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Rift Valley Institute

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This year in Sudan and South Sudan

This blog post was written by Nicki Kindersley and Magdi el-Gizouli, the Co-Directors of Studies for the Rift Valley Institute’s Sudan and South Sudan Course, which will be taking place in Sagana, Kenya from 20-25 May 2018. The course will examine the range of explanations for enduring and interconnected conflicts and crises in both countries, asking why efforts to address these conflicts from within and without have so often failed and sometimes made things worse. It will also consider how everyday life carries on in such circumstances, and how it is shaped by conflict. The RVI courses are designed for policy-makers, diplomats, investors, development workers, researchers, activists and journalists—for new arrivals to the region and those already working there who wish to deepen their understanding. For more information on the Sudan and South Sudan Course and RVI’s two other Field Courses—the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes—please visit RVI Field Courses.


Civil war seems settled as a permanent feature of politics in both Sudan and South Sudan. State and parastatal armed actors, insurgents and armed groups of various sorts are a regularized part of the Sudans’ political economy and ecology, in which civilian non-combatants are the primary victims.

South Sudan is torn into factional and fragmented civil wars, creating military fiefdoms and self-defence militias, a context which is not well reflected in the high-level negotiating forums in Addis Ababa. Yet the elite bargains that have sustained the Sudanese states over the past decades are reaching a point of exhaustion. Eroded state structures, competing loyalties and violent demands for restructuring have had high human costs but no resolution; South Sudan was created by these dynamics but is now prey to them as well.

Those subject to this violent order are seeking to evade state power, and moving to live on or across national borders. As a result, the politics of the borderland is resurgent. As the formal economy of both countries shrinks, their borderlands can be seen as alternative economies of survival and opportunity, relying on personal loyalties and co-opted local authorities. As the two states expel and export their people, diaspora and regional migrant political discourse is more strident and overshadowing many voices from within the countries.

The cycle of abortive peace negotiations in both Sudan and South Sudan have exhausted the vocabulary of peace-making and led to a bankrupt political marketplace. As international patrons step back, regional power-players have stepped up. Tensions between Sudan and Egypt are in part due to Sudan’s alignment with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In response, Cairo is actively courting Juba in an effort to secure an ally in the Nile basin and deepening its long-term relationship with Eritrea. Meanwhile, Addis Ababa’s political introspection and leadership transition has distracted it from its role as regional mediator.


Against this background, the coming year in Sudan is likely to witness an intensification of competition in the top echelons of power, as a quarrelsome elite loudly rehearses options ahead of the 2020 elections. Short of reliable allies, President Bashir is recycling previously estranged point-men, such as the recently reinstated spy chief, Salah Gosh.

No amount of political expediency, however, can dispel the curse of Sudan’s punishing political economy. The loss of oil revenues—secondary to the political impact of South Sudan’s independence—has left the Sudanese economy in free fall. A shadow economy of gold smuggling, foreign currency exchange speculation and cross-border trade and financial kickbacks has largely replaced productive activity. President Bashir recently moved to arrest a number of prominent bankers, financiers and businessmen, in response to public disgust at the scale and depth of corruption and the perpetual draining of state coffers, a move which may be part of his re-election strategy. So far, no serious alternative presidential contender is imaginable.

The opposition parties and movements demoralized by factional divides and recurring defeats are once again caught up in a painstaking examination of the merits of participation in the 2020 election versus the default position of boycott. Leading figures of the National Congress Party (NCP) have voiced only meek displeasure at the prospect of re-electing Bashir. Since power is more concentrated in the president’s hands, what political debate remains is reduced to the cyclical question of his next moves, while active opposition only promises incarceration.

As contours of the reduced Darfur conflict are redrawn, the fate of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons is almost an afterthought. Despite a military victory of sorts, the Khartoum government’s internal problems limit what it can offer Darfuris. Mediation by the African Union (AU)—along with its Western partners, Germany and France—between the government and hold-out rebel groups has been reduced to public relations exercises and diplomatic niceties.

The same can be said about talks between the Khartoum government and the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement/Army in North [Sudan] (SPLM/A-N). The split in the SPLM/A-N between the Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu-led Nuba-dominated block and the supporters of Malik Agar in the Blue Nile state and Yasir Arman in the diaspora, has undermined the movement’s coherence and its call for another ‘New Sudan’. Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu’s call for Nuba Mountain’s self-determination is not backed by the required political or military strength. Malik Agar and Yasir Arman have little more to offer than eloquent sloganeering.

Equally limited by the regime’s internal capacity but playing a weak hand well, Khartoum’s foreign policy currently depends on managing meticulous balancing acts between regional and international rivals including Egypt and Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and even the United States and Russia. Khartoum’s greatest achievement in the past year has been the lift of a battery of US economic sanctions in place since 1997. The step has proved to be less critical than Khartoum would have wished. The promise of a flow of foreign investments did not materialize, as Sudan remains on the US list of state-sponsors of terrorism and one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, with no short-term prospect of debt relief.

Short of options, Khartoum is turning its armed forces and militias into a livelihood scheme. Despite a steady stream of casualties, Sudanese troops continue to fight in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF) previously deployed against rural rebels and urban protestors now act as first responders for European border security and disrupt migrant routes to Libya and Egypt, en route to the Mediterranean shores

South Sudan

South Sudan’s continuing political collapse and violent disorder confounds the norms of international intervention, while the scale of human suffering in the country and across its borders still demands a response. International agencies, exhausted and alienated by cycles of broken agreements between the same roster of warlords, are taken up with the demands of brokering humanitarian access. This task is further complicated by fragmented ethnic identifications that have been actively and violently politicized as a means of controlling fears and loyalties.

President Salva Kiir’s political faction has maintained its control of central government through a balancing act, which involves dispensing regional political favours, managing the sale and revenues of oil, land and oil futures, extending the powers of national security forces through government-held areas, and mediating and placating the various factions of the over-extended military. This balancing act is increasingly explicit, the most obvious example being the overthrow of Paul Malong Awan as Chief of General Staff of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and his house arrest and eventual—negotiated—departure from South Sudan in late 2017. Since then, Kiir’s faction has systematically uprooted Malong’s support and financial base within the military and security in Juba and on his home turf in Aweil.

In spite of the December 2017 cessation of hostilities, the government is pursuing a ground war against increasingly fractured and under-resourced armed groups, and co-opting those who are agitating for a peace of sorts. Clashes continued through the dry season, with direct armed confrontations part of a wider process of wartime displacement and depopulation, as communities are subject to depredations by opposing sides according to their perceived loyalties. South Sudan’s growing number of localized rebellions are fragmented, presenting a reality which is increasingly divorced from the negotiation table in Addis Ababa. Those ‘In Opposition’ are no longer a single bloc, and in many places they constitute localized defence militias, built on a more parochial and immediate logic of protecting a small community from predation.

There is a general feeling of paralysis, exhaustion and bad faith. Most people are surviving by fleeing or working across borderlands, or through remittance flows from relatives abroad and in Juba. These parallel economies rely heavily on personal trust and kinship, further alienating families from each other. Over a million people are now in Uganda, and hundreds of thousands of others are going—or returning—to northern Sudan: in southern Darfur, these refugees are jokingly called ‘Malesh Bashir’, an apology to Omar for making a drastic mistake in seceding the South.

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