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Recognizing and Mitigating the Risk of Expansion of Sudan’s Conflict to South Sudan

By Amir Idris

(February 12, 2024) Sudan and South Sudan are intricately tied by a history of conflict and shared economic interests. The ongoing violence in Sudan poses a significant risk to South Sudan, further destabilizing both countries and the broader Horn of Africa region. The independence of South Sudan in 2011 was hoped to end conflict with the North, but instead, it plunged into civil war. Meanwhile, Sudan overthrew Omar El Bashir’s regime in 2019 through a civilian uprising, but its transitional government struggled to address decades of dictatorship.

The outbreak of military confrontations on April 15, 2023, between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) underscores the withering of the state and societal disintegration. Millions of civilians have been displaced, homes destroyed, infrastructure devastated, and the economy has collapsed. Despite political efforts by regional and international bodies to end the violence, progress has been elusive. While the military has been weakened, the RSF maintains its control of major strategic areas around the country.

Economically, Sudan and South Sudan are intertwined. The oil pipeline running through Sudan to Port Sudan is vital for South Sudan’s economy, and any disruption in oil flow would have severe consequences. The Jaili oil refinery, targeted by the warring parties, has suffered damage. Oil revenues not only sustain South Sudan’s economy but also maintain political alliances between competing elites who rely on the embezzlement of these revenues to stay in power. For decades, Sudan’s political and military elites also benefitted from the transportation fees they collected from South Sudan. Additionally, large segments of South Sudan’s population who live in the northern region depend heavily on cross border trade to survive.

However, in recent weeks, the fighting between the two warring parties has moved closer to the South Sudan border. For instance, the fighting around Babanusa in western Sudan could threaten the oilfield there and further destabilize South Sudan. Moreover, the conflict in Sudan has led to the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees and returnees fleeing to South Sudan. The illegal trafficking of weapons across the border has increased, leaving the northern region of South Sudan awash in illegal weapons which could worsen intercommunal violence and empower armed opposition groups operating in the country’s north. Furthermore, South Sudan is faced with a rising absence of law and order, a teetered economy, and a weak government lacking the capacity to control its territory.

Geopolitical competition in the Horn of Africa is escalating, with Gulf States, Turkey, Russia, and China vying for influence. There is military tension along the Red Sea, which could hamper oil shipping from Port Sudan. In addition, the restoration of diplomatic relations between Sudan’s government and Iran, and Iran’s interest in having access to the Red Sea through Port Sudan might regionalize the conflict and impede the shipping of South Sudan’s oil to international markets, or lower the oil price due to rising insurance costs inflicted on shipping companies as a result of insecurity, which will hurt both countries’ economies.

Against the backdrop of these entangled national and regional challenges, South Sudan is approaching the end of its extended transitional period, and the government has not yet been able to establish the necessary conditions for fair and credible elections scheduled for December 2024. There is no consensus among South Sudanese, the region, or the international community, except for the repeated calls from Western envoys to implement the 2018 agreement. Meanwhile, political and military elites have begun mobilizing their ethnic constituencies to position them for elections. Such mobilization may worsen ethnic violence before and after elections. In addition, political and military alliances are being formed across the border, with reports of some military officers from South Sudan providing logistical support to RSF, and some South Sudanese politicians maintaining strong ties with the leadership of the Sudanese army in Port Sudan. The South Sudan government and opposition groups are refining their strategies to position themselves before the end of the transition.

Therefore, both countries and the international community must prioritize mitigation strategies. This involves intensifying diplomatic efforts to facilitate dialogue and negotiation between conflicting parties in Sudan and South Sudan. Additionally, critical infrastructure, like oil pipelines and refineries, must be safeguarded to prevent further economic destabilization. Strengthening border security and addressing the flow of illegal weapons and refugees between the two countries are also key components of these mitigation efforts.

More importantly, the international community has to engage ordinary people, particularly members of civil society and marginalized groups, to forge a political path to prevent South Sudan from sliding into a disaster similar to Sudan. In the past three years, external actors, particularly the US, have invested in the capacity of civilians in Sudan to forge a consensus on a political platform to enable them to transform the country into a democracy. Despite the shortcomings of these efforts, there have been some payoffs. However, similar investments have not been made in empowering South Sudanese civilians to lead the political process there. It is critically important to ensure that civilians in South Sudan receive assistance from the international community to begin a credible process leading to democratic transformation and prevent a replication of the Sudan crisis in South Sudan.

Amir Idris is a professor of African history and politics in the Department of History at Fordham University, New York. Cover art by graphic artist Obada Gumaa Gabir.

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