South Sudan risks entering a second round of conflict

South Sudan risks entering a second round of conflict

Former rebel leader Riek Machar has returned to South Sudan and formed a transitional government with President Salva Kiir but the risk of instability and renewed conflict remains high.

On Tuesday April 26, former rebel leader and now Vice President Riek Machar landed in Juba, South Sudan. The return of Machar sparked celebrations, similar to the optimism which swept the country in July 2011, when South Sudan secured independence from Sudan after decades of war.

Unfortunately, the underlying problems that set South Sudan up to fail at independence have remained entrenched. Although relative stability in South Sudan is probable in the short-term, the risk of escalating political tensions and a resumption of conflict in the medium to long-term is considerably higher. South Sudan’s future, rather than becoming more peaceful, has now become more uncertain.

Transitional government

The transitional national unity government, comprising both SPLM and SPLM-IO members, is now in place, set to rule for a period of 30 months until the next election. During this time, Kiir and Machar will need to work together to re-integrate former rebel troops into the army, fix the rapidly deteriorating economy and promote reconciliation whilst punishing those guilty of atrocities on both sides of the conflict by establishing a hybrid court.

All of this takes place in the context of poor relations between the two leaders and their respective factions, as well as a very small political budget to maintain patronage. An increased budget might increase the incentive for ensuring a fragile peace. This will only occur if the government receives funding from the international community as promised during the peace process. But even this is dependent upon implementing the conditions in the peace deal.

Given the country’s profoundly weak institutions, South Sudan has only ever been run through monetised patronage networks largely brokered by Kiir and Machar. This mode of governance has no track-record in generating an economic recovery or political stability. Instead, a political system characterised by patronage networks and depleting state resources, is exactly the context which allowed for the outbreak of war in December 2013.

In the run-up to the war, political competition and distrust between Kiir and Machar increased as did competition for control of depleting the oil revenues. Oil revenues had declined owing to a suspension in production designed to increase South Sudan’s bargaining power in negotiations with Sudan (concerning the use of the oil pipeline which ran across their borders). In turn, the parallel political-ethnic-military structures in government, held together by patronage, clashed in December 2013 when Machar was accused of plotting a coup by Kiir, after having been fired in July 2013 for his intentions of running for the presidency.

Today nothing has really changed. Machar still maintains aspirations for the presidency in the face of unwavering opposition from Kiir’s loyalists. Meanwhile, inflation in Juba is reportedly at 240%, with the economy contracting by 5.3% in 2015, as war resulted in oil production reportedly declining by a third to just 160,000 barrels per day. The only distinctive difference at present is that political and ethnic tensions are more deeply entrenched than ever.

Remnants of war

The civil war which killed tens of thousands and displaced approximately 2.3 million people, has torn apart the fabric of society. The numerous Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups have deeper fault lines between them, having fought against each other across the country, largely for the SPLM and SPLM-IO, respectively. Simultaneously, state infrastructure has been weakened even further. 


Without a well-disciplined and well-financed security sector, insecurity became rife across South Sudan during the war. As a result, communal and ethnic militias emerged, or regrouped, in an effort to protect their land or cattle from competing groups. A cycle of deadly attacks and revenge attacks ensued, facilitated by the widespread availability of weapons from the war.

This dynamic remains embedded in many areas of the country. Notably, the pervasive insecurity and ethnic tensions have even spilled into neighbouring Gambella, Ethiopia, where on April 15, 2016, approximately 182 Nuer were massacred by a Murle and Dinka militia from Boma state, South Sudan.

A fragile peace

Although the recent formation of the transitional government is probably the most significant and encouraging step in the peace process -since the signing of the August 2015 peace agreement coordinated by IGAD, it is also the most fragile. Roughly 1,500 rebel fighters and 30,000 government troops are currently located in Juba.

It goes without saying that whatever the political intention is behind this decision, clashes could easily erupt between the two sides. This would have the potential to regenerate a fully fledged conflict again and completely undermine the progress that has been made thus far.


Source: Flickr.

 South Sudan’s only hope for longer-term stability depends on the nature of the implementation of the transitional government and how well the former warring factions coordinate.

However, it should be noted that when Machar was last Vice-President, the result was war. Indeed, Machar himself was clearly reluctant to begin the latest challenging process of forming a government in South Sudan, and continues to mistrust Kiir, as indicated by his repeatedly delayed arrival to the country from Ethiopia, originally scheduled for August 18. If the two leaders resume political competition in the context of a lack of trust and communication, renewed conflict is almost certain.

Furthermore, even if a political peace is sustained, South Sudan’s fractured ethnic landscape and lack of state presence will continue to facilitate ongoing inter-communal violence. Unfortunately, not all violence matters to the political elites, only that which directly impacts their negotiating positions or can realistically be used to enhance relative political power. The latter mode of violence risks remaining the political elite’s key bargaining tool in the peace process, which has repeatedly broken down since August 2015.

Between a rock and a hard place

South Sudan seems to be trapped between a rock and a hard place. The unity of the government and military comes at the cost of the economy, while the stability of the economy influences the success of peaceful power-sharing. To maintain control and unity of soldiers and former rebels, Kiir and Machar need to pay them.

This will prove challenging with a lack of state resources, while there is also a contradictory need for substantial government spending cuts to reboot the economy which would facilitate the formation of a long-term peaceful and functional political system.

About Author

Elliot Kratt

Elliot is a Freelance Analyst with The Economist Intelligence Unit. Prior to this, he held positions in a number of risk consultancies and has worked in East and West Africa. He has been quoted by journalists with the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal. Elliot holds a first class BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Leeds. All views expressed are his own.