Understanding the Suicidal War in South Sudan

This is one of the best analysis of the South Sudan crisis we have seen. We liked it so much we are posting an English translation from the original French article as a guest blog.

Original article by Vincent Hugeux, published January 8, 2014 at 7:57 in the French newspaper L’Express.

Translated from the French for AidLeap by Abiol Deng.

Africa’s newest state, South Sudan, is the scene of a deadly conflict, the stakes of which Professor Gérard Prunier breaks down.

What do we know in our part of the world about South Sudan, with Juba as its capital? If truth be told, not much. Maybe those French who are familiar with Post-colonial African upheavals will remember that the newest sovereign state on the black continent, which is as large as France, inhabited by 11 million souls and endowed with an enviable abundance of oil, came to being in July 2011. They are probably aware that South Sudan was born of a separation between the Sudan of Islamist Field Marshall and President Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes perpetrated by his militias in Darfur, and the predominantly Christian and animist rebellious southern territories. This Separation was bitterly negotiated at the end of more than two decades of carnage. As for those “addicted” to Sub-Saharan current events, they will know that this frail newborn has been stricken since mid-December by a deadly conflict which opposes President Salva Kiir of the Dinka ethnic group and his Nuer ex-Vice President Riek Machar, who was fired five months earlier under the pretext that he had hatched a putsch attempt. The current result: several thousand dead and 200,000 displaced.

A former researcher at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), longtime director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies and presently working as an independent consultant, Gérard Prunier bluntly breaks down the stakes and the hidden agendas of the confrontations that are setting ablaze five of the ten states which comprise the country. Moreover, it is from Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union and, since Monday, the site of laborious peace talks, that Prunier answered our questions.

What are the chances of success for the Addis Ababa talks?

Zero. They are non-existent. This is war. The winner will be he who ousts the other militarily and diplomatically. Only intense international pressure convinced the two delegations to meet here, even if it’s only for show.

Announced as imminent, would the recapture of Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, by President Salva Kiir’s forces sound the death-knell of the insurrection?

No, quite the opposite: If government troops take back the key cities, they will only control the urban centers but certainly not the rural areas which are destined to interminable guerilla warfare. Put simply, Juba finds itself in the situation of Khartoum ten or twenty years ago, master of the cities but not of the rest. Incidentally, know that this “coup d’état” story is total garbage. Hunted down, Riek Machar is probably only alive thanks to his bodyguards, who hid him as he slipped through a fence.

 From a military standpoint, what are the power struggles?

Machar himself told me, he has more volunteers than needed but he lacks munitions and fuel. Put simply, if he doesn’t receive help from Ethiopia with the approval of the United States, he will be in a real bind. Thus, in the short term, the Bashir-Kiir team can prevail. In the long term this is out of the question.

Can the announced doubling of UNMISS troops (the United Nations contingent), meant to go from 6,000 to 12,500 men help to put out the fire?

By no means. In South Sudan the UN is useless.

What role does Omar al-Bashir, who has never recovered from the amputation of his “Sudan,” which was imposed by the international community, play on this chessboard?

Here’s what he said to a now very unpopular Kiir: “Salva, you’re hard up. I am coming to your rescue but in return give me back the oil wells. Don’t worry, I’ll leave you some crumbs, enough to buy yourself some apartments in London or some villas in Nairobi and to fill your bank accounts in the Virgin Islands or in Luxemburg.”

Is it truly the eviction of Riek Machar that sent the sparks flying?

Yes, even if the conflict began before that with the forced retirement of 170 officers who assisted the SPLM-North, a guerilla group of black Muslims who are hostile to Bashir. At the origin of this crisis, there is Salva Kiir’s realization that he had no chance of honestly winning the 2015 election. That’s why he bowed down to the master of Khartoum. Since the embraces of the two men on Monday, no more doubts are possible: Kiir has sold himself body and soul to the Arab enemy of yesteryear. This man is so stupid that he has managed by behaving thus to strengthen a fierce opposition against him.

What is the role of ethnicity in the current conflict which is marked by ethnic violence of Dinka against Nuer?

It is by no means an ethnic or clannish conflict. As often in Africa, war against the other is merely the collateral effect of a power struggle. The evidence here is that one finds Dinkas in the anti-Kiir camp.

Let’s now look at the position of the regional actors, starting with IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.

Very simple: IGAD doesn’t exist. It’s a “thing” to reprise the name that Charles de Gaulle gave the UN, but a very small thing. Uganda is sticking to its support of Salva Kiir. And for a reason: hovering in the entourage of President Yoweri Museveni, who thinks he is Bismarck, are many businessmen who have economically colonized South Sudan. It’s the same for Kenya, even if Uhuru Kenyatta does not think of himself as a great man. This being said, the wind is changing. Nairobi, overcome by the fear of chaos, has begun an operation of backpedaling. As for Eritrea, they are supporting Salva Kiir. Ethiopia, which hasn’t had a real government since the death of Zenawi, hesitates and procrastinates. The military in Addis know very well that a victory by the president in place would lead straight to a guerilla war without end, hence the stalemate. Nevertheless, without a green light from the political class they cannot make any decisions.

What is the role of Bejing, the largest international buyer of Sudanese oil and the number one investor that is apparently very active in the diplomatic arena?

Truthfully, the Chinese are a bit lost. They don’t have any ambition other than to preserve their energy and financial interests.

Does South Sudan’s fragility have historic roots?

