South Sudan’s Post-Secession Crisis in a Comparative Perspective

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South Sudan began its descent into chaos less than three years after becoming an independent state. On December 15, 2013, fighting broke out in the capital city of Juba between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir on the one hand and former Vice President Riek Machar on the other. The conflict quickly spread across the country to various regional towns and has now displaced approximately 800,000 people and claimed more than ten thousand lives. The current crisis came however as no surprise, as the cracks within both society and state had begun to manifest themselves long before independence.[1] It seems that the world’s youngest state has fallen victim to a common post-secession trajectory.

State partitioning has, on several occasions, been applied as a solution to intractable conflicts in the Horn of Africa. It has also consistently generated enduring inter-state rivalries, chronic state fragility and reproduced the same ethnic inequalities that led to partitioning in the first place. With three de jure and de facto secessionist states, in addition to many active separatist groups in nearly all the states of the region, state-formation is still very much an ongoing process in this part of the world.

Through a comparative analysis of similar cases in the region, this article aims to account for post-secession variations in fragility, as well as contextualize the challenges South Sudan is currently facing. South Sudan stands out even amongst its regional counterparts, in that its state is much more fragile and its relapse into conflict has come much faster. This is primarily an outcome of the organizational features of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which has been more prone to fractionalization and has had a weaker political organization than the other state-building rebel-groups in the region.

Third-party support for rebels and new secessionist demands have played an essential role in making secessionist conflicts more protracted and intractable.[2] In South Sudan, however, all its neighboring states – now including its perennial nemesis Sudan – are making concerted efforts to broker a peace. And as opposed to Eritrea and Somaliland (the other secessionist states in the Horn), where the state-building project as a whole is being contested, South Sudan’s conflicting parties have not articulated competing nationalisms.

Post-secession political trajectories

State partitioning has been employed as a remedy to intractable conflicts over territory and statehood since the emergence of nationalist ideology as a dominant force in world politics. Over the last two hundred years or so some 70 de jure and de facto states have been created through secession.[3] Although advocates against state-partitioning argue that it only leads to more conflict, the empirical evidence is somewhat more ambiguous. Tir’s statistical analysis shows that secession was followed by inter-state war with the rump state in only 24% of the cases,[4] whereas Siroky found that two-thirds of states created from secession experienced a relapse into some form of domestic conflict.[5] The dynamics behind these two forms of post-secession conflicts also differ: inter-state war is highly associated with ethnic-based territorial disputes and violent secession-processes, whereas the reproduction of violent separatist movements in states created from secession was highly associated with third party involvement, ethnic heterogeneity and low income levels.[6]

Considering the unique history of colonialism and artificially created nation-states in Africa, the incidences of secession have been surprisingly few. All cases of state-partitioning are furthermore geographically concentrated in North Eastern Africa, which is home to the only de jure secessionist states in post-colonial Africa – Eritrea and South Sudan – as well as the unrecognised but de facto secessionist state of Somaliland. There are additionally a number of active armed separatist movements in nearly all the states of the region – including those that were themselves recently created through partition.

Eritrea: from euphoria to despair

The first case of de jure state partitioning in Africa was Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1993. Although the backdrop to secession was a 30-years long war of liberation, the claim to sovereignty was expressed peacefully through a referendum and accepted with grace by the then-new government of Ethiopia.[7] Both Eritrea and Ethiopia were at the time led by former resistance movements, which through their combined efforts had defeated the former military junta in 1991. This made it all the more surprising when the two ‘former brothers in arms’ in 1998 got engulfed in arguably the most destructive border war in modern African history – it lasted for two years and claimed more than 100,000 casualties.[8] Despite the cessation of hostilities through a peace-accord in 2000, the fighting continued through proxy-warfare that has subsequently served as arguably the main source of regional instability.

The price of Eritrean independence was an insurgency that lasted more than three decades and claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian and military casualties. The euphoria and optimism that followed independence were eventually replaced by disillusionment and disappointment as independent Eritrea produced an equally oppressive regime as that which it had fought so long to liberate itself from.[9] Indefinite and unchecked presidential powers; a universal and indefinite military conscription policy; gross, widespread, and systematic human rights violations; as well as dire humanitarian conditions have all turned this small nation into one of the biggest producers of refugees in the world.

