Introducing State Briefings

Through a series of short briefs on developments at state level since the start of the civil war in 2013, the team behind Monitoring South Sudan hopes to provide a more comprehensive overview of the nature of the conflict and the impact of violence. As always, through the commentary field we encourage our readers to provide further updates, information and analyses.


State Briefing: Upper Nile State

Upper Nile detailed map
  • Capital: Malakal
  • Approximate population: 964,353 
  • Internally Displaced People (IDP) sheltering in Upper Nile: 194,200

Upper Nile State is situated in the north-east, bordering Ethiopia and Sudan. It is considered a marginalised state, heavily affected by decades of civil war and with poor infrastructure and accessibility (especially in the rainy season). Although imbuing areas around Renk and Melut with high strategic significance, the state’s oil reserves have so far provided limited benefits to the local population.

Along with Unity State and Jonglei, Upper Nile has been one of the battlefields of the internal conflict which erupted in December 2013. Violence spread to Upper Nile shortly after the first incidents in Juba and, what was later to be named the SPLA-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO) attacked the state capital Malakal 24 December 2014. Between December and April, Malakal changed hands six times and with each battle the number of refugees and IDPs increased. The White Army and the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army, a Shilluk militia, also joined the fighting. In Unity State the conflict has not only been about high politics; it has also involved local issues and armed groups mobilised on a community basis, a consequence of weak state control following decades of civil war.

The fighting has largely been focused around Malakal and on access to the oil fields in Upper Nile State. SPLA is currently in control of Malakal, but the areas on the west bank of the Nile are still contested and fighting continues despite the peace negotiations. Baliet town is a hot spot since it links Malakal to Nasir (and further to Ethiopia). To the west, Tonga is a gateway to Malakal and was targeted early in the conflict. Since April, Renk county, the base of SPLA’s first division, and Maban county have also become frontlines as the areas hold military and financially strategic value. The situation in Maban is further complicated by the four major refugee camps which are hosting more than 127,000 refugees from the civil war in the neighbouring Blue Nile state of Sudan.

Gross human rights violations have taken place in Upper Nile. Attacks on churches hosting IDPs, house-to-house searches and civilian killings in Malakal hospital have been documented. UNMISS uses its bases in Malakal, Nasser and Melut as civilian protection sites and has recently opened an additional site in Malakal as the bases are filled beyond capacity. Under the current circumstances it is impossible to provide any reliable number of the people facing severe food shortage and lack of basic services in Upper Nile. However, there is no doubt that an already fragile situation has been made worse by the fighting which has  caused displacement, hindered local food production and made trade difficult.

Further resources:


This Week in South Sudan – Week 27

Monday 30 June

Tuesday 1 July

Wednesday 2 July

Thursday 3 July

Friday 4 July

Saturday 5 July

Sunday 6 July



This Week in South Sudan – Week 26

Monday 23 June

South Sudan Humanitarian Snapshot

Tuesday 24 June

Wednesday 25 June

Thursday 26 June

Friday 27 June

Saturday 28 June

Sunday 29 June

This week in South Sudan – Week 25

Monday 16 June

Tuesday 17 June

Wednesday 18 June

Thursday 19 June

Friday 20 June

Saturday 21 June

Sunday 22 June


This Week in South Sudan – Week 24

Monday 9 June

Tuesday 10 June

Wednesday 11 June

 Thursday 12 June

Friday 13 June

Saturday 14 June

Sunday 15 June


This Week in South Sudan – Week 23

Monday 2 June

Tuesday 3 June

Wednesday 4 June

Thursday 5 June

Friday 6 June

This week in South Sudan – Week 22

Monday 26 May

Tuesday 27 May

Wednesday 28 May

Thursday 29 May

Friday 30 May

Saturday 31 May

Sunday 1 June

The price of fast-track peace-making: Considering May 2014

May 2014 appears to be a momentous month for South Sudanese politics. The government signed two peace agreements on 9th May in Addis Ababa, and the South Sudan Humanitarian Conference took place on 19-20th May in Oslo.

