from Africa in Transition

South Sudan Conflict: Personalities, Resources, and Threats

April 16, 2014

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South Sudan

This is a guest post by Allen Grane, intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program. Allen is currently an officer in the Army National Guard. His interests are in Africa, conflict, and conflict resolution.

In March, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the international organization that represents east African nations, announced plans to deploy a stabilization and protection force to South Sudan by mid-April. As of April 1, IGAD also announced that peace talks between the warring factions in South Sudan were suspended for a month. There is no update on the development of the stabilization force.

This is not a good sign. Despite a peace agreement the conflict in South Sudan continues and IGAD has not only been unable to call up troops to deploy they have also failed to develop a mission mandate. This must be done in conjunction with the AU and the UN, who already have a force in South Sudan.

The question now is, when does IGAD plan to deploy troops? The current delay may have something to do with threats from Riek Machar, the former vice-president of South Sudan and leader of the rebel forces. Machar is strongly opposed to any international deployment including an IGAD force. He has stated that, “if [IGAD] wants to colonize us we will fight them.”

Machar appears to have plans of his own. Despite the peace agreement between his forces and the government he announced plans to seize the Paloch oil fields in the north of the country. Since the beginning of the conflict oil production in South Sudan has fallen from 240,000 to 150,000 barrels a day. These oil fields are in danger despite the UN forces in the region as they are preoccupied with displaced peoples, and their mandate does not specifically cover the protection of facilities.

The South Sudanese government understands how important oil production is to their success. Just last week an article in Businessweek discussed the South Sudanese government’s plans to raise oil output and develop diesel refineries in Unity state. However, after heavy fighting over the last two days the rebel forces claim to have seized oil fields near Bentiu, Unity state. It is still unclear who instigated the fighting in the region.

If Machar is able to seize the oil fields in Paloch the country’s oil production will fall even more drastically. As oil accounts for approximately 98 percent of South Sudan’s revenue, Machar would essentially have a strangle hold on the country and its resources.

Machar would be left holding all the chips in the negotiation process. The government, led by President Salva Kiir would either be forced to capitulate to Machar’s demands or respond with military force. I believe the government would choose the latter option.

As such the mission and goals of IGAD’s stabilization and protection force could change drastically if it takes too long to respond. Currently, IGAD would be able to move to protect many of the country’s oil fields and prevent conflict over control of South Sudan’s greatest resource. However, if Machar is able to take control of the Paloch oil fields before this happens, IGAD may have to decide whether they are willing to send their forces into what could possibly be an active war zone.