South Sudan: A provisional update from the oil regions | 21 May 2015‏


The fighting that is now occurring in the oil regions of Upper Nile, South Sudan has created dangers greater than at any time since the outbreak of violence in mid-December 2013. There is very little news reporting at present, but a range of reliable sources on the ground paint the grimmest of pictures. While the situation remains fluid, the preponderance of evidence and some highly authoritative reports suggest that it is only a matter of time before the Adar Yel and Paloich oil fields are shut down by fighting. Bloomberg reports (May 21, 2015) that workers evacuated to Juba from Paloich have returned; but the sources for this and what few news reports there have been depend excessively on the claims of the parties to the conflict, who have frequently made expediently false claims. In any event, it is important to remember that shutting down an oil pipeline and related infrastructure are complex tasks, which if not performed correctly with adequate time, can result in tremendous damage, both the pipeline and infrastructure, as well as the local environment.SouthSudan Map

Map of South Sudan; Upper Nile is in the northeast section of the country

It is clear from all reports that "General" Johnson Olony has sided with the rebel forces of the SPLA/In Opposition (SPLA/IO), nominally led by Riek Machar. The degree of Riek's command and control over opposition forces is unclear, but is certainly far from complete. Indeed, Olony has declared publicly that his primarily Shilluk force will operate independently of the SPLA/IO, with a primary goal of protecting regions in which Shilluk populations are concentrated. But this is belied by what is his apparently central role in the impending assault on Adar Yel and Paloich, the two critical points in the oil region of Upper Nile. His forces also apparently control Malakal, which was retaken from the SPLA/Juba several days ago.

[Update from Juba: 3pm, May 21, 2015] A highly informed source indicates that Olony may have suffered a significant military set-back in Malakal and has requested of Khartoum an airlift to safety. The same source reports that Malakal is now largely back in SPLA/Juba hands, although elements of Riek's forces remain in the strategic town.]

Heavy fighting is reported in Upper Nile-from Renk in the far north to Malakal in the south, to several areas in the east. This includes substantial use of tanks, artillery, mortars, heavy machine-guns, as well as a great many smaller automatic weapons. Although the rainy season will soon be upon the region, a provisional fate for the oil regions appears may well be decided in the coming days.

Not only does this suggest that there will be no end to fighting between the various elements of the SPLA/IO (including Olony's forces) and the SPLA/Juba, but that retaliatory ethnic violence will follow around the country. There are already reports from Juba, for example, that Shilluk have been targeted and attacked, with many fleeing. There are also serious questions about some of the key components of larger SPLA/Juba military units in Upper Nile: the majority of soldiers in at least one key unit, according to a source in Juba, are Nuer and Shilluk and may desert to the SPLA/IO. SPLA/Juba may find that both their tactical and strategic efforts are badly compromised by such defections.

The heaviest fighting is reported to be at Melut, on the Nile River, approximately 40 kilometers to the west of Paloich. If Melut falls to the SPLA/IO, it is unlikely that the SPLA/Juba will be able to retain control of the oil fields. SPLA/Juba military spokesman Philip Aguer today declared:

"The SPLA eliminated the threat to Paloich and the oilfields by defeating the rebels yesterday," army spokesman Col. Philip Aguer told Anadolu Agency. "We have recaptured the town of Melut less than 24 hours after the rebels entered it."

But this account does not comport with other, more disinterested accounts. Based on the evidence available, I believe the oil fields may soon be shut down and that the workers who have already been evacuated once will be evacuated again, and will not return for the foreseeable future. And if the SPLA/IO should take firm military control of the oil fields-an unlikely development but certainly possible-it is an open question as to whether the skilled oil workers necessary to re-start the oil flow will return at all.

This raises a question that has been in play since fighting took on a national character in South Sudan shortly after the events in Juba in mid-December 2013: what will be the response of the Khartoum regime to the halting of the flow of oil from Upper Nile, from which it derives critical transit fees, one of the last remaining sources of hard currency the regime has? Such transit fees are paid both by the foreign oil companies that built and control the oil fields of Upper Nile (essentially China and Malaysia) as well as by South Sudan. But if South Sudan is denied oil export revenues because of a shutdown in oil production and transit, the Government of South Sudan will of course make no further payments to Khartoum.