Yes. We find them first in the British colonial policy. In the 1930s and 40s, London refrained from forming a local elite. Nevertheless, later on, remarkable personalities emerged. However John Garang (historic leader of the Southern rebellion, killed in a plane crash in July 2005) feared their talents and pushed them away, even if it meant killing some of them. Therefore, all of the educated diaspora remained at a distance. Hence the arrival of an actor as mediocre as Salva Kiir, ex-sergeant of the Sudanese army, with a greater interest in whisky and women than in nation building and whom Khartoum manipulates like a puppet.


Gérard Prunier is a French academic and historian specializing in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.

Abiol Deng is an international development consultant based in Berlin, Germany.


Want to read more about South Sudan? Check some of our other blogs:

18 thoughts on “Understanding the Suicidal War in South Sudan

  1. Pingback: Saturday Morning Reading #5 | A Pett Project

  2. Insightful analysis but stops at painting a pessimistic picture of the whole conflict resulting from the scholar’s refrain from projecting solutions.

  3. Congratulation for the wonderful, candid, truthful, and profound analysis ever publish since this deadly war broke out on 15 December 2013. Please, keep the good and we will be there to provide any hard facts from the ground, Thanks

  4. All that people are clamoring about as failures of the Government of South Sudan are indeed SPLM failures. The SPLM failure to organize itself with functional organs and institutions sensitive to the concerns of the citizens; the failure to evolve a political ideology has resulted in the ethnicization of SPLM power politics; the failure to institutionalise power relations within the SPLM has result in autocracy and one-man dictatorship relying on ethnic lobbies and close business associates who have turned South Sudan and its state institutions into a limited liability enterprise. These are the issues that have precipitated the current political crisis.

  5. Sweeping, unbacked categorical assertions from somebody with a thin grasp of Machar’s problem.

    In the 80s, 90s and 2000s, Garang’s SPLA managed to hang on in the bush and take some towns because they had substantial foreign backing. That allowed them places to resupply, rearm, train and sustain the fight.

    Machar has no foreign backers – nobody to sell him or send him guns, ammo, food, supplies. The notion of Ethiopia and the US helping him is sheer fantasy. The guy has no plausible way to resupply, so he’ll fight as long as the ammo holds out, and then try to get the best deal he can in Addis.

  6. Also, the idea that the “historic roots” of the conflict “start” in the 1930s is staggering for someone calling himself a Sudan expert. There’s historical evidence in written arabic documents of intra-south ethnic conflict and slave raiding as far back as the 17th century!! Gah, but there were no brits around then, and it’s such a shame to spoil a neat anti-colonialist riff…

  7. Pingback: Weekend Reading | Backslash Scott Thoughts

  8. This analysis is too substandard and subjective at best, the author failed to provide a balanced and fair assessment of the situation. He also fall short of providing possible solution to the crisis. Describing the President as having “greater interest in whisky and woman” isn’t analysis at all but personal defamation. It is abundantly clear from this article that the “scholar” had placed greater interest the success of failed coup, he would better be advise to accept the fact that Riek’s rebellion is doomed to fail.

  9. The author has shown his imbecility and naivety to the situation that brought South Sudan to where it is today. It is a common phenomenon most western scholars would see a puppet to the west as a genuine political leader and those independent-minded as drunkards, womanizers and the likes. Call Prez Kiir those names as you want, but it wont change the fact that he is the legitimate leader of the Republic of South Sudan. Gérard Prunier, Francoise Hollande was caught having an affair with an actress in France, if this does not legitimize a leader and thus makes him a puppet, then whose puppet is your president Hollande?

  10. This artical is good but lacking critical and centre critisism againts both sides. I think it clear this this author seem to be in love with other single side, which you can clearly see.

  11. I regretted why I even had to read this woeful partisan opinionated piece. This Riek you are painting as a saint as such a woeful bloody past that Id Amin and Adolf Hitler would be ashamed to be associated with him. I wouldn’t be surprised if the article is a product of lobbying business.

  12. I have not gotten any value from reading this critique. It doesnt point to any solid basis of this conflict or any remedy for resolution. Why write when you will neither clearly explain the conflict or give any remediation. We need solutions not whimpers and baseless personal attacks…

    War is a lose lose game in the long run. It is the best interest of both sides to have candid dialogue and deal with the issues at hand. It is sad that the Nelson Mandela philosophy that made most of the news in early december isn’t coming into play. There is enough for every South Sudanese and some east africans in that beautiful country.

    • The author of this biased and short sighted analysis is a member of the old school of divide and conquer type of thing. I thought Gerard’s President Hollande, has met the theme of this article, ironically, if Gerard wanted to talk about president who loves women and concubines per se.

  13. You start the article with the following words: “What do we know in our part of the world about South Sudan, with Juba as its capital? If truth be told, not much” You are very right! And the ignorance applies abundantly to you too the writer of this article. IGAD is the problem, Kiir is the problem, investors (business people) are the problem, Chinese are the problem, Khartourm is the problem and so on. The cool nice and great saviour is Riek Machar and the West. Are you aware the fellow abandoned the struggle, wined and dined with the enemy and even ordered some macabre massacres of unimaginable magnitude against defenseless villagers (women having their breasts cut off and children beheaded)? He himself confessed to this. Just because Kiir is selling the oil to China and the west are not having their way, a coup has to be sanitised. This is Id Amin coup against Obote being played all over again. We haven’t forgotten that Amin was a project of the West. Having said that, the South Sudanese need to realise that they will be the end losers in a war and should solve their differences through democratic means.

  14. Pingback: South Sudan Cessation of Hostilities Agreement | AID LEAP

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