international analysis and commentary

The South Sudanese civil war: local factors and the flows of people, arms and money


In every corner of the world, wars are shaping politics, economies and, most of all, societies – the effects growing bigger when impoverished countries are at stake. South Sudan is currently living one of its most tragic moments since it gained independence in 2011. The country is being wrecked by a deadly civil war that has been ongoing for over a year now. Millions of lives are at risk due to escalating violence and food shortages that result from deep-rooted inter-ethnic clashes that broke out in the country’s Upper Nile and Unity states.

A large-scale civil conflict broke out in the world’s youngest country in December 2013, after President Salva Kiir Mayardi accused his Vice-President, Riek Machar, of plotting a coup d’état. So far, the violence has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and displaced more than 1.5 million people within the country (out of a total population of around 11.5 million, with one of the highest growth rates in the whole continent), while about 520,000 have fled to neighboring countries (according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UNOCHA). The civil war is undoubtedly the most significant cause for both internal and external mass migration.

The conflict is wreaking havoc on South Sudanese livelihoods as people can’t move freely around the country and are prevented from trading, planting crops and taking care of their livestock. Either the SPLA (Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the national army) or the Neur army (loyal to Machar) exerts tight control over rural populations in the Upper Nile, Jonglei, Unity, Warrap, and Lakes states. Meanwhile, in the southeastern part of the country, tens of thousands have managed to cross the borders into Ethiopia and Uganda. About 3.5 million people – nearly 40% of South Sudan’s population – will require emergency food assistance by June 2015 (Fews Net). The number of South Sudanese demanding humanitarian assistance has increased by about 500,000 over the past year. Also, the prospect of cholera is a very troublesome factor because of the upcoming rainy season as road networks are going to be difficult for medical personnel (Médecins Sans Frontières in particular is active in the area) to traverse. The South Sudanese population is facing a scenario in which ordinary climate factors are also immeasurably worsened by war.

Moreover, human trafficking highly contributes to increasing the human flow. The central government has practically lost control over forced displacements and inter-ethnic kidnappings. In the case of South Sudan, human trafficking mostly targets women and girls who are internally and externally displaced. Trafficking often occurs to and from neighboring countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea and the DRC. Often, women and young girls are promised employment opportunities but end up exploited as commercial sex workers, domestic servants, or foreign laborers, usually without a proper labor contract or protection from exploitation. Also, legislative factors have a high impact on the current situation: indeed, South Sudanese law does not prohibit all forms of human trafficking and authorities do not investigate and prosecute most offenders. While limited protection was provided to former child soldiers in 2013, no steps have been taken to identify victims of sex or labor trafficking or to provide them with assistance. It should be acknowledged, however, that South Sudan was both a source and a destination for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking way before the conflict with Sudan.

The war of independence was also the main reason why Sudan has been awash with arms, even long before the country split in two. When South Sudan seceded in 2011, it was estimated that there were up to 3.2 million small arms in circulation. Two-thirds of these were thought to be in the hands of civilians. Since then, arms have proliferated on both sides of the recently devised border, with fatal results and the number of small arms is estimated to have sharply increased during South Sudan’s three years as an independent nation, partly due to the multiple rebel and militia groups that sprung up in the Jonglei and Upper Nile states in 2011. As one could easily imagine, the largest part of these arms comes from neighboring countries, like Ethiopia and Uganda, but also from Sudan (which is doing nothing to prevent the escalation of violence among its former cousins). However, these countries are nothing but a gateway: rifles and machine guns carry Chinese, Ukrainian and German labels, as documented for example by Amnesty International. To this extent, the civil war has fueled the international flow of arms to South Sudan, which had remained constant since the early 1980s. Last year, a shipment reportedly including $38 million in missiles, grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and ammunition arrived from China to the port of Mombasa, Kenya, and then made its way to South Sudan. In a shock to the international community in September 2014, China was reported to have frozen all arms transfer agreements to South Sudan and had adopted a policy of no more new agreements. Being one of the largest exporters of arms to South Sudan, this was a significant step.

For many South Sudanese, it is very disappointing to learn that their government has been spending tens of millions of dollars on weapons when the country is on the brink of famine, especially because there is a wealth of evidence that the arms and ammunition acquired by the government have fallen into the hands of opposition forces. In relation to this, many NGOs have reported worrisome legislative and administrative shortcomings: reportedly, South Sudan has no policy on managing the weapons surplus and has not systematically destroyed excess or non-serviceable firearms since obtaining independence in 2011. The situation grows even more worrisome as in the current conflict the government has failed to record its arms stockpiles, therefore government stockpiles could indeed be arming the rebels. As a consequence, arms are quickly spilling into the public sphere, ending up in the hands of civilians and on the black market. Apart from government stock leaks, weapons also reach civilians through porous borders with neighboring countries. The vast majority of the illegal small weapons trade is run by small communities in South Sudan’s northern states of Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Warrap and Upper Nile. The fact that such villages and rural areas remain largely unmapped fosters this situation. In fact, Sudanese nomads are thought to supply small arms and ammunition to individual buyers. Meanwhile, larger groups and rebel militias seeking larger amounts of arms have to import from neighboring countries: for instance, the South Sudanese White Army (Nuer Youth from the Jonglei and Upper Nile states) procure weapons and ammunition locally from traders across the border from Ethiopia’s Gambella region (Small Arms Supply). Of course, government and the opposition rebel movements frequently trade accusations over who is responsible for the spread of illegal arms within the country.

As a consequence, large amounts of money flow out of Sudan. But even larger sums come in, partly thanks to the oil trade. Not long after the South Sudanese government began exploiting the oil wells of the disputed territory of Abyei, sales began increasing. But how? Here it gets tricky. South Sudan produces 85% of Sudanese oil as accorded in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Under the settlement, South Sudan can rely on pipelines, refineries and port facilities in the Red Sea state in North Sudan. In exchange, Khartoum receives a 50% share of all oil revenues. Oil revenues constitute more than 98% of South Sudan’s military budget, or more than $8 billion in revenue since the signing of the agreement (2005). In this regard, the CPA is a strong and impactful factor for international money to flow into South Sudan. The consortium extracting crude oil is a partnership between Chinese, Malaysian and Indian firms; therefore, exports mostly concern China (about 85% in 2013), but also Japan and India.

In sum, the civil war is having a devastating impact on migration flows, and it tightly linked to the streams of arms, oil and thus money. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is leading peace talks, has announced a “different and innovative approach” to solving the conflict that will bring in Great Britain, China and the US, as well as other African mediators. Analysts are however skeptical and, to prevent any further arms flows, are calling upon the UN Security Council to impose a comprehensive arms embargo against South Sudan that would cover all military hardware and associated technical assistance, training and financing to all parties. In any case, a serious diplomatic effort will have to tackle the interrelated inward and outward flows that have so far contributed to the disastrous conditions in the country.