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Navigating the Competing Interests of Regional Actors in South Sudan

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Salva Kiir and Yoweri Museveni at the signing of the ARCSS

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at the signing of the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS), August 26, 2015. (Photo: UN/Isaac Gideon)

Regional considerations have always played a prominent role in South Sudan’s security landscape. Indeed, the country was born from a regional fissure between what are today Sudan and South Sudan. This schism has been subsequently shaped and influenced to varying degrees by all of South Sudan’s neighbors. These dynamics have continued with the country’s descent into civil conflict in December 2013. These influences have had both exacerbating and stabilizing effects, adding another layer of complexity to the political calculations of any peacebuilding efforts in the region. Understanding and navigating these regional dynamics, on both a bilateral and multilateral level, is part and parcel of achieving durable stability in South Sudan.

The Politics of IGAD

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) role in South Sudan dates back to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which was negotiated under its auspices. IGAD also played a critical mediation role in the negotiation of the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS), the blueprint for the resolution of the crisis in South Sudan that carries international support. IGAD was also mandated by the African Union (AU), with the support of the Troika countries (Britain, Norway, and the United States) and the broader international community, to lead the implementation of the ARCSS through the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission.

Despite this ongoing engagement, IGAD has so far been unable to elicit required conduct from the warring parties in South Sudan. Moreover, competing regional interests have exacerbated the current crisis, adding to its complexity. The predicaments of violent conflict, social fracturing, and economic turmoil faced by South Sudan since the signing of the ARCSS in 2015 could have been ameliorated if the region and international community acted in greater unison.

Indeed, the ARCSS provides the necessary basis for addressing the root causes of the crisis. However, IGAD and the international community’s failure to develop a common approach for ensuring compliance with the provisions of the Agreement, inhibited a robust response when many initial violations of the Agreement were not undone. The absence of a commonly agreed carrot-and-stick approach by the region and international community have allowed the violators, particularly the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) to get away with breaches that undermine the ARCSS. Lack of a credible response means that repetitive and ineffective threats are ignored by the GOSS. Inaction in the face of these breaches as well as unabated violations of human rights seem to have convinced the parties to the Agreement that regional organizations are ineffectual, impotent, and mere “paper tigers.” Part of the problem are regional actors’ conflicting economic, political, and security interests in South Sudan.

Economic Interests

The economic interests of South Sudan’s neighbors constitute a key prism through which to view not only these neighbors’ evolving roles in South Sudan but also the jockeying for alliances by parties to the conflict. South Sudan attracted both small and big investors into various sectors of its economy from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Egypt. The subsequent engagements by these countries were generally informed by their desire to protect their investing nationals, although the intensity of such interests has varied from country to country.

In relation to oil, South Sudan’s ability to continue exporting a commodity that constitutes 98 percent of national revenues has depended on maintaining good relations with Sudan, which presents Sudan a key lever in its relations with its southern neighbor. The secession of South Sudan from Sudan resulted in the loss of more than 70 percent of oil revenue for Khartoum. In an effort to compensate for the loss in oil revenue, the Government of Sudan levies exorbitant oil transportation tariffs, processing, and transit fees for exporting South Sudan’s crude through its pipeline to Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast. Sudan draws roughly $24 per barrel exported. This has amounted to approximately half of South Sudan’s total oil revenue for the period since 2015.

“During the negotiations of the ARCSS, the GOSS effectively used the choice of the alternative pipeline to influence the positions of some IGAD states.”

The high cost of transport of its crude had necessitated South Sudan to search for solutions in the immediate post-independence period. The options included building a new pipeline, either through Kenya to the Indian Ocean, or through Ethiopia to Djibouti’s or Eritrea’s Red Sea ports. However, during the negotiations of the ARCSS, the GOSS effectively used the choice of the alternative pipeline to influence the positions of some IGAD states. Although the feasibility study indicated that the pipeline to the Red Sea through Ethiopia and Djibouti would be the best option, the GOSS reportedly indicated instead its preference for the Kenyan option.

Given Sudan’s dependence on revenue from its pipeline, it necessarily benefits from situations in which instability renders South Sudan unable to pursue building an alternative pipeline, and it is likely that its posture toward the parties to the conflict in the South has been influenced by such calculations.