Khartoum's response

Minutes from an important meeting of senior regime officials on August 31, 2014 make clear the desire to assist militarily-in strategically significant ways-the SPLA/IO (for commentary on authenticity of these minutes, see Excerpts appended to the end of this dispatch make clear the extent of this assistance.

Collectively, the leaked minutes from meetings on July 1, 2014, August 31, and September 10, 2014 suggest the very real possibility of Khartoum's takeover of the oil regions; at the very least the regime wants to see a weakening of South Sudan by having, yet again, Southern fight against Southerner.

Economic pressures on the regime, and the threat of civil insurrection, are enormous. Since August of last year, the economy in Sudan has continued to implode under the pressures of high inflation, high unemployment, gargantuan external debt with fewer sources of loan guarantees, a rapidly declining currency, and an almost total lack of foreign exchange currency. It is this last that may force the regime's hand: bread lines and shortages, as well as shortages of cooking fuel, have been reported for over a year: there simply isn't enough hard currency with which to buy wheat for flour or fuel for cooking. The agricultural sector in Sudan has declined precipitously during the twenty-six-year rule of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime, and this only exacerbates the food shortages. Malnutrition is running at shockingly high levels throughout much of Sudan, especially in Darfureastern Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile State.

If the regime does nothing, oil production may well be halted soon. If the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) cross into South Sudan to seize the oil regions of Upper Nile in order to re-start the flow of oil, it will completely abrogate the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and sooner or later-likely sooner-lead to war between Sudan and South Sudan. The SPLA/North (in South Kordofan and Blue Nile) will likely make common cause with SPLA/Juba, their former comrades in arms. The SAF will be regarded by both as a mortal enemy, as it is now by the SPLA/North, which has again withstood the worst that Khartoum can throw at them during this second dry season "Final Campaign."

Neither IGAD, the East African regional intergovernmental body, nor "IGAD+"-nor the UN or African Union-seem to fully understand these risks, or the consequences for the region of renewed war between Sudan and South Sudan. There has, for example, been no pressure on Khartoum to halt its assistance to the SPLA/IO, or to close the SPLA/IO training bases in South Kordofan. The Obama administration and the EU both seem helpless, with neither diplomatic vision nor an understanding of what pressures might actually affect the situation on the ground. The much-threatened sanctions against individuals will have little impact, particularly on people like Olony and Peter Gadet (responsible for shooting down a UN transport helicopter last August), and risk being disproportionately or erroneously applied. Many of the men putatively targeted do not operate in any meaningful chain of command, and do not leave South Sudan in any event. They are impervious to sanctions.

Without pressure on Khartoum to stop its interference in the military events in South Sudan, no arms embargo or other punitive measures can be equitable. Denying the combatants weapons and ammunition will be key, but will not work if perceived by Juba as one-sided in consequence. What is much more important is that the international community have at the ready a vigorous response to any military incursion into Upper Nile by Khartoum's forces.

On the ground, reconciliation, if it comes, will come slowly and region by region. The South Sudan Council of Churches has begun in earnest with this task, but it will require a great deal of civil society assistance. The major military actors have been put on notice that they will be held accountable for the atrocity crimes that have defined the violence for almost a year and a half; to date, such threats seem to have had almost no impact on either Riek Machar and his generals, or on Salva Kiir and the men who surround and advise him.

[Of particular note in the chronicling of human rights abuses by the troops loyal to the Government of South Sudan is a statement today (May 21, 2015) by Amnesty International, attached below [2] as reported by Associated Press from Kampala (Uganda)]

There are no easy answers to the crisis that has now developed and grown terribly in South Sudan; no "silver bullet" or obvious negotiating strategy. Tragically, men with guns are making the critical decisions for all the people of South Sudan, who are suffering terribly, with famine looming and more than 1.5 million people displaced from their homes.  Creative, robust, truly international diplomacy-sustaining pressure while not setting artificial deadlines-is the greatest hope for peace in South Sudan. But it will not come quickly or easily. What is certain is that the crisis requires a good deal more attention and policy thought than it is presently receiving.


