The war in Sudan will likely trigger ethnic, territorial and resource disputes in South Sudan that could ignite long-standing tensions, disrupt oil exports and propel the country back into conflict. Despite several internationally brokered cease-fires in recent weeks, the conflict in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has spread from its epicenter in Khartoum to the country’s peripheries. In the western region of Darfur, for example, clashes between the SAF, the RSF and various allied militias have pushed more than 155,000 people across the border into Chad. Fighting has also spread to the city of al-Dalanj in South Kordofan state, where clashes have reportedly forced 117,000 people to flee across the border to South Sudan. While the central battle for power between the SAF and the RSF continues to drive violence, fighting in some areas (like Darfur) is taking on an ethnic dimension reminiscent of the 2013 war in the region. For instance, witnesses have reported militias targeting non-Arab civilians fleeing violent hotspots, like the western city of El Geneina.
While all of Sudan’s neighbors are vulnerable to spillover violence, South Sudan’s stability is particularly fragile due to the country’s persistent state of crisis. South Sudan fell into civil war in December 2013 when forces loyal to current President Salva Kiir clashed with those of current Vice President Riek Machar. The two sides largely fell along ethnic lines, with ethnic Dinka backing Kiir and ethnic Nuer fighting for Machar. The war killed 400,000 people and displaced more than 4 million others, eventually ending in 2018 with a power-sharing agreement that brought President Kiir and Vice President Machar together in a government of national unity. However, a series of decisions by Kiir — including postponing scheduled February 2023 elections until December 2024, delaying security force integration and aligning with Machar’s rivals — has caused the 2018 power-sharing agreement and associated peace to teeter on a knife’s edge. While clashes between Kiir and Machar loyalists have remained somewhat muted since 2018, peace is extremely tenuous and vulnerable to external triggers.
- In January 2022, Kiir reached a series of agreements with opposition commanders who previously broke away from Machar. The agreements covered a range of disputes but generally weakened Machar and raised opportunities for infighting among the vice president and his former allies.
- Large-scale fighting in South Sudan has waned since 2018, but isolated instances of violence killed 2,240 people in 2022. More than one-third of the South Sudanese population has been forcibly displaced — 2.2 million as internally displaced people and 2.3 million as refugees. Of the 8 million South Sudanese still in the country, 7.8 million face acute food insecurity, and 43,000 face famine.
- The implementation of the 2018 peace agreement has been slow, as the government has not yet conducted a census, drafted a permanent constitution or completed the required security arrangements. About 83,000 opposition and government soldiers are supposed to come together in a national army, but only about 55,000 soldiers have graduated from training programs, none of whom have been deployed.
Fighting in Sudan will likely trigger resource shortages, ethnic tensions, territorial disputes and flare-ups in long-standing rivalries in South Sudan, which could lead to large-scale conflict. Refugees fleeing to South Sudan’s northern states — particularly Upper Nile — are likely to exacerbate shortages of food, water, medical supplies and sanitation services. And if Sudan’s war leans into its newly ethnic bent, as seen in Darfur, South Sudan would likely experience spillover effects of these sentiments, further compounding its preexisting ethnic strain. These shortages and tensions could manifest in violent disputes over resources, as seen in Upper Nile’s Malakal city on May 28 when ethnic Nuer and Shilluk communities clashed over water supplies, or in fights over territory, as seen in the long-disputed Abyei region on May 20 and in ongoing disputes over Malakal. Additionally, a rebel group called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) has been mobilizing in Sudan’s South Kordofan state, heightening the risk of intense clashes along the border with rival militias in South Sudan. The combination of these triggers for violence, many of which have ethnic facets that recall South Sudan’s recent civil war, could plunge the country back into widespread conflict.
- According to the International Crisis Group, an international nonprofit and think tank, many of the refugees fleeing into South Sudan have done so through Renk county in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, which borders Sudan’s South Kordofan, White Nile and Blue Nile states.
- Unknown assailants killed five people on May 20 over the Abyei region, a 4,072 square mile (10,546 square kilometer) area bordering Sudan’s South Kordofan state and South Sudan’s Warab state. Separately, ethnic Padang Dinka and ethnic Shilluk in Malakal — one of the unresolved flashpoints of the 2013 civil war — remain at loggerheads over control of the city.
- SPLM-N is a political party and militant group that was founded by the organizations of the predominantly South Sudanese Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army that stayed in Sudan following the South Sudanese vote for independence in 2011. SPLM-N is not officially aligned with either the RSF or the SAF, but the SAF accused SPLM-N on June 22 of breaking a long-standing cease-fire by attacking an army unit in Dalanj, while additional clashes were reported in Kadugli. If clashes escalate, the SPLM-N’s mobilization of an estimated tens of thousands of fighters could very quickly engulf border areas in conflict.
Renewed large-scale clashes in South Sudan would likely hamper the country’s oil exports and, by extension, its government’s hold on power, which could push the region into a much larger humanitarian crisis. While South Sudan’s budget and finances are in a general state of disrepair due to government corruption and patronage, Kiir has in large part been able to maintain stability since 2018 by using oil export revenues to pay off would-be political rivals. But if conflict resurges in South Sudan, oil wells, pipeline infrastructure and pumping stations would likely experience disruptions, thereby removing one of Kiir’s core methods of retaining control of the government. Even if fighting remains largely contained to Sudan, the RSF or the SAF could compromise South Sudan’s oil export infrastructure, as the RSF reportedly has control over pipelines and pumping stations in Sudan’s South Kordofan state, while the SAF controls Port Sudan, from which South Sudan exports oil on tankers. If Kiir loses control of South Sudan’s government, whether due to absent oil revenues or other obstacles, the country could quickly return to outright war. Given the already critical humanitarian situation in South Sudan, large-scale clashes would likely send millions of extremely vulnerable refugees into the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and potentially as far south as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, resulting in a regional humanitarian crisis.
- Unnamed African intelligence officials told Today News Africa on June 20 that the RSF has issued a three-week ultimatum to the South Sudanese government to stop providing support to the SAF or suffer a complete shutdown of its oil production.
- South Sudan produces about 170,000 barrels of oil per day, much of which it exports through Sudanese pipelines to reach Port Sudan. Sudan receives about $18 million each month for the transport of South Sudan’s oil.