Another paradoxical outcome of Eritrea’s secession is the reproduction of the same ethnic inequalities that the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) had been fighting against. The Christian Tigrinya highlanders increasingly emerged as the most dominant political group, a development that alienated its ethnic and religious minorities –in particular its lowland Muslim population.[10] Many of these have established armed ethnic liberation fronts, some seeking cultural autonomy within a federal framework, while a few seek full independence.[11]

In addition to these domestic sources, the regional context has been instrumental in escalating the conflict dynamics. The rivalry with Ethiopia has manifested itself through support for insurgent groups in each other’s countries: Addis Ababa has been providing Eritrean ethnic liberation fronts and other rebels not only with material and diplomatic support, but also strategically crucial territories from which they can organize and mobilize themselves.[12]

Somaliland: independence unfulfilled

The fall of Ethiopia’s communist dictatorship in 1991 coincided with that of Somalia’s, and also led to state partition. The former British protectorate of Somaliland had, after a decade-long insurgency under the leadership of the Somaliland National Movement, declared independence from the Republic of Somalia.[13] Despite the remarkable fact that Somaliland has managed to establish a relatively democratic system – that has passed the litmus test of changing the leadership of the country through elections on several occasions – the international community has for various political and strategic reasons yet to legally recognize Somaliland as a sovereign state.[14]

Although Somaliland is in many ways an oasis of peace and democracy compared to the rest of the region, it has nevertheless had its share of conflicts. Puntland – another semi-autonomous polity that emerged from the ashes of the collapsed Somali Republic – lay claim to western Somaliland based on ethnic affiliation with the local population. The territorial dispute between the two quasi-states has turned violent on several occasions and remains unresolved.[15] The rump Somali state, which has yet to build up its capacity in a meaningful manner, contests Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty. There has yet to be a violent confrontation, but this is primarily an outcome of Mogadishu’s lack of military capacity. Dialogues have recently taken place between the two parties in Ankara, but substantive issues were not discussed at these meetings[16] and no sign of compromise on the issue of sovereignty is in sight. If neither a framework nor willingness to accommodate the conflicting claims to sovereignty evolve, it is plausible that Mogadishu will try to exercise its claims of sovereignty over all of Somalia once it builds up its coercive capacity.

Adding another layer of intractability to this conflict is the fact that the contested territory of western British Somaliland, Khatumo, declared their independence from both Puntland and Somaliland in 2012 – effectively seceding from the secessionist state. The rationale for claiming independent statehood is the view that the Somaliland state was from the outset exclusively a project of the dominant Issaq clan. The state, the separatists claim, is systematically biased towards one clan at the expense of all others.[17] They moreover claim that Somaliland was incapable of providing any meaningful security and development provisions, and that the people therefore had to take matters into their own hands. Moreover, the contested territory may possess significant oil reserves, consequently raising the stakes of the conflict for all parties.

Mogadishu has used this situation as an opportunity to weaken Somaliland’s prospects for international recognition by giving the State of Khatumo recognition and diplomatic support as a semi-autonomous entity.[18] In this case too, we find that the regional context has been crucial in fuelling conflict by providing Somaliland’s secessionists with access to external support and weakening the manoeuvring possibilities of the central government of Somaliland.

South Sudan: Nation-building derailed

The partitioning of Sudan that led to the birth of South Sudan ended the longest civil war in modern African history. Similar to the partition of Ethiopia-Eritrea, secession preceded a final demarcation of shared borders between Sudan and South Sudan. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement stipulated that the people of the disputed region of Abyei would choose whether to be part of Sudan or South Sudan through a referendum after the partition; but the two states could not agree on who constituted a resident of the oil rich region.  The dispute consequently turned into an armed confrontation a couple of months before the official partitioning of the two states. The clashes led to the displacement of more than 100,000 people and hundreds of casualties.[19] A ceasefire was reached on June 20, 2011, with UN peacekeeping forces deployed one week later, but the status of the region nevertheless remains disputed.

