,000 barrels a day. But because of the share owed to oil companies and fees paid to Sudan, it earns income from 45,000 barrels at most, according to the best estimates available. Little of that income reaches the national budget due to off-budget expenditures, undisclosed debt payments, and allocations to its opaque state oil company Nile Petroleum.

Those who still support South Sudan cannot ignore its rotten finances. Since oil underwrites the entire South Sudanese state, addressing the country’s deep troubles is impossible without a focus on its vanishing petrodollars. A first step in this direction is making the oil economy more transparent, not only in South Sudan, but also in Europe, host to many of the country’s commercial financiers.

Oil fuels tensions

Despite staggering poverty and underdevelopment, South Sudan qualified as a middle-income country at its birth thanks to its oil wealth. But instead of serving as a foundation for state-building, oil poisoned South Sudan’s politics. Before independence, rebel commanders enriched themselves through a mix of taxation, aid diversion, artisanal gold mining, deforestation, and outright looting. This culture of illicit self-dealing quickly came to resemble a free-for-all when the 2005 peace agreement unlocked billions of petrodollars.

After independence, oil money papered over the South’s ethno-political divisions until President Salva Kiir moved to consolidate power, tightening his grip on oil funds in the process. Only two years after secession, a leadership struggle between Kiir and internal challengers, led by his main opponent Riek Machar, burst into a civil war that drained state coffers, with oil production decreasing because of the conflict.

To stay afloat, South Sudan turned to a handful of commodity traders to purchase future deliveries of oil, including Swiss-Singaporean Trafigura, which bought South Sudan’s oil through secretive pre-payment arrangements. These high-interest cash advances worked like the petrostate equivalent of a payday loan scheme, piling up debt while hiding South Sudan’s finances ever further from sight.

Back to the books

South Sudan’s future would appear less bleak if the countries that foot the bill to alleviate the country’s humanitarian disaster focused on making sure Juba accounts for its oil revenue.

Donors should make a concerted effort to push Juba to comply with existing laws and provisions in the 2018 peace agreement to ensure that oil proceeds are paid into a single public oil revenue account. One source of leverage is through the IMF, which has given South Sudan $550m in the past year but with few strings attached. The IMF should condition future disbursements on the exclusive use of the public oil account.

Outside pressure on Juba should be supplemented with pressure on South Sudan’s financiers. European governments should urge trading companies with a strong corporate presence in Europe to disclose their payments to South Sudan and demand the funds be deposited into the official oil account.

They should also consider drafting regulations requiring commodity firms under their jurisdiction to certify compliance with South Sudan’s law. This could work. Following engagement by the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan, Glencore has disclosed purchasing $950m of South Sudanese oil since 2018. Additional leverage could come from widening the regulatory net to the commodity firms’ insurers and bankers, many of which are also in Europe.

Declining output and global decarbonisation mean that South Sudan will not be in the oil business forever, and given the trouble it has caused there, the transition may provide as much opportunity as risk. Still, bringing the oil money back onto the books of the national budget could at least give the South Sudanese a chance to reset their bloody politics now, not when the oil pumps stop.