Blame South Sudan’s Civil War on Elites, Not “Ethnic Tensions”

Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, attends the meeting of the National Liberation Council at the Freedom Hall in Juba on December 2, 2022. (Samir Bol / AFP via Getty Images)

Stefan Bakumenko (Jacobin) 2 May 2024

South Sudan’s post-independence instability is often blamed on ethnic tensions. But exploitation by international companies and zero-sum competition over resources between local elites are the real causes of ongoing violence in the country.

In South Sudan, generals and politicians have siphoned off the country’s oil wealth (98 percent of state revenue in 2013 alone), bolstered by a “gun class” of government soldiers, community militias, cattle raiders, and private guards who then fight over cattle, mining, and timber industries. While public reporting and official narratives largely focus on the ethnic nature of South Sudan’s violence, an unrestricted race for wealth and power is what really undergirds this contest. South Sudan may be the world’s youngest country, but the ongoing conflict is a process decades in the making. Since the 1950s, foreign governments and corporations have consistently legitimized the most predatory actors in the region.

Elite Conflicts After two civil wars spanning virtually all of independent Sudan’s history (1955–72, 1983–2005), South Sudan achieved independence by popular referendum in 2011. The conflicts were often framed as “Arab” Khartoum versus “African” South Sudanese tribes, but struggles for oil wealth and factional enrichment were far better explainers. Indeed, some of the most brutal fighting, including the massacre of two thousand people in Bor in 1991, was between South Sudanese factions. Accordingly, only two years after independence, coalitions under President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar (architect of the Bor bloodbath) came to blows in the capital of Juba, initiating a civil war that engulfed much of the country. Parties to the conflict would employ systematic sexual and gender-based violence, hate speech and ethnic cleansing, and starvation as a weapon of war. Kiir’s centralization of access to state oil revenues was important to the war’s initiation, and the oil fields of Unity State and Upper Nile became key battlegrounds. Though the conflict technically ended with a peace deal in 2018 and a power-sharing government in 2020, the parties have merely decentralized their economic and political contests. Accordingly, violence against civilians and between proxy forces and militias persists.

But rather than a “two feuding generals” narrative (as we see again in discussion of Sudan today), violence in the country has always been tied to local realities. The many factions in South Sudan are hardly top-down or ideologically driven. Elites in Juba and provincial capitals can only fight over personal wealth by paying off militias and mobilizing patronage networks that took decades to build. Since the 1980s, Kiir, Machar, and others have been arming communities, promoting ethnicized violence, and cynically politicizing traditional beliefs and rituals that had once regulated murder and theft.

Rather than intrinsic hatred, ethnic/tribal identity became a tool to create networks of mutual protection and profit during the deprivations of civil war. In instances in which the supposed ethnic loyalties of factions have come into conflict with their material interests, the latter have often won out. For example, the Nuer White Army, diffuse bands of cattle raiders responsible for Bor and essential to the 2013 civil war, have often ignored or killed Nuer elites that opposed them. The official peace of 2018, focused on formal institutions and power-sharing in Juba, could hardly resolve the zero-sum economic competition, instrumentalized identities, and coercive nature of such diffuse networks. South Sudan is now in its sixth year of “transition” with very little to show for it. The unified armed forces are starved of money and support, political offices are treated as personal coffers, and Kiir’s repression in the run-up to December elections is creating a powder keg for renewed violence.

The money for these essential patronage networks has had to come from somewhere. Despite war crimes and repression, international corporations have been active and essential in all phases of South Sudan’s violence. In the eleven years between the First and Second Sudanese Civil Wars, Chevron (with investment from Shell) discovered and began developing oil fields in the Greater Upper Nile region. In 1980, in contravention of the 1972 peace deal, Sudanese president Gaafar Nimeiry created “Unity” State to take the fields completely out of the hands of the South’s already marginalized regional government.

Nimeiry routed oil through a pipeline northward to Port Sudan rather than southward to Kenya, which has ensured Sudan takes a cut of South Sudanese oil to this day. This extraction was an important catalyst for the second war, as cited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) when it declared itself in 1983. After an attack on the oil fields by unaffiliated Nuer soldiers, Chevron halted operations. The SPLM/A, which still rules South Sudan, told Chevron not to restart work. Khartoum pressed for the opposite, and Chevron countered with a five-point plan to build locally inclusive oil infrastructure and invest in local health, water, and education. However, not only did this investment never materialize, but Chevron ignored the fact that Khartoum-armed Baggāra militias and Nuer proxy forces under Paulino Matiep were violently clearing the lands around the oil fields of Dinka and Nuer villagers. Furthermore, the oil conglomerate had reportedly been the party that asked Khartoum for these “oil protection” forces; both South Sudanese officials and a journalist with the Economist even accused Chevron of directly supporting the militias.

