19.10.2023 Author: Ivan Kopytsev

What do we know about South Sudan after Salva Kiir’s visit to Moscow?

Salva Kiir Mayardit in Moscow

Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of the world’s youngest state, who has led South Sudan since its independence in 2011, arrived in Moscow on an official visit at the end of September. This visit is notable for a variety of reasons. Salva Kiir missed the Russia-Africa summit in July 2023, most likely under pressure from the US. Additionally, South Sudan, one of the least developed and least stable nations, remains something of a terra incognita for Russians, as the field of Russian African studies is rarely prepared to offer comprehensive and trustworthy knowledge on this nation. As a result, there is an understandable interest in researching the political and socio-economic reality of South Sudanese society, as well as the new state’s position in regards to international relations. The prospect for cooperation between Moscow and Juba are especially crucial in light of the South Sudanese president’s visit to Russia and bilateral high-level talks.

South Sudan’s independence fight stretches back to the mid-twentieth century and was primarily motivated by the desire of the South’s black ethnic groups to obtain independence or significant autonomy from the Arab North. The racial, ethnic, and religious motivations behind the two civil wars—1955-1972, and 1983–2005—as well as Khartoum’s unwillingness to lose the economic rent from oil exports, a sizable portion of which was produced in the southern regions of Sudan, contributed to the two civil wars’ extreme violence. Even after independence, the South Sudanese insurgency persisted, characterized by internal strife and the lack of a broad leadership agreement. For instance, in the years between 1984 and 1985, the leaders of the newly formed Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) disagreed over the objectives of the struggle: some commanders spoke in favor of the secession of the South Sudan, while SPLA founder John Garang and his supporters backed the idea of creating a “New Sudan,” that is, they did not restrict the Movement’s goals to the struggle for independence or autonomy of the southern regions of the country. While the mid-1980s controversies did not result in internal division, the events of 1991 marked a direct confrontation between supporters of Riek Machar, the most prominent member of the Nuer tribe group who had opposed John Garang, and the latter’s predominantly Dinka associates. The conflict between the leaders of the biggest ethnic groups in southern Sudan established the framework for the ongoing inter-ethnic strife that characterizes already-independent South Sudan’s current stage of development. Therefore, the SPLA was prevented from uniting into a force whose membership would have contributed to the formation of a common identity along with the non-conflictual existence of various ethnic groups after 2011. Ideological disagreements, the use of ethnic mobilization as the most effective way of attracting supporters already at the stage of the struggle for independence, brutal methods of fighting political opponents, and cases of ethnocide were the main reasons for this.

The formal declaration of South Sudan’s independence on July 9, 2011, and the diplomatic agreement struck in 2005 between Khartoum and the SPLA about the future status of the southern provinces did not bring about a new era in the nation’s progress. Two years later, in Juba, deadly clashes between the Dinka and Nuer people erupted in support of President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar, respectively. During the outbreak of the civil war, Salva Kiir’s government stated its intention to battle the “conspirators,” led by Riek Machar, who was compelled to flee the nation fast. The inter-elite and inter-ethnic violence was unable to be resolved despite the UN peacekeeping force of more than 12,000 personnel being deployed on the ground and the 2015 ceasefire agreement. A year later, fighting started up again, and according to 2017 estimates, up to one-third of the population were refugees.

It was not until September 12, 2018, in Addis Ababa, that most opposition factions and the Salva Kiir-led Transitional Government signed the Revitalized Agreement for Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS). There is still no widespread consensus among ethnic elites and interest groups despite the redistribution of ministerial portfolios and parliamentary seats among various political forces, as well as the release of a sizable number of political prisoners, some of whom were immediately incorporated into the executive and legislative branches of government.

The people of South Sudan often deal with issues including widespread flooding and starvation in various sections of the country, in addition to political instability and inadequate government institutions. In turn, inter-ethnic conflicts erupt with increased energy as a result of natural disasters, which force communities to leave their homes in search of better places to live and invariably cause conflict with their new neighbors.

The socio-economic environment is equally grim. South Sudan is critically understaffed in medicine and education, despite its continued reliance on international humanitarian and financial help. Not unexpectedly, the country’s literacy rate barely exceeded 34% in 2018, and the Human Development Index (HDI) in 2023 was projected to be the lowest in the world; child and maternal death rates remain high.

In these circumstances, the Salva Kiir government’s reliance on international help is clear: as one of the world’s most unstable states, South Sudan cannot exist solely on its own resources. According to the US Department of State data, 8.9 million people in the world’s youngest country needed humanitarian aid in 2022. With the Democrats in control, Washington has recently upped its funding to Juba, investing $1 billion per year on different development and peacekeeping activities. Talks about South Sudan’s leadership’s pro-American leanings, however, would be premature. Although the US is a significant benefactor to the nation, China has been the principal consumer of South Sudanese oil since independence, providing the Salva Kiir administration with 90% of all income. Beijing has been aggressively providing Juba with loans in return for oil supplies, and the China National Petroleum Corporation recently paid an astounding, even by African standards, $7 billion for a 40% stake in South Sudan’s largest oil consortium.

As a result of its reliance on China for economic growth and desire to retain American assistance, the Salva Kiir administration needs to exercise great care in determining a position on any important topics on the global agenda. At the same time, though South Sudan and Russia do not have strong economic ties, as the two nations’ annual trade volume, according to the most optimistic estimates, barely exceeds $11 million, South Sudan is interested in Moscow’s diplomatic support in the UN Security Council to lift the arms embargo imposed in May 2018. In addition, the deplorable situation of the South Sudanese economy makes Juba keen to expand any form of partnership that could positively influence the nation’s rehabilitation and future development. Finally, if UN constraints are repealed, the South Sudanese Armed Forces, which are badly under-armed and have no combat experience, would be interested in domestic defense industry.


Ivan Kopytsev, political scientist and research assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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