Playing Chess with South Sudan: How Tussles for Regional Dominance Are Entrenching this Man-made Catastrophe

Rory Johnson considers how regional animosities are perpetuating this man-made crisis.

In February 2017, the world’s newest country, South Sudan, took another step towards the proverbial cliff edge with the UN declaration of a state of famine in parts of the northern-central province of Unity State. There is a dark, and devastatingly depressive, irony that this province, soon to become a mass graveyard, should be fabulously wealthy due to the presence of humanity’s most addictive substance, oil. South Sudan is the most oil-dependent nation in the world, with this one resource alone accounting for 97% of all exports and 60% of total GDP. South Sudan also holds the not so distinguished accolade of having one of the most comprehensively armed populations in the world. The direct correlation between these two striking statistics has been made starkly clear by a recent UN report which states that ‘at least half’ of all oil sale revenues have been spent on arms purchases. These weapons are being introduced into a society that is demographically very young, deeply divided along entrenched ethnic lines, and starving. The result has been widespread and ‘extraordinary acts of cruelty.’

Although the African Union (AU) outwardly acknowledges that that ‘there is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve in the absence of meaningful peace and security’, it has failed to decisively act upon this knowledge. A leading explanation for this is the debilitating effect of the perpetual power plays amongst South Sudan’s neighbours, whose actions are undermining the integrity of this continental union. South Sudan’s neighbours are embroiled in a high stakes political game of chess, in which the pawns that are the South Sudanese people are shown to be highly expendable.

The deepest animosities reside between the two dictatorships to the north and south of the country: that of Omar al-Bashir (Sudan) and Yoweri Museveni (Uganda). To fully dissect this enmity one must unearth colonial legacies which Britain would rather remain buried. During the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1956) Sudan was run as essentially two separate territories separated along overtly ethnic and religious lines, a practice that became known as the ‘Southern Policy’. The fusion in some form of the southern part of the colony to the neighbouring colonial administrative area of British East Africa (comprising the modern-day countries of Uganda and Kenya), was proposed as the practical extension of such deliberate policies of division. However, at the Juba Conference in 1947, the British meekly capitulated to the power interests of the rising Arab elite in Khartoum, combined northern and southern Sudan into one political entity, and fled the ensuing carnage.

In response to this political betrayal, and as a means of offering solidarity to their black African, Christian, neighbours, Uganda offered military support to the SPLM/A forces throughout both the subsequent civil wars (1955-1972 and 1983-2005). Fast forward to the present day and Uganda continues to represent the most stalwart international ally of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, despite widespread reports of SPLM soldiers perpetrating atrocities against their own people. Museveni even sent in two battalions of the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) to help booster Kiir’s own forces in December 2013 after the political power struggle with his deputy, Riek Machar, turned violent. In response, the Bashir regime began sending elicit support to the now rebel forces of Machar. Kiir retaliated by supporting the SPF, a rebel movement opposed to the Bashir regime operating in southern Sudan and the circle of death was complete. Thus, South Sudan has remained, to a large extent, a proxy battlefield for the conflict between its two antagonistic neighbours.

The situation is further complicated by the growing presence of Ethiopia. As host to the headquarters of both the AU and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), Ethiopia holds diplomatic clout. Addis Ababa sells itself as the voice of reason and of mediation. However, as the crisis deepened, it has taken on an increasingly authoritative stance. Firstly, in 2011, it sent 4,000 of its own troops to support the UNISFA peacekeeping operation in the contested border province of Abyei, which humiliated and antagonised the Khartoum administration who were forced to make an embarrassing diplomatic stand down. This deterioration in bilateral relations was compounded by Ethiopia’s decision to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with South Sudan that included a proposal to build a new oil pipeline that would run out of South Sudan and through Ethiopia. This would end the current monopoly that Sudan has over distribution. That such deals are being struck in conjunction with offers by Ethiopia to insert yet more of its own troops into South Sudan as part of a new multilateral Regional Protection Force, instills deep suspicion in both Uganda and Sudan as to the true objectives of this ‘peacemaker’. The oil reserves in South Sudan make it too great a prize to passively accept increasing militarism by a regional rival, even if this is in the form of multilateral peacekeeping initiative.

To save the people of South Sudan, immediate, decisive and substantial action is required. The investment that South Sudan’s neighbours have in this crisis makes them most inclined to pursue such a response, but mutual distrust hampers collective action. In the zero-sum game of ‘big men’ politics, when all must be treated with suspicion, to act is to risk inciting confrontation. Certain member states of the UN Security Council, and the wider international community are left feeling deeply frustrated, and yet baulk at the prospect of inserting themselves in any greater capacity than a diplomatic one. The case of South Sudan is not unique in demonstrating how it becomes all too easy to cite drought and environmental degradation as the immediate cause of hunger, and drop aid packages from up high. What is much less palatable is to accept the credence that conflict, systemic misgovernance, and marginalisation are the primary causes of suffering. This demands that international actors make greater efforts to come down from the lofty perch of their aid planes to confront these deeply complex and dangerous issues head on.

Rory Johnson is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by DFID – UK Department for International Development