Insecurity in Southern Sudan: Prelude to War or the Promise of a New Age?

John Siebert Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2010 Volume 31 Issue 1

As Sudan moves toward elections in April 2010 and the January 2011 referendum on Southern Sudan succession, instability from the escalation of cattle raiding deaths among pastoralists and attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the south have increased concerns about a return to civil war.

Growing violence in the south

On January 19, 2010 the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) reported that “an estimated 2,500 people have died and 359,000 have been displaced since January 2009 as a result of intertribal conflict and LRA-related violence” (UNSC 2010). This exceeded the number of violent deaths in the Darfur region of Sudan in the same time period.

Ms. Ameerah Haq, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, reported that between mid-December 2008 and September 2009, LRA attacks displaced 68,000 Sudanese and forced 18,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic into Sudan. At least 200 people were killed and 130 abducted by the LRA in that period (Sudan Tribune 2009).

The January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended a decades-long civil war between the Government of Sudan, based in the north in Khartoum, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), now based in Juba in the south, made provision for a six-year transitional phase. Two key CPA-mandated processes—nationwide elections and the referendum—are now in view and seen as potential triggers for a return to violent confrontation between the north and south.

A joint statement of Sudanese churches (Sudan Council of Churches 2009) further identified specific attacks on civilians and government installations as “a coordinated campaign by the enemies of peace to destabilize the South in the run up to the elections and the referendum.” A January 2010 report (Mailer & Poole, p. 2) by 10 major international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Sudan warned that “Sudan is at a crossroads and the next 12 months could determine the future of Africa’s largest nation…. [T]he peace agreement is extremely fragile and violence is again increasing. The humanitarian situation, already one of the worst in the world, is deteriorating.”

The International Crisis Group (2009, p. 1) puts it more bluntly: “Sudan is sliding towards violent breakup.” It proposes that a series of steps be taken, including new north-south negotiations assisted by the international community, to determine how these inevitably separating states will relate to each other after the referendum in 2011.

It’s understandable that alarm bells are ringing. A return to full-scale north-south war conjures up recollections of the devastation of the last phase of civil war between 1983 and 2005, when an estimated two million people were killed and four million displaced out of a population of about 30 million. Sudan also borders on nine states, all of which will suffer if Sudan returns to wide-scale military confrontation.

In a recent statement the US State Department noted: “Sudan is at an important crossroads that can either lead to steady improvements in the lives of the Sudanese people or degenerate into even more violent conflict and state failure.” As well as being tragic for Sudanese, a return to war could lead to “new safe-havens for international terrorists, significantly threatening U.S. interests.”

Canadians are watching as well. A “think piece” (North-South Institute 2009) written for the Canadian NGO umbrella group, Sudan Inter-Agency Reference Group (SIARG), outlined the factors contributing to Southern Sudan’s fragility, starting with the profound lack of human capacity and infrastructure that can be traced to the prolonged civil war (p. 3). The Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) continues to face the challenge of transforming its leadership from an insurgent military force to an accountable governing party. Progress is being made, but “the period from 2008 to 2013 is a critical juncture where large and sustained aid, security, and diplomatic investment can give Sudanese the most enabling conditions ‘to move permanently off the violent conflict escalator’” (p. 7).

If Southern Sudan becomes increasingly unstable, it risks implosion and anarchy, making it more vulnerable to aggression from the north. The current warnings are accompanied by admonitions to the international community to increase its support for security and development in Southern Sudan and to maintain international diplomatic and other forms of pressure on Khartoum to respect democratic processes and refrain from resorting to war to frustrate the self-determination of Southern Sudan.

Hope for a political solution

Even in light of the obvious problems facing Southern Sudan, there is scope for optimism. If expectations about literal implementation of the CPA’s many provisions are dramatically lowered, several things become apparent.

In the first place, the CPA was neither comprehensive nor a peace agreement. It was an elaborate ceasefire document providing processes and milestones over an interim period for restoring politics to negotiate conflicts in a land habituated to war. If war is politics by other means, as the saying goes, then to escape war is to return to politics by means of politics. The constant bickering we are now reading about between north and south political leaders and parties on election modalities, freedom of the press, and related details certainly points to potential crises. But it also points to the restoration of politics, Sudanese-style. Politics is now being conducted in Sudan between north and south without the use of guns, even though the threat of use has not disappeared.

