Khartoum Meddling, Duplicity, Tribalism and the Uncertain Future of South Sudan

The bulk of the oil reserves of the Sudan oil fields extend into both countries. The total estimated reserves of these cross-border fields are 5 billion barrels. Approximately 3.5 billion barrels are in South Sudan and 1.5 billion barrels are in the Republic of Sudan. The oil fields of South Sudan are thus a very tempting target for an aggressive Khartoum regime.


By Morgan Norval | February 10, 2014


President Salva Kiir (Dinka)Vice President Riek Machar (Nuer)

Although there is apparent peace in the recent civil struggle in South Sudan, the underlying causes of the civil conflict remain unsettled.

The civil war that exploded in South Sudan on December 15, 2013 against the majority government of President Salva Kiir has its roots in the curse of Africa—tribalism. The fighting occurred along tribal lines between the Nuer and Dinka tribes. The tension and conflict between the two groups have a long history, going back decades.

In 1991 while the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was fighting for its independence from the Khartoum Islamic Arab government, current vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer, split from the SPLA and set up his own political-military movement based on his Nuer tribal base. In November 1991, forces under his command massacred over 2,000 Dinka tribesmen in Bor, the capital of Machar’s home state, Yonglai in Upper Nile. This touched off years of bitter struggle between the Dinka and Nuer.

Six years later, the Nuer, under Machar, cut a deal and formally allied with the Khartoum Islamic government in the Republic of Sudan. To nobody’s surprise, Khartoum supported the Nuer in their fight against the SPLA—the old game of divide and conquer was the goal of the National Islamic Front government in Khartoum. Their support enabled the Nuer to inflict more casualties on the SPLA than had the Arab Sudan government. The Nuer also targeted the vast cattle herds of the Dinka. Cattle are an integral part of Dinka tribal culture. The Nuer targeting resulted in much bitterness and animosity on the part of the Dinka and contributed to the intensity of the fighting between the two groups.

Eventually, the SPLA was able to prevail in its independence struggle against Khartoum and a new nation, South Sudan emerged. This resulted in an uneasy reconciliation between the Nuer and Dinka as Nuer forces were integrated into the new South Sudan army and the Nuer leader, Riek Machar, was made Vice-President of the South Sudan government.

The Khartoum government, however, had a few trick cards up its sleeve. On June 8, 2013, they unilaterally blocked the oil flow from the South Sudan oil fields to the north threatening the fragile South Sudan government, which relies upon its oil exports.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) oil accounts for 57 percent of the Khartoum government’s revenues and a whopping 98 percent of South Sudan’s governmental revenues. Oil is crucial to both countries, but an essential lifeline for South Sudan. The Khartoum government has a stranglehold on South Sudan as the newly independent nation is landlocked and depends upon the pipelines and exporting facilities in Islamic Sudan—especially Port Sudan—to get its oil to market. The world has already seen Russia shut down its energy exports to Europe to influence European political decisions deemed harmful to Russian interests. Shutting down the pipelines could quickly throttle South Sudan’s fragile economy.

The bulk of the oil reserves of the Sudan oil fields extend into both countries. The total estimated reserves of these cross-border fields are 5 billion barrels. Approximately 3.5 billion barrels are in South Sudan and 1.5 billion barrels are in Islamic Sudan. The oil fields of South Sudan are thus a very tempting target for an aggressive Khartoum regime. Assisting the Nuer rebels is a logical choice for Khartoum as it could lead to further destabilization in South Sudan, creating possible escalating chaos in the poor landlocked country. Since Machar has prior experience working with Khartoum, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for him to claim to represent the rebel Nuer or to call on Khartoum to come to the aid of the Nuer with military force. Such a scenario would have the added benefit of allowing Khartoum to seize South Sudan’s oil fields

In that regard, one must consider that Machar recently formed a resistance group, SPLM/SPLA. It is an amalgam of the ruling South Sudan People’s Movement and the South Sudan army. By forming this group, Machar is trying to become the leader of a front of loosely aligned groups of disgruntled army officers and rebels who don’t necessarily acknowledge him as their undisputed leader. Nevertheless, his newly formed group becomes a good tool for more intrigues and meddling by Khartoum as it seeks to undermine the independence of South Sudan and terminally jeopardize its future.

Meanwhile, all is not well for the Khartoum Islamic regime. It is cash strapped itself and to raise needed funds, it removed its oil subsidy which resulted in price rises on oil and other commodities including food.   This created tension and anger among the Sudanese population, which blamed the secession of South Sudan for the removal of the subsidy. However, this secession was blamed on the actions of the government of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. Things got hot in 2013 as protestors were calling for al-Bashir’s removal. A military crackdown on these protests at the end of September left around 150 dead, 750 wounded, and 2000 arrested. The crackdown has calmed things down but the tensions are still simmering beneath the surface waiting to violently spill over.

Meanwhile, during this tense period, Khartoum built up its military, purchasing combat aircraft, upgrading and expanding its southern bases. Could Khartoum be preparing for war in the south? It wouldn’t be the first time in history when a troubled regime has used war to attempt to solve its domestic and economic problems.

It would not be surprising if the chaos and conflict in South Sudan and the unrest in the Republic of Sudan presents Khartoum with an opportunity to invade South Sudan to seize its vast oil fields. They could view this as unifying their restless citizens while sorting out and reclaiming South Sudan. By stoking division in South Sudan through their ally Riek Machar, they are attempting to create conditions justifying a possible military attack on South Sudan to seize the oil fields and extinguish the newly independent state of South Sudan.


Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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