Besides oil politics, the politics around the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) became another important factor as South Sudan’s civil war progressed. To contextualize these dynamics, it is important to note that the Nile Waters Agreement signed in 1929 between Egypt and Britain granted Egypt an unprecedented monopoly in the management and use of the water of the Nile River, despite the fact that 97 percent of the water flowing into the Nile originates outside Egypt’s territory. The Blue Nile, which originates in the Ethiopian highlands, contributes 85 percent of the overall flow of the Nile. The rest originates from rivers and lakes in the riparian states that fall south of South Sudan (Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya).

In 1956, Egypt concluded a bilateral treaty with Sudan to “cede” 18.5 billion cubic meters per annum, which allowed Sudan to develop hydro energy and an irrigation scheme in Gezira State for growing cotton and other crops. Since then, Egypt has opposed claims by the other riparian states, asserting “historical rights” over the Nile waters on which it depends for all its domestic, agricultural, and industrial use. With population pressure mounting, however, these riparian states have increasingly sought ways to exploit the Nile’s upstream as well as other water bodies in its catchment area for electricity and irrigation.

When Ethiopia and the other riparian states adopted the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA) in 2010, Egypt and Sudan were the only holdouts.1 The CFA establishes the framework for use and conservation of the Nile waters and has been signed by Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. The construction of Ethiopia’s GERD, which will hold 62 billion cubic meters of water, angered Egypt. It reportedly threatened Ethiopia with war if Nile flows are disrupted, and has lobbied the other CFA signatories not to ratify the treaty.

As the dispute over the GERD continued, the GOSS, with alleged facilitation from Uganda, strengthened its diplomatic relations with Egypt with the aim of weakening Sudan and Ethiopia’s influence in South Sudan. In 2017, it was alleged that Egypt, which cooperates with the GOSS on water projects in South Sudan, not only provided funding but also supplied military goods and services to the GOSS through Uganda. Although Egypt and South Sudan do not share a border, the former’s concern over sustainable access to Nile waters informs its interest in South Sudan, which occupies 45 percent of the Nile Basin.

“Although Egypt and South Sudan do not share a border, the former’s concern over sustainable access to Nile waters informs its interest in South Sudan, which occupies 45 percent of the Nile Basin.”

Egypt was said to be keen to revive discussion of the Jonglei Canal with South Sudan in the post-CPA period. Originally designed to increase water flow into the Nile by diverting water from the expansive Sudd wetlands through which the White Nile flows, the Canal financed by Cairo had been left incomplete in 1983 when civil war broke out between Sudan and its southern semiautonomous region. In addition to Egypt’s reported acquisition of rights in South Sudan’s Sudd, the cultivation of closer ties with and support for President Kiir’s military campaign alarmed Addis Ababa.

Rumors that circulated around this time to the effect that Juba had agreed, at the urging of Cairo, to host Eritrea-based Ethiopian rebels were never confirmed. However, Addis’ move to jointly commit with Juba to cooperate on security, including a pledge not to host actors hostile to their respective governments, lends credence to these rumors. In early 2018, it emerged that Egypt had signed an agreement to establish a military base in Eritrea.

There are various ways, therefore, that Nile politics have been injected into the conflict in South Sudan as Juba seeks to fund its war effort. The effect is to prolong the war by giving the GOSS a lifeline and rendering Juba less willing to compromise on implementation of the ARCSS.2

Presidents Kenyatta of Kenya and Kiir of South Sudan

Presidents Kenyatta of Kenya and Kiir of South Sudan. (Photo: UNMISS)

For its part, Kenya’s economic interests lie largely in the banking sector and air transport industries. Kenyan nationals also constituted a key part of the budding hospitality industry in addition to running small businesses. With the sharp economic contraction in South Sudan following the onset of the conflict in 2013, Kenyan economic interests were badly affected. Some banks closed while Jetlink Express, one of three Kenyan airlines originally operating in South Sudan, had to fold because of its reported inability to move $2 million out of South Sudan following the oil export freeze in 2012.3 Some Kenyan traders left the country at the onset of the war following a spate of killings that targeted foreigners.