Protection Rackets This “protection” effort intersected nicely with Khartoum’s operations against the civilian population. As seen in Darfur a decade later, gunships bought with oil money buzzed villages while well-armed and coordinated “protection forces” besieged and cleared communities (often robbing them and enslaving the women and children). Beyond oil profits that funded Khartoum’s indiscriminate war effort, the oil industry’s infrastructure — roads, airstrips, physical facilities — enhanced the mobility of the militias and government forces. These “oil protection” units then became key participants in the profiteering “South-South” violence of the 1990s (like the Bor massacre) and perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities of the South Sudanese Civil War (the Padang Dinka “Oil Protection Force” campaign against the Shilluk in 2017).

Loosely affiliated, opportunistic militias thus proliferated throughout the 1980s and 1990s to alternately protect or procure oil rents for the highest bidder. The new coup government of Omar al-Bashir eventually ran Chevron out of Unity in 1985 and all of Sudan in 1992. Khartoum partnered with a less risk-averse consortium comprising the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (the largest in China), Malaysian state-owned Petronas, and private Canadian firm Arakis (later bought up by a larger Canadian firm, Talisman). Chevron would not reap the full profits of an industry it had carved out amid Greater Upper Nile’s suffering. This was the beginning of Chinese, Malaysian, and later Indian and East African corporate domination of South Sudan’s resources.

The United States also offers a common thread in this period. Then US ambassador to the UN George Bush Sr reportedly facilitated Chevron’s contract with Nimeiry. Later, the United States pressured Chevron into exiting Sudan as it soured on al-Bashir’s coups, violence, and support for international Islamist fundamentalism. The United States became a leading driver of the southern “peace” process, pressuring Khartoum with sanctions while corralling the main South Sudanese actors to the table, culminating in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

But the main South Sudanese actors were often the same self-styled “oil protection forces” and various other predatory power players (SPLM/A factions included). The CPA largely excluded South Sudanese civil society and did more to get Khartoum and Juba to divide up oil rents than work toward actual equity and accountability after years of destructive war. It not only glossed over but exacerbated the violent economic contestation underneath much of the vicious South-South violence of the 1990s. Salva Kiir’s SPLM/A government ramped up violent “disarmament” campaigns against rivals while plundering the opaque, state-run oil conglomerate Nilepet (created in 2009).

From 2005 to 2013, international “peacebuilders” and “statebuilders” reveled in crafting the “new” South Sudan. The United States, United Kingdom, and Norway (the “Troika”) and various African governments (often with their own political and economic stakes) played the roles of mediators, bureaucrats, and humanitarians. Militia leaders, community elders, and militarized businessmen who had spent years appealing to ethnic hatred, religious prophecy, and pure force were expected to freely commit to formal institutions and winner-take-all elections. Though Khartoum and Juba reached a relatively stable working arrangement on the Port Sudan pipeline, it should hardly be surprising that frequent enemies of the 1990s (Kiir’s Dinka Titweng troops and Machar’s White Army allies) returned to violence in 2013. After the interregnum of the civil war, South Sudan returned to similar processes. The oil fields began to dry up, but international commodity traders allowed the government to trade in prepayments for future oil sales, mortgaging South Sudan’s main income source tomorrow so leaders could buy mansions and luxury cars today. Massive cattle herds (built through violent raiding), destructive logging, and exploitative mines are often overseen by soldiers, funded by foreign companies, and integrated into transnational supply chains. Juba is more stratified than ever, with new luxury hotels overlooking the Nile and waterfront bars catering to aid workers, diplomats, and government officials. The short distance from the international airport to the Vatican Embassy is covered with a pristine paved road, built solely for the Pope’s February 2023 visit.

But in this microcosm of South Sudan’s inequity, much of Juba remains a sea of uneven dirt roads, emaciated goats and cattle, tuk tuks and biker gangs, cash lenders and charcoal traders. Walls near the Presidential Palace are marked by bullet holes from the 2013 battles. Not-so-hidden machine guns ring the infamous Blue House, from which Kiir’s military and intelligence services torture and terrorize the population. Embassies, NGO compounds, and UN offices make up islands of barbed wire “tranquility” for foreigners. Campaigning season is underway, meaning media repression, arbitrary arrest and detention of rivals and activists, and extrajudicial killings.

In this context, narratives of ethnic hatred or purely localized violence are not only inaccurate but actively harmful to the cause of understanding the kinds of exploitation taking place in the country. State and national officials claim that despite their commitment to the peace process, they’re simply being undermined by “local” violence. And while they search for solutions through conferences and unfunded initiatives, they plead innocence as the patrons and profiteers of specific raids and industries. In this internationally financed status quo, they have no incentive to share power, lay down arms, or introduce regulation and oversight. December elections may destroy the house of cards. To paraphrase one advocate: “There are 550 seats in the transitional legislature, but only 250 in the post-transition assembly. That means three hundred powerful people will lose parliamentary immunity to everything from corruption charges to The Hague.” It remains to be seen whether South Sudan will fragment violently or Kiir will become more powerful than ever. Either way, there is money to be made and lives to be lost.


Stefan Bakumenko is an independent researcher based in Washington, DC. He has previously worked with Refugees International, the International Peace Institute, and the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

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