Is South Sudan ripe for armed conflict?

It seems impertinent, so soon after the extraordinary unity displayed through the independence referendum, to ask whether South Sudan is likely to face renewed armed conflict. Unfortunately, the question is both appropriate and timely. The recent clashes in Jonglei point to conditions for war that are prominently present and to prevention strategies that are urgently needed.

The roots of war of are myriad and context specific. Last week’s fighting in Jonglei state involved a complex set of personal and public factors specific to that north-eastern area of South Sudan, but it also reflects a country structured for more of the same.

The renewal of ongoing armed conflict is certainly not inevitable, but a wealth of research data correlates armed conflict with certain structural realities in South Sudan. When the following conditions are present, war tends to follow:   

  • Intergroup competition and conflict;
  • Deeply felt political, economic, and social grievances;
  • The capacity to take up arms;
  • The absence of trusted mechanisms for national decision-making and mediating political conflict.[i]

All of these conditions are present in abundance in South Sudan.

First, intergroup suspicion and conflict are definitely present now, as they have been historically.[ii] To say that ethnic conflict is present is, however, not to say that ethnic enmity is the reason. It is to recognize, rather, that ethnic and regional divisions (sometimes manifested in conflicts between tribal groups, sometimes within tribal groups and between clans) have become the focus of conflict even though the roots of conflict are elsewhere – for example, in scarce resources and the absence of public institutions to mediate disputes. There is a danger of conflating the symptom of tribal conflict with its external causes,[iii] but it is present[iv] and is one important predictor of armed conflict.

Relations between the Dinka and Nuer communities were deeply fractured, and led to a number of schisms, throughout the South’s decades-long war with Khartoum. And the same fracture is present in the clashes between a break-away militia led by George Athor, a former commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA itself in Jonglei, killing more than 100 people, more than a third of them civilians, over two days of fighting last week.

Second, that there are deeply felt political, economic, and social grievances in South Sudan is hardly news. In the most immediate sense South Sudan faces a humanitarian crisis, as was confirmed in the most recent report of the UN Secretary-General on the situation there: “While good harvests are expected in 6 of the 10 States of South Sudan, food security remains precarious, especially in the greater Bahr El Ghazal region and Jonglei State, where hundreds of thousands of people are at risk. In six States in South Sudan, malnutrition rates are above the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organization.”[v]

Beyond that are the understandably high expectations among South Sudanese that independence, self-rule, access to oil revenue, and peace itself should yield immediate and tangible benefits – expectations that will transform into even more deeply felt grievances if change isn’t soon demonstrated.

Third, the capacity for dissident groups to take up arms is not in question. Five decades of almost uninterrupted warfare have left a legacy of small arms and well established supply chains for ammunition. Furthermore, that same half century of conflict has built a political culture of legitimacy for armed resistance to mistrusted authorities.

And fourth and finally, it should not be a surprise that the absence of trusted public institutions for mediating disputes and promoting economic equity defines South Sudan. A decade ago the the OECD Guidelines on Conflict, Peace and Development Cooperation reflected the findings of peacebuilding research when it concluded that “sustainable development must …be underpinned by institutions capable of managing socio-political tensions and avoiding their escalation into violence.”[vi] South Sudan is building public institutions from scratch. It won’t happen quickly, and the danger is that it might not happen soon enough.

War prevention obviously involves attention to all four categories of conditions that are conducive to war. The need for attention to inter-group confidence building, tobasic grievances, and to small arms control is obviously recognized and relevant efforts are underway, but those are generations-long projects. To have confidence in the future South Sudanese need to see evidence of such effort, and that in turn will help with addressing what is really the most urgent requirement – that is, addressing the fourth condition by building the institutions or mechanisms capable of managing socio-political tensions and expectations.

In other words, for a real change, the people of South Sudan need a credible alternative to fighting for change.


[i] Alex J. Bellamy, “Mass Atrocities and Armed Conflict: Links, Distinctions, and Implications for the Responsibility to Prevent,” Policy Analysis Brief, The Stanley Foundation, February 2011.

[ii] Jaimie Grant, “Sub-Ethnic Division is Being Embedded into the DNA of South Sudan’s Emerging State,” Think Africa Press, 11 January 2011.

[iii] Mareike Schomerus and Tim Allen, research team leaders, South Sudan at odds with itself: Dynamics of conflict and predicaments of peace, Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics, 2010, p. 8.

[iv] International Crisis Group, Jonglei’s Tribal Conflicts: Countering Insecurity in South Sudan, Africa Report No. 154, 23 December 2009.

[v] Report of the Secretary-General on the Sudan, United Nations Security Council, 31 December (2010S/2010/681).

[vi] DAC Guidelines on Conflict, Peace and Development Co-Operation, The Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, Paris, 1997 (p. 9).

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