Half a century of insurgency against Khartoum that cost the lives of more than two million people has failed to have a sufficiently homogenizing or pacifying effect on South Sudan’s inter-ethnic and political tensions; and the country’s many domestic fault lines were visible long before independence. A 2010 study by Allen and Schomerus revealed how local-level violence was widespread and how the conflict-lines were multidimensional and included inter alia conflict over grazing land and water resources as well as administrative and territorial boundaries.[20] According to the authors these conflicts were primarily outcomes of the structural features of the state, which amongst other things was characterized by the ‘absence of institutions with the ability to control violence’.[21]

South Sudan’s state-formation in a comparative perspective

Whereas it took Eritrea and Somaliland a few years to relapse into conflict, South Sudan was prone to frequent low-scale conflict prior to independence and fell victim to large-scale conflict almost immediately after independence. Understanding this variation in post-secession fragility necessitates an exploration of the processes of the liberation-wars and the actors leading them.

Somaliland was established through clan-conferences with widespread participation and where the arrangements of the new state were agreed upon by a substantial part of the people.[22] Two years after independence there was a conflict with a local militia over taxation rights, but this was resolved through the mediation of clan-elders.[23] Eritrea, whilst less democratic than the former, showed even fewer signs of division at the time of independence. The EPLF had broad-based popular support, and rallied the people behind its new government of independence. Both Eritrea and Somaliland were established by a hegemonic and effective liberation movement, which had a high degree of organizational cohesion, sophisticated political organization, and a considerable ability to establish control over the means of coercion.

The SNM and EPLF had already developed many essential features of statehood, such as effective taxation and coercive capacities, during their struggles for liberation.[24] In Eritrea, the EPLF even ran hospitals and factories in liberated territories a decade before independence.[25] Both organizations received only minimal amounts of external assistance, and that which they received came primarily from their diaspora populations. These organizations were therefore dependent on mobilizing their local populations, which created a degree of interdependence and embedded the movements in their respective societies.[26] The SNM had remarkably egalitarian and the EPLF extremely hierarchical power structures, which both led to a high degree of organizational cohesion. This made them outlive their political and military competitors and win the Hobbesian civil wars that engulfed the entire region in the 1980s.

The genesis of the South Sudanese state differed significantly from the other two secessionist states in the Horn. Throughout its war of liberation, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement was more effective in resisting Khartoum’s rule rather than engaging in state building. There is a long history of fractionalization in this organization, notably in 1991 there was a formal split in the organization along the same ethnic lines and led by the same individuals as the current conflict.[27] Lack of cohesion was not only a horizontal problem within the SPLM, but also vertical one between the party/government and its citizens.[28] In regards to the SPLM Manifesto from 1983, an African Rights study points out that:

The one clause which treats the relationship between the Movement and its local populations runs: “Politicization, organization and militarization of the peasantry shall follow as areas become liberated.”…People—here reduced to the category of ‘peasantry’, which has uncertain relevance to Sudan— were seen as the means, rather than the purpose, of the struggle. Even disabled veterans of the struggle were rarely cared for.[29]

Far from a having harmonious relationship with its people, the SPLA (army) in fact stand accused of inflicting atrocities against civilians in South Sudan.[30] It is very possible that this happened rather frequently, as there existed few accountability mechanisms in its military-wing. This is partially related to the raison d’etre of the movement, which was set up as a conventional military force rather than a ‘fighting vanguard of the people’ and where achieving a swift military victory took precedence over political organization, mobilization and ideological work.[31]

Organizational fractionalization, the political outlook of the SPLM and subsequently South Sudan’s uniquely fragile statehood is to some extent an outcome of a resource curse.  Whereas the birth of the Eritrean and Somaliland states were by and large indigenous political processes, the SPLM were reliant on financial and military support from Ethiopia’s communist regime (and consequently also influenced by its ideology) during much of their guerrilla struggle. Independent South Sudan furthermore came to existence through international diplomacy, and has so far mostly operated through petro-dollars and development aid; most of its basic services were also provided by foreign NGOs. The South Sudan independence process was hence less dependent on local support, and its leaders did not have the same imperative to mobilize local resources and build effective state-structures like their regional counterparts had to. The experiences of Eritrea and Somaliland illustrate that state-building is not a technical exercise, but a political one; a process where less external interference might be better.