Cattle raiding and LRA attacks are extremely serious to those directly affected, and cry out for determined action from the GoSS and UNMIS to provide improved local security. However, neither of these sources of violence has been proven to be politically directed. In other words, these forms of violent conflict are generally localized and can be understood without resort to explanations that involve manipulation by the north to destabilize the south, or exploitation of local violence by political elites in Juba for their advancement.

For a week in September 2008 Kenneth Epps and I were in Tonj East County in Warrap State in Southern Sudan to participate in research on the impact of World Vision peacebuilding and development programming on levels of violence.1 We interviewed people who had been directly affected by cattle raiding violence, including warriors involved in raids and retaliatory actions. They explained the conflict dynamics in terms of traditional rivalries and family conflicts escalated by the pervasive civilian access to automatic weapons. With various types of development assistance and negotiations along traditional lines, it was possible for peace to be restored.

As horrific as the continuing LRA violence is in Southern Sudan, the DRC, and CAR, it too is unlikely to be decisive in pushing the north and south to war. I take a cue for this conclusion from a personal encounter in September 2006 with the current President of the GoSS, Salva Kiir. I was part of a small nongovernment delegation making a courtesy call on what had to be a difficult morning. Around Juba the night before 35 civilians were killed in five separate, coordinated incidents. Speculation on the identity of the perpetrators centred on LRA soldiers, then participating in peace talks hosted in Juba, or agents of Khartoum. The government and military leaders of Southern Sudan, on this occasion and on many others since, demonstrated their unwillingness to be provoked into a military response that could escalate and upset the CPA apple cart.

The final and more important factor that leads me to believe that north-south war has effectively receded from Sudan’s horizon is the military buildup of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army since 2005. Salva Kiir has been quoted as saying: “We don’t want war.… I will not be the one to take this country back to war, but if war was to be imposed on us we can all feel assured that we are capable of defending ourselves” (Ashworth 2009, p. 20). With the assistance of Kenya, the US, and others, Southern Sudan’s elite fighting forces have been significantly upgraded with helicopter gunships, Antonov planes, tanks, and heavy artillery that will give Khartoum significant pause before contemplating even limited military incursions into oil-rich or disputed areas in the south.2 The cost of this military buildup by the GoSS has been significant (about 40 per cent of the GoSS annual budget is estimated to be devoted to “security”) and regrettable, in that financial resources have been diverted from building infrastructure and promoting economic development.

This more optimistic take on the prospects for Sudan to survive the upcoming elections and referendum without a return to north-south war hinges on the calculation that Sudan has turned a corner. Violence is no longer the usual response to conflict. By virtue of the CPA the north has also been dragged closer toward democratic practice, even if it is safe to bet that the elections will not pass the threshold of “free and fair.” To maintain this political track to sustainable peace the international community can assist but not determine the outcome—through carrots of support and sticks of pressure directed to all parties in Sudan.



  1. See Siebert & Epps, 2009.
  2. Ashworth (2009, pp. 21-22) speculates on the nature of the military engagement between the north and south should war come: “Both sides are preparing for war. In the two previous civil wars, the south was unprepared, and its liberation armies began from very small ad hoc forces. This time the south will begin with a large standing army and with arms and materiel which it could never have dreamed of before…. SPLA troops…will be fighting on their home ground to defend their own nation. Their morale will be high.”


Ashworth, John. 2009. CPA: The State of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Alert No.1, September 2009. IKV Pax Christi.

International Crisis Group. 2009. Sudan: Preventing Implosion. Africa Briefing No. 68, December.

Mailer, Maya & Lydia Poole. 2010. Rescuing the Peace in Southern Sudan. Joint NGO Briefing Paper. Oxfam International, January.

North-South Institute. 2009. The future of Canada’s engagement in Sudan. September 14.

Siebert, John & Kenneth Epps. 2009. Addressing Armed Violence in East Africa: A Report on World Vision Peacebuilding, Development and Humanitarian Assistance Programmes. World Vision Canada.

Sudan Council of Churches. 2009. Appeal for the full implementation of the CPA: Joint Statement of Sudanese Churches on the state of Sudan in October 2009. October 12.

Sudan Tribune. 2009. Ugandan rebels represent serious threat for Southern Sudan—UN. September 12.

United Nations Security Council. 2010. Report of the Secretary-General on the Sudan. January 19.

U.S. Department of State. 2009. Sudan: A critical moment, a comprehensive approach. October 19.

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