[1]  From minutes recording comments by senior military officials in Khartoum, August 31, 2014: on assisting Riek Machar and rebels in opposition to Juba (all emphases added):

•  General Imad al-Din Adawy, Chief of Joint Operations:

We [in the regime] suggested [to Juba] the formation of joint forces along the border line, but they refused that too. They are still supporting the two divisions of Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. Accordingly, we must provide Riek's forces with great support in order to wage the war against Juba and clean the whole of Greater Upper Nile area.

•  Lt. General Hashim Abdalla Mohammed-Chief of Joint General Staff:

We must change the balance of forces in South Sudan. Riek, Taban [Deng], and Dhieu Mathok came and requested support in the areas of training in military intelligence and especially in tanks and artillery. They requested armaments also. They want to be given advanced weapons. Our reply was that we have no objection, provided that we agree on a common objective. Then we train and supply with the required weapons.

•  Lt. General Abdel Rahman Mohamed Hussein-Minister to Defense:

I met Riek, Dhieu and Taban and they are regretting the decision to separate the South and we decided to return his house to him [Riek long lived in Khartoum following his defection from the SPLA]. He requested us to assist him and that he has shortage in the military intelligence personnel, operations command and tank technicians. We must use the many cards we have against the South in order to give them unforgettable lesson.

•  Lt. General Bakri Hassan Salih-First Vice President:

We are not interested in any relation with South Sudan or the neighboring countries, but it is a reality that requires us to respond and deal with it. Dr. Riek paid me a visit on August 11, 2014. He said the Dinka exterminated his tribe. He requested assistance. The president [Omar al-Bashir] accepted to host a liaison office.

[2]  Amnesty International: South Sudan government troops are burning villages  (Associated Press [KampalaUganda] May 21, 2015)

South Sudan government troops are setting villages on fire and abusing civilians in an ongoing military assault on rebels loyal to the country's former vice president, Amnesty International reported Thursday, the latest allegations of serious rights abuses since the resumption of heavy fighting last month. Citing witness accounts in Unity state, the watchdog group reported Thursday that fighters in South Sudan military uniforms - and others in civilian clothing -have attacked villages using axes, machetes and guns.

Despite the spike in fighting the international community is "reluctant to take bold steps toward addressing repeated atrocities," Michelle Kagari, deputy director with Amnesty International, said in a statement. Aid groups have recently pulled out of battle zones, leaving thousands of people in need as rebel forces fight for control of the country's crucial oil fields. South Sudan depends heavily on its oil exports to keep the government running and the military's latest assault is widely seen as an attempt to secure all the oil fields and get them running. But the rebels are fighting back, leaving thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire. Rebel forces on Wednesday said they were poised to take the oil hub of Paloch in Upper Nile state, but the military said it repulsed the attack.

In its report Thursday, Amnesty International cited the account of women, including a mother of three who recalled being raped by one fighter while another pointed a gun at her. It was not immediately possible to get a comment from South Sudan's military, which routinely denies such charges. The alleged rights violations are taking place in areas where there are few independent monitors, with the regional mediating group known as IGAD saying last week its officials were prevented from monitoring the fighting near Bentiu, Unity state's capital.

The United Nations on Thursday said heavy fighting resumed in the morning around the town of Melut in Upper Nile state, where four civilians, including a woman and a child, were killed on Tuesday when two mortar bombs exploded inside a U.N. compound. "It remains unclear who is in control of the town," the deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told reporters. He said seven displaced civilians have so far been killed in the crossfire. Some 20,000 people who had been sheltering outside the U.N. base there have scattered, he said. Journalist Pow James Raeth was shot dead Wednesday by unknown perpetrators in Akobo, Jonglei state, said his employer, South Sudan's Radio Tamazuj. He is the sixth journalist killed in South Sudan this year.



Eric Reeves 
Smith College
Northampton, MA  01063

       Skype: ReevesSudan 





Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007-2012