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Some Reflections on South Sudan’s Unhappy Fourth Birthday

I visited Juba for the first time during the month leading up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. The main reason for my visit was my participation in a conflict assessment in eastern Warrap State as part of the Carter Center’s initiative to foster both grassroots and high-level dialogue targeted at ending the rebellion that was then going on in Unity State. At the time, Peter Gadet was leading a rebellion that appeared to draw on ethnic grievances and cyclical patterns of cattle raiding between Unity and Warrap. One week after our team visited Akop, over 50 people were reportedly killed in the town in a cross-border raid. On the eve of independence, South Sudan was faced with severe internal struggles, but the people we met were optimistic that with independence, they could resolve their differences.

Few initiatives in conflict resolution during the post-CPA period ever came to fruition, drowned as the work was in the broader downward spiral that characterized the infancy of Africa’s 54th sovereign state. This article reflects on my experiences in South Sudan and examines South Sudan’s independence through the lens of various capacities in which I visited the country, from an undergraduate researcher to a graduate assistant/conflict analyst to a guest of former diaspora returnees.


The view from 2009

My research on conflict in South Sudan had begun before my 2011 visit, during a month-long stay in Mundri, Western Equatoria in 2009, where I conducted undergraduate research and helped a water engineer with construction projects. At that time, the local branch of the SPLM was very popular, and people cheered the party as officials in Mundri presented the SPLM as the messiah of South Sudan at a local rally. Messianic themes carried throughout a political rally: “Let us remind ourselves of the objective: The Promised Land,” said one government adviser amid loud cheers. Another official said, “SPLM is the messiah of Sudan – it has changed the whole Sudan. Sudan cannot go back to what it was in 1956.” … “SPLM says the New Sudan is here. It is a matter of one last kick and the baby is out.”

One chief in Mundri told a story about three bulls and a leopard who tricks them into separating in order to eat them one by one. The idea was that the Arabs had tried to separate the different ethnic groups in South Sudan, but the chief argued that the Southern Sudanese could not be separated.

On the whole, the people in Mundri were hopeful, but vestiges of civil war remained as stark reminders of the past, and ethnic and military violence continued to haunt Western Equatoria. My time in Mundri came soon after Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had attacked some towns along the border between the DRC and Western Equatoria. While I was in Mundri, a contingent of SPLA soldiers returning from repulsing the LRA on the DRC border came into town and wreaked havoc, chopping up the desks and benches in the local school to use as firewood while cooking their dinner and generally harassing the civilian population. Yet hope remained that the undisciplined former militias that made up the SPLA could yet become a disciplined national army that promoted security and garnered support from South Sudan’s civilian population.

Bombed-out buildings in Mundri left from the Sudanese Civil War

Bombed-out buildings in Mundri left from the Sudanese Civil War

Warrap conflict assessment and the visit to Juba and Wau in 2011

After landing at the airport in Wau on the morning WFP flight in early June 2011, my boss and I rode in a Land Cruiser along the paved road from the airport – until the pavement turned to go up a hill in a residential area. The road leading to the center of the city became a bumpy gravel track. “Why does the paved road go into that neighborhood?” I asked the driver.

“That’s where the governor lives,” he replied.

Uneven development, corruption, and social fracturing became the themes of the three visits to South Sudan that I made between 2011 and 2012. As a conflict analyst working with the Carter Center, I visited embassies, consulates, and NGO offices in Juba