While it initially played an active role in the negotiation of the ARCSS and the release of key SPLM leaders detained in December 2013, Kenya subsequently aligned itself with President Kiir and lost its leverage as an honest broker, which it had gained as the host of many South Sudanese leaders and their families. In 2016, Kenya lent $60 million to cash-strapped South Sudan.4 It subsequently arrested and handed over several SPLM-IO leaders to Juba in 2017 following the dismissal of the Kenyan former commander of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.

Political Interests

South Sudan’s independence was granted reluctantly by Khartoum. This is wholly understandable considering that South Sudan’s secession occasioned the loss of a quarter of Sudan’s territory and three-quarters of its export earnings amounting to approximately $13 billion at the time of independence.5 Soon after the partition, Sudan was forced to issue a new currency as the economy struggled with the permanent loss of more than a third of its revenue.

The fear that Khartoum could attempt to reverse southern independence would frame relations not only between the two erstwhile enemies but also between the West and both neighbors. Sudan was also thought to have infiltrated the first post-independence government in South Sudan with the aim of keeping tabs on developments there if not also to weaken the newly independent state. In 2012, relations worsened, prompting South Sudan’s military to invade disputed oil fields located in Heglig.6 Khartoum’s courting of key opposition figures after the civil war broke out in 2013 attests to its desire to influence events in Juba. Paradoxically, despite these events, Khartoum had strong economic incentives to desire peaceful relations with Juba. During the civil war in South Sudan, Khartoum has carefully calibrated its dealings with southern leaders, separately hosting President Kiir, Machar, and other southern leaders.

“No regional leader holds greater sway over Juba than Museveni.”

As a longstanding political ally of President Kiir, Uganda threw its weight behind Kiir and continues to support the status quo in Juba. Over the course of the conflict, President Museveni has invested considerable financial and human resources in keeping President Kiir in power following the military intervention that stopped the advance of rebels on Juba in 2014. President Museveni has attempted to bring disaffected SPLA/M members back into the fold, and to rally them behind Kiir and the GOSS’ national dialogue initiative. Museveni’s presence at the launch of Kiir’s national dialogue initiative and call for early elections in South Sudan reinforced his clear preference for Kiir in his contest with Machar.

Given Museveni’s standing in the region, his support for Kiir has clothed the increasingly beleaguered regime with a measure of regional legitimacy in addition to providing a vital resupply line for the SPLA. No regional leader holds greater sway over Juba than Museveni, who appears keen to maintain his influence. The unprecedented influx of over 1 million refugees into Uganda does not appear to change the dynamics of this “special” relationship between Kampala and Juba. It is still unclear whether voices from within the Ugandan government and civil society could cause President Museveni to alter his stance and to adopt a more people-centered approach to the conflict in South Sudan.

Justice and Accountability

Another defining issue that frames how regional actors approach the South Sudan conflict is justice and accountability for the atrocities committed since 2013. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has identified 40 South Sudanese officials as complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, in a regional context of animosity against international justice, the conflict in South Sudan reignites controversial debates around peace and justice. In fact, the geography of international justice in Africa now seems to overlap neatly with the physical map of the Greater Horn of Africa.

“Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda have been or are currently the subject of attention by international tribunals.”

While Ethiopia mounted genocide trials against members of the former socialist Derg regime in the 1990s, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda have been or are currently the subject of attention by international tribunals. The solidarity of African leaders generated by the indictments by the International Criminal Court of President al Bashir and President Kenyatta whipped up anti-accountability emotions and galvanized leaders to oppose the Court. These sentiments appear to have seeped into the accountability debate on South Sudan as some regional delegations are said to have expressed decidedly anti-justice views during the negotiation of the ARCSS.

The unprecedented decision by the AU to establish the Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan in 2013 to probe human rights violations and crimes committed during the civil war is the second attempt by the continental body to pursue justice for victims of war crimes in Africa after the trial of former Chadian President Hissène Habré in the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal. Subsequently, the ARCSS adopted the AU’s recommendation on the establishment of a hybrid court to prosecute perpetrators of international crimes. In line with its mandated role, the AU presented a Memorandum of Understanding to the GOSS for the establishment of the hybrid court in 2017, though the GOSS has yet to sign it. While it is too early to predict its fate, a regional posture that privileges peace over justice, favors immunity for senior government officials before international tribunals, and shields indicted leaders, does not augur well for justice in South Sudan.