Access to state-rents, development aid and petro-dollars created few incentives to deal with the lack of organizational cohesion or create accountable relationships with the local population – thus paving the way for the break-out of conflict between the two factions in the SPLA.

The Addis Ababa peace-negotiations

The warring factions of Salva Kiir and Riek Machar signed on 23 January 2014 a cease-fire agreement in Addis Ababa. The main issue of contention that had delayed reaching such an agreement – and consequently led to immense human suffering – was the issue of prisoner release and amnesty. The two parties have also most likely been seeking the strategic advantage of negotiating a political solution with the comparative advantage of having an upper hand in the battlefield.

Now that the first phase of the mediation process has been successfully passed with relative success, the more challenging second phase begins. The long-term and substantive issues of the dispute have to be solved. The objectives of justice and peace need to be balanced, and both interim and long-term governance arrangements need to be worked out.

As opposed to Eritrea and Somaliland, none of the conflicting parties in South Sudan have so far articulated competing nationalisms – that is, competing conceptions of the nation-state, its sovereignty, identity or borders. This has to some extent to do with the relative size of the conflicting groups, the Dinka constitute some 35% and the Nuer 15% of the entire population,[32] thus it is in their strategic interest to vie for control of the state rather than opt for secession. The conflict is thus about political representation and control over the state and its material resources, rather than over statehood itself.

Settling conflicts over competing nationalisms often requires re-configuring the state as with Ethiopia in 1995, through state partitioning like that of Sudan and South Sudan, or through successfully crushing a rebellion. Polarized political stances are often entrenched in these societies, and the difficulty of compromise often leads to protracted conflict.

The Horn of Africa, being one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world, has rarely been associated with geopolitical conditions conducive for peace and security. More often than not, the involvement of third parties in conflicts has been a major source of instability. In South Sudan’s case however the regional context might be crucial in preventing its further escalation and descent into collapse.

South Sudan’s major neighbors are actively engaged in mediating a solution to this conflict. Even Machar’s former ally and Juba’s traditional nemesis, Khartoum, has – for the sake of its common interests in South Sudan’s oil production – refrained from intervening to fuel the conflict. Uganda has taken on a renegade role by not only openly taking sides, but also conducting a militarily intervention in support of President Kiir’s troops. Ethiopia and Kenya remain neutral, and the former, together with some international actors, have voiced concerns about Uganda’s actions. The criticism levelled against Ugandan President Museveni and the complicating effects of the Ugandan intervention on the conflict has led to the compromise road map of a withdrawal of Ugandan troops when the peacekeeping force, African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises, composed of troops from five African countries, enters South Sudan in April. There is thus generally a consensus amongst external actors to not fuel the conflict as well as not accept an unconstitutional change of power in South Sudan (or elsewhere in the region).[33]

Whereas the ability of external actors to create a positive peace is limited, their ability to exacerbate existing conflicts is far reaching. If South Sudan’s neighbors fail in producing a positive peace, their common front for stability is an important factor preventing the sort of perpetual violence that proxy-warfare has historically engendered in this region and beyond.

Reconsidering state partition as a solution to ethnic conflict

Chief amongst the factors that initially induced separatist movements in this region are systematic inequalities between ethnic groups and forceful imposition of culturally assimilationist and unitary nationalism. Nevertheless, far from the ideals of justice and lasting peace, secession has – from the Indian sub-continent to the Horn of Africa – had the tendency to ‘merely reorder, rather than resolve’ conflicts between ethnic groups.[34]

The modern history of the Horn illustrates the failure of both forceful cultural assimilation and secessionism. It is an interesting fact that the historically most contested, ethnically heterogeneous and one of the poorest states in the region, Ethiopia, has emerged as the most stable and viable. To many observers in 1991 Ethiopia looked like the most likely candidate for perpetual ethnic conflict and eventual balkanization (much like the current fate of neighboring Somalia). However, opting for the federal solution – with cultural autonomy for the various ethnic groups – seems to have played an important role in pacifying the ethnic tensions and secessionist cravings that ravaged the country throughout the 1970s and 80s. And furthermore support’s the claim that the best solution to prevent both inter- and intra-state warfare is to opt for the compromise of autonomy without secession.

