This Is How South Sudan’s Civil War Could Spread
Escalating violence threatens to draw neighbors into the conflict
Delegations from the warring parties in South Sudan sat down this week in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Abeba to discuss a negotiated solution to the crisis, but at home the fighting raged on.
The United Nations estimates that at least 1,000 people have been killed and 200,000 have been made refugees, after a power struggle between Pres. Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar escalated into an army mutiny and widespread violence.
The fighting is drawing closer to the Ugandan border and the rebels under the command of Machar have threatened to shut down the oil fields in Unity State. Oil accounts for over 90 percent of South Sudan’s government income.
The longer the conflict goes on, the greater the risk of outside involvement. South Sudan is a landlocked country with many neighbors, all of which have a keen interest in the future of the young nation.
Sudan—South Sudan’s neighbor to the north, against which the South Sudanese people fought a decades-long civil war before achieving independence in 2011—derives a large share of its government income from fees levied on the crude oil transported from southern oil fields through the only existing pipeline in the region to oil terminals on the coast of the Red Sea.
Kenya would like to take over this role and is planning a pipeline and railway to connect Juba, the South Sudanese capital, to the Indian Ocean. Ethiopia is invested in this project, as well.
All neighboring countries are already feeling the pressure from refugees fleeing the war. Around 24,000 South Sudanese have registered as refugees in Uganda, with 2,500 more arriving daily. Thousands are reported to have crossed into Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan.
Enemies become friends
The possibility that the war might cut off South Sudan’s oil seems to have swayed North Sudan to take sides. The North is in economic crisis, with an inflation rate of more 40 percent and regular protests over government austerity measures.
The regime of Pres. Omar Al Bashir barely held on to power after it had to raise gasoline prices a few months ago. The economic shock induced by lost revenues from the oil trade with the South would put Al Bashir’s power in serious jeopardy.
Last weekend, Al Bashir took the unusual step of flying into Juba to meet his South Sudanese counterpart Kiir and declare the complete support of the North for the government side in South Sudan’s civil war. Al Bashir foreswore any support for the rebels and the two presidents even went as far as to propose a joint security force to protect the oil fields of the South.
This step doesn’t come without some irony, because these same oil fields were a point of major contention between the two states in the past. Kiir was among the leaders of the rebel group that fought a long and brutal civil war against the North—and he was one of the main proponents of independence for the South in contrast to mere autonomy.
Just last year, the two states were on the brink of another all-out war, after they couldn’t agree on the proper amount of transit fees for Southern oil through the North.
All these animosities seem to be forgotten now that the respective power of the two leaders is threatened.
Not to be outdone, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni also stepped up with a clear threat against the South Sudanese rebels. Museveni, who like Kiir loves to appear in public wearing his trademark cowboy hat, demanded that Machar and his rebels attend serious negotiations immediately, otherwise the regional organization Intergovernmental Authority of Development—of which both South Sudan and Uganda are members—would “go for him [Machar].”
Uganda already has some boots on the ground in South Sudan, after some of its soldiers aided in the evacuation of Ugandans and other expatriates from the fighting.
Museveni doesn’t make idle threats. His government has spent lavishly on armaments in recent years and is now in possession of modern bombers, tanks and artillery. His army leadership might be itching to test these new toys.
The problem is, of course, that any intervention that takes clear sides in the conflict would make it harder to stop the violence—and also increase the incentive for still more states to get involved. If Sudan gets involved and threatens to gain too much influence over Kiir’s government, other countries may try to counter this by supporting Machar, further entrenching the conflict.
Museveni vow to involve IGAD in the fighting is reckless, at best. IGAD is expected to take on a key role in mediating the current negotiations between the conflict parties. If the organization—or any of its members—are perceived as taking sides, it will greatly undermine its credibility as an impartial arbitrator.