Security and Territorial Interests

Security and territorial interests of IGAD member states have played a critical role in exacerbating the conflict in South Sudan. For the most part, Ethiopia, unlike other IGAD members has provided objective and neutral stewardship of the peace talks that produced the ARCSS. However, the rapprochement between Cairo and Juba and particularly the alleged Egyptian funding and provision of military supplies to Juba in exchange for support of Cairo’s opposition to the construction of the GERD by Ethiopia complicated relations between Addis and Juba. In response to reported Egyptian démarches toward South Sudan and in an attempt to improve its relations with the latter, Ethiopia signed a security agreement in which both countries committed not to host rebels or groups opposed to their respective governments. It was rumored that potential support through South Sudan for Eritrea-based Ethiopian rebels informed Ethiopia’s move, although a follow-up agreement on the same subject made no reference to hosting opposition groups.

Addis plays host to many South Sudanese leaders who fled the country. This constitutes political leverage that Addis could use to influence the political direction in Juba. While this is unlikely in the short term, Ethiopia might pursue regime change in South Sudan if it feels that Juba’s ties with Cairo undermine Ethiopia’s security and economic interests.

Unlike South Sudan, Sudan elected to side with Ethiopia on the GERD, a development that led to improved diplomatic relations between the two countries. The agreement between Addis and Khartoum to form joint security forces for the protection of the dam will not only strengthen the Ethiopian position against its historical rival Eritrea but may also be responsible for the deterioration of relations between Sudan and Egypt. In late 2017, Sudan concluded an agreement with Turkey to rebuild an Ottoman-era port and military base, even as Egypt moved to conclude a similar agreement with Eritrea, which fought an acrimonious war with Ethiopia over disputed territory.

Egypt, which has close ties to both the United States and Russia, may feel emboldened in its efforts to stop any changes to its water flow from the Nile, as well as in its stance with regard to its disputed territory with Sudan. Egypt’s membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) during this period could also be significant, not only for its own national interests but also for Juba. It is possible that Juba could expect to count on Cairo’s vote and support in the UNSC before which the South Sudan situation remains a live issue.

“The conflict in South Sudan is festering because of the narrow interests of regional players and the international community’s inability to take firm action.”

For its part, Sudan has strategic security interests in South Sudan and is the IGAD member with the most leverage over South Sudan. Among these interests are the disputed territory of Abyei and the hosting of refugees from South Sudan. In addition to Juba’s alleged support for SPLM-North, a rebel movement opposed to Sudanese rule in the Blue Nile and South Khordofan States, the rapprochement between Cairo and Juba angered Khartoum. President al Bashir, in an unprecedented move, announced publicly that Sudan could intervene militarily in South Sudan to stop the humanitarian crisis and end civil war. It also airlifted Riek Machar from the Ngaramba Forest in the DRC following the July 2016 hostilities in Juba, and may have toyed with the idea of supporting militarily both Riek Machar and Dr. Lam Akol Ajawin, who is said to spend time in Khartoum following his resignation from the TGoNU and formation of a rebel movement.

Sudan is the only neighboring country that may be pursuing an agenda of regime change in Juba by supporting or threatening to support military activities of the various South Sudanese rebels. Although Sudan may have calculated that keeping the South Sudanese parties to the ARCSS on tenterhooks is a smart thing to do, it faces a real dilemma: support the collapse and disintegration of South Sudan or play a more positive role by using its leverage over the South Sudanese rebels to embrace and revive the ARCSS. South Sudan’s lack of an alternative conduit for its oil means that Sudan’s pipeline revenues are unlikely to be threatened either way.

Sudan has succeeded in exerting efforts to normalize relations with all IGAD states with the exception of Uganda, which lent support to the SPLA during the civil war. Khartoum, in turn, threw its weight behind Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Importantly, Sudan has improved its relations with the European Union after having been identified as one of three countries that could help stem the wave of African migrants traveling illegally to Europe. Further, following a period of cautious rapprochement marked by a relaxation of sanctions, the United States lifted sanctions in late 2017, though others, including Sudan’s listing as a state sponsor of terrorism, remain in place. For the United States, Sudan is a recognized strategic partner in the fight against terrorism in North Africa.