About the Author

Goitom Gebreluel is an Advisor at the International Law and Policy Institute. Kjetil Tronvoll is a Senior Partner at the International Law and Policy Institute and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Bjorknes College, Oslo. He has authored and co-authored 8 books on politics of the Horn of Africa and taken part as adviser on several political processes in the region. 

[1] Tim Allen and Mareike Schomerus, South Sudan at Odds with Itself: Dynamics of Conflict and Predicaments of Peace, accessed January 3, 2014:

[2] David Siroky, Secession and Survival: Nations, States and Violent Conflict, PhD. Dissertation, Duke University.

[3] Siroky, 15.

[4] Jaroslav Tir, ‘Keeping the Peace after Secession: Territorial Conflicts between Rump and Secessionist States’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49 (2005), 713-41.

[5] Siroky, 16.

[6] See Siroky; Tir.

[7] Ruth Iyob, ‘The Ethiopian-Eritrean Conflict: Diasporic vs. Hegemonic States in the Horn of Africa, 1991-1999’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 38 (2000), 659-82.

[8] Kjetil Tronvoll, The Lasting Struggle for Freedom in Eritrea. Human Rights and Political Development, 1991-2009, (Oslo: Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights).

[9] Kjetil Tronvoll and Daniel R. Mekonnen, The African Garrison State: Human Rights and Political Development in Eritrea (Woodbridge: James Currey, 2014).

[10] Interviews with numerous opposition members based in Ethiopia throughout 2013, such as veteran politicians Hussein Khalifa and Kornelios Usman.

[11] The Red Sea Democratic Organization for example, in their political programme reserves the right to ‘self-determination up to secession’. See:

[12] Interviews with Eritrean opposition groups based in Ethiopia throughout 2013.

[13] Mark Bradbury, Becoming Somaliland (Woodbridge: James Currey, 2008).

[14] Matt Bryden, “State-Within-Failed-State: Somaliland and the Challenge of International Recognition” in Paul Kingston and Ian S. Spears (eds), States Within States: Incipient Political Entities in the Post-Cold War Era (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 167-188.

[15] Former PM of the Somali Federal Republic wrote a letter to the Khatumo administration during his tenure as PM recognizing their ambitions

[16] Heritage Institute, HIPS POLICY BRIEFING ISSUE 3, May 2013, accessed February 3:

[17] Interview with Mohamed Farah, August 2013, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

[18] Former PM Abdiwele Gaas of the Somali Federal Government gave recognition to the Khatumo state in a letter to its leaders in 2012.

[20] Allen and Schomerus, 5-10.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Interview with Mohamed Farah, August 2013, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

[23] Jaquin Berdal, Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa, A Critique of the Ethnic Interpretation, PhD. Dissertation, London School of Economics and Political Science, 239

[24] Dominik Helling, “Tillyan Footprints beyond Europe: War-Making and State-Making in the Case of Somaliland,” St. Antony’s International Review, 1 (2010), 103-123.

[25] Berdal, 165.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Øystein H. Rolandsen, Guerrilla Government: Political Changes in the Southern Sudan during the 1990s (Uppsala, 2005).

[28] See Allen and Schomerus, 7; and African Rights, Food and Power in Sudan: A Critique of Humanitarianism, Ch. 4, accessed on February 8, 2014:

[29] African Rights, 66

[30] African Rights, 84

[31] African Rights, 68-70

[32] Jairo Munive, Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration in South Sudan, Danish Institute for International Studies, July 2013, accessed February 12, 2014:

[33] Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn reiterated in a press conference that IGAD will not accept unconstitutional change of power in South Sudan or elsewhere in the region, televised on ETV February, 14, 2014

[34] Siroky, 277


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