Implications for the international community

Prior to the redesignation of PoC sites across South Sudan as IDP camps under the control of the South Sudanese government (aside from Malakal), UNMISS claimed that these sites prevented the mission from fulfilling its mandate to protect citizens elsewhere in the country, by taking up too many of the mission’s resources. Despite the closure of nearly all the PoC sites, however, the UN mission failed to protect civilians during violence in Upper Nile from August to December 2022. When the population of Panyikang county was almost entirely displaced by rampaging Nuer forces that attacked civilians and razed villages, UNMISS did not establish a single temporary operating base (TOB) in the area, despite stating that it would do so (UNMISS, 2022). Furthermore, in two major attacks against IDP camps (Adidyang in September 2022 and Aburoc in November 2022), UNMISS knew about the threat posed to these camps by armed groups, yet did not intervene to protect the camp’s civilian populations. Moreover, during the White Army’s assault on the west bank of the White Nile, some 20,000 IDPs fled to Kodok and assembled around the UN company operating base (COB).[1] Although these IDPs faced imminent attack by the White Army, the UN mission refused to allow them to shelter within the COB at Kodok, and reinforced the base with only ten additional troops. This brought the total number of peacekeepers to approximately 120,[2] which would have been completely inadequate to defend against a Nuer force of thousands. Only the SSPDF’s deployment of helicopter gunships saved the UN mission from a massacre outside its walls. On 6 December, UNMISS planned to deploy further peacekeepers to Kodok but pulled back, as conditions were considered too dangerous for the soldiers.[3] Simultaneously, however, UNMISS pressured the WFP to distribute food aid in Kodok without force protection. The mission feared that without distributions in Kodok, IDPs would come to Malakal, adding further strain to the overcrowded PoC site. The period of the conflict from August to December 2022 saw a marked increase in attacks immediately following aid distributions; if any such distribution had occurred, without force protection, it would have been extremely dangerous for the IDPs in Kodok.

Given the likelihood of a resurgence of violence in Upper Nile, a more robust and responsive approach to protecting civilians is called for from the UN, including the establishment of TOBs in conflict-affected areas. There were seven UNMISS TOBs in South Sudan as of early March 2023, but none of them were in the conflict zones of Upper Nile. While UNMISS should actively work to protect civilians who seek protection from it, as per its mandate, it seems unlikely that the mission will adopt a stronger stance. At the end of February 2023, UNMISS faced repeated denials of access by both the Agwelek and SSPDF. In response, it negotiated a new agreement with the SSPDF that requires the mission to inform the Joint Verification and Monitoring Mechanisms of its planned movements 15 working days in advance. The much more restrictive and deferential agreement on movement signed between UNMISS and the government will make it far harder for the mission to respond to humanitarian requests for assistance, or indeed protect civilians.

Current diplomatic pressure in Juba is focused on convincing the South Sudanese government not to allow passage of the Agwelek barges south of Wau Shilluk. There have been additional discussions, within diplomatic and humanitarian circles, over whether the Agwelek should be ‘allowed’ or ‘encouraged’ to retake Atar and Tonga.[4] The role of diplomats and humanitarians is not to take a stance on which force controls these two ports, but instead to find ways of distributing aid that prevent it—to the degree possible—from being captured by the warring parties, including by considering the distribution of aid supplies via the Sobat River, rather than the White Nile.

Much has been made—principally by the government—of the possibility of the Necessary Unified Forces (NUF) securing Malakal and areas to its south. At present, a group of NUF soldiers, graduated from Malakal in November 2022, remain at training centres in Alel and Awarjok, awaiting deployment. The international community must be clear-eyed about the reality on the ground. None of the major military forces in Upper Nile are meaningfully included within the Chapter II Security Sector Reform process of the R-ARCSS. Furthermore, the NUF is too small, and has too few weapons and questionable military will; it would struggle to meaningfully intercede in the conflict in Upper Nile.

While the government and the international community may have both rhetorically bought into the notion of an NUF that unites South Sudan’s armed groups under one command structure, Kiir’s regime has, in reality, presided over an increasingly fragmented security landscape, in which the most powerful military forces are almost entirely independent of the SSPDF command structure. This situation is neither a temporary crisis, nor anarchy: it is the consequence of state intervention in Upper Nile, and international efforts to bring peace to the beleaguered state should begin with the recognition that less state intervention is required from Juba, not more.[5]


[1] Author telephone interviews with international humanitarians, Shilluk IDPs, and UNMISS personnel (names withheld), December 2022.

[2] Author telephone interviews with international humanitarians, Shilluk IDPs, and UNMISS personnel (names withheld), December 2022.

[3] Author telephone interviews with international humanitarians (names withheld), December 2022.

[4] Author telephone interviews with diplomats and humanitarians (names withheld), January­–February 2023.

[5] For a detailed analysis of state intervention in South Sudan, see Craze and Markó (2022).