Sudan shares the longest border with South Sudan with most parts remaining disputed or unsettled. The final status of Abyei, in particular, remains a dagger in Sudan-South Sudan relations. A weak and embattled South Sudan allows Khartoum to reinforce and take advantage of the status quo in Abyei. It also allows Khartoum to extract commitments cheaply from Juba in terms of discontinuing military support for rebels in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Khordofan States.

Prospects for Peace in South Sudan

The national interests of regional actors have complicated the conflict in South Sudan through the provision of financial, military, and unwavering diplomatic support to belligerents or indifference in the face of a worsening humanitarian situation. Regional support also comes in the form of the sidelining of Riek Machar as well as the arrest and rendition to South Sudan of opposition leaders. The conflict in South Sudan is festering because of the narrow interests of regional players and the international community’s inability to take firm action on a range of issues including an arms embargo and targeted sanctions.

The United States has called for the UNSC to impose further sanctions and an arms embargo on South Sudan. This comes in the wake of a worsening situation marked by mounting numbers of those displaced currently standing at 4 million (including 2 million refugees), restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and unabated gross human rights abuses. Although the UNSC may continue to be divided over South Sudan, the early signs of a shift in U.S. policy toward South Sudan may provide opportunity for building a unified and common position within IGAD on the peace agreement and the fate of the TGoNU.

If the current status of negative peace continues, South Sudan risks becoming a theater of regional proxy wars as most of its neighbors favor the status quo that advances their national interests. As the ARCSS has failed to deliver peace and stability since its conclusion in 2015, the efficacy of IGAD’s role in the resolution of the conflict is increasingly being called into question. Within this context, revitalizing the ARCSS will require:

  • IGAD and the AU to unreservedly condemn the unacceptable status quo in South Sudan.
  • IGAD and the AU to demand the immediate incorporation of the ARCSS into the transitional constitution once an agreement to renew the ARCSS is reached.
  • IGAD, the AU, and the international community to denounce Juba’s plan to hold elections in 2018. Under current conditions, elections are unlikely to produce a legitimate government and can only perpetuate instability.
  • IGAD and the AU to ensure that Juba abides by the agreed timelines on the establishment of the hybrid court. The Chairperson of the AU Secretariat should commence the process of recruiting judges and the prosecutor of the hybrid court.

Finally, if the parties to the ARCSS fail to agree on the revitalization of the ARCSS or are unable to implement the revitalized ARCSS, IGAD and the AU should commit to act speedily to find modalities for generating a legitimate government for South Sudan at the end of the TGoNU. This could include an AU/UN-supported government of technocrats to lay the foundations for free and fair elections within an agreed timeframe. Elections must be preceded by the creation of necessary conditions for the return of refugees and internally displaced people.

Dr. Luka Kuol is Professor of Practice at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. He previously served as Minister of Presidential Affairs for the Government of Southern Sudan and as National Minister of Cabinet Affairs for the Republic of Sudan. He has also worked as a senior economist for the World Bank in Southern Sudan.


  1. Egypt in Charm Offensive – Seeks Revision of Nile Treaty to Safeguard Water Source,” East African, August 21, 2017.
  2. See “South Sudan war gives impetus to Egypt’s Nile Basin policy,” Messenger Africa, January 16, 2017.
  3. Paul Wafula, “Budget airline Jetlink stops operations citing money scarcity,” Daily Monitor, November 16, 2012.
  4. Joe Baraka, “Kenya to lend billions of shillings to struggling South Sudan,” ZIPO, September 17, 2016.
  5. Ian Timberlake, “Lost oil billions leave Sudan’s economy reeling,” Agence France-Presse, February 26, 2012.
  6. Nicasius Achu Check and Thabani Mdlongwa, “The Heglig Oli Conflict: An Exercise of Sovereignty or an Act of Aggression?” AISA Policy Brief No. 78 (Pretoria: Africa Institute of South Africa, 2012).