Mobilising over USD610, the Oslo conference was a response to the crisis induced by the continuing conflict in South Sudan. Although presented in the hue of a broad international conference, only half of the 41 countries present at the conference pledged new money, and a closer look at the funds pledged reveals that the Troika (USA, UK and Norway) collectively accounted for over three quarters of the money.

These funds are intended to alleviate humanitarian needs inside South Sudan and those of refugees in neighbouring countries. Of particular concern was a looming famine in many parts of the South. Protection of civilians was one issue deliberated during the conference, but it is unclear to what extent any of the new funds are intended to finance the planned up-scaled UNMISS operations or the IGAD-led monitoring mechanisms – both operations will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. International humanitarian assistance is however a corollary to the efforts of ending the war in South Sudan, which in this case has to be accomplished through negotiations.

On 9 May Salva Kiir and Riek Machar signed, on behalf of the Government of South Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLMiO), an Agreement to Resolve the Crisis in South Sudan. Although the two-page agreement was described as a significant step forward in the peace process, it is by and large a reconfirmation of commitments made in earlier rounds of the IGAD-led negotiations. Furthermore, immediately afterwards, each of them claimed that he had experienced undue pressure from the Ethiopian host to sign the agreement. It appears that the for the hyped and hasty signing ceremony may have been the Oslo donor conference.

Despite some low-level fighting in the days following the signing ceremony, the two parties have generally met their commitment to a month of tranquillity. With a few days to go, it remains to be seen if the other substantial commitment – of meeting again within a month – will be honoured. The parties also agreed that an inclusive interim government is a necessary part of the solution to the crisis, but they did not decide on the composition of such a government or on when it is to be formed.

The SPLMiO has called for a new national leadership, but Salva Kiir has signalled that he is not intending to step down. The SPLMiO also demands governance reforms including the adoption of a federal constitution, a demand echoed by non-aligned Equatorian politicians. The government is apprehensive and sees federalism as a threat to national cohesion and prefers non-federal decentralisation.

The GoSS resistance to federalism is undermined, however, by the second, less-publicised, peace agreement between Salva Kiir and David Yau Yau, the leader of the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (Cobra Faction). It, the “Jonglei Peace Deal”, is commendable for ending four years of on-and-off insurgency in Pibor County, but it poses a threat to national integrity. It establishes the eastern part of Jonglei as an autonomous region for the Murle ethnic group and promises development funding from the central government, special rights to manage water and pasture resources, and concessions over internal borders. The new arrangements bypass the current governance structure in Jonglei and might encourage other disgruntled groups to intensify their activities. It is still too early to say whether this is the start of South Sudan’s fragmentation, but the stage is set for an upsurge of ethnic and regional demands.

The weakness of the May 9 agreements is to a large extent the consequence of the haste with which they were made. This is symptomatic of the dilemmas facing external actors involved in peace processes in the two Sudans. There are good reasons for accelerated processes: protracted warfare not only takes an unacceptable toll in terms of human lives and destroyed livelihoods, but it also undermines South Sudan as a political project. However, as the catastrophic outcome of the 2006 Darfur peace agreement illustrates, forcing through premature solutions in South Sudan may be devastating in the long run.

Øystein H. Rolandsen, senior researcher PRIO, and Sebabatso Manoeli, DPhil student, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.


Since we published this analysis, the month of tranquility ceased sharply on 31 May as fighting reignited between SPLMiO and the GoSS troops. The recent events corroborate the argument that the external pressure exerted on the two signatories could not circumvent the essential ingredient for peace: political will, on both sides. The continuing conflict indicates that the two parties did not have a sense of ownership over the agreement, and that signing on 9 May may have been premature. The UN’s insistence on holding those who transgress the agreement accountable leads to questions about the kind of justice that can and will be meted out.

This Week in South Sudan – Week 21

Monday 19 May

Tuesday 20 May

 Wednesday 21 May

 Thursday 22 May

Friday 23 May

Saturday 24 May