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18.9.2021 : 9:03 : +0200

Contested Borders: Continuing Tensions over the Sudan–South Sudan Border

It is now more than three years since South Sudan seceded from Sudan and there is still no agreement over the 2,010-km border that divides the two countries. Equally, despite the fact that both countries have repeatedly committed themselves to the establishment of a Safe Demilitarized Border Zone (SDBZ), the border remains militarized and trade disrupted, and the northern pastoralists who seasonally migrate into South Sudan continue to be harassed on both sides of the border.

Since the beginning of the conflict in South Sudan in December 2013 the border zone has also become the site where two civil wars intersect. Clashes in 2013–14 in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states in Sudan and in Unity and Upper Nile states in South Sudan mean that it is extremely unlikely that either country will make the compromises needed for an agreement on delimiting the border, because internal security considerations are paramount for both sides and neither wishes to antagonize armed border communities that see a delimited border as a threat to their access to seasonal grazing land.

Contested Borders: Continuing Tensions over the Sudan–South Sudan Border, by Joshua Craze, is a new Working Paper from the HSBA for Sudan and South Sudan that assesses developments in the border zone from July 2013 to September 2014. Among its findings:

  • The negotiations over the final location of the border, stalled since early 2013 are unlikely to resume in the near future; in fact, both countries have a vested interest in not agreeing on a final border. To date, the parties have used the negotiations over the border as weapons in other negotiations.
  • Since mid-2013 the focus of diplomatic negotiations has shifted from the final location of the border to the establishment and location of a ‘temporary’ SDBZ. However, despite both sides repeatedly committing to the establishment of a demilitarized zone, the border remains militarized.
  • As of September 2014 the full implementation of the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM) that is supposed to verify the demilitarization of the border is 15 months behind schedule. The limited force that has been put in place thus far has no capacity to carry out ground patrols, while only two of its four planned bases are under construction. To date it has not been able to determine the extent of militarization in the border zone.
  • Even if it should achieve full operating capacity, the JBVMM would have insufficient troops to monitor the border. The mechanism’s requirement that patrols provide advance warning to both armies and that they obtain prior approval before undertaking aerial reconnaissance also undermines its potential effectiveness.
  • Given armed conflict in the Sudanese states of South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur, and in the South Sudanese states of Unity and Upper Nile, neither country is willing to withdraw troops from strategically crucial positions in the border zone.
  • In Abyei the assassination of the Ngok Dinka paramount chief, Kuol Deng Kuol, in May 2013 destroyed the already fragile relationship between the Missiriya Arabs and the Ngok Dinka. Subsequently, the Ngok Dinka community has refused to discuss the formation of a joint administration in the territory if it includes members of the Missiriya or Sudanese political appointees.
  • The Ngok Dinka’s unilateral referendum in Abyei in October 2013 has not altered the political dynamic in the territory and has failed to obtain national, regional, or international support. Together with the issue of the border zone, Abyei has taken a back seat to the military and political crises in Sudan and South Sudan.
  • Despite the presence of forces from both countries in the border zone, the Rizeigat’s 2013–14 migration into Northern Bahr el Ghazal was the most successful of all the northern migrations into the border zone. In an exception to the general trend, cross-border trade between East Darfur and Northern Bahr el Ghazal continues.
  • Many border crossing points between the two countries remain closed, damaging the economies of affected states on both sides of the border, especially the South Sudanese states that have long relied on trade with Sudan. The GoS opens and closes border crossing points as part of a negotiating strategy with the GRSS.
  • Cross-border pastoralist migration between Sudan and South Sudan continues to be disrupted by SPLA and SAF harassment, GoS border closures, conflict over scarce resources, and long-held enmities that originated in the second civil war.

Contested Borders: Continuing Tensions over the Sudan–South Sudan Border, Working Paper 34 from the Small Arms Survey’s HSBA project, can be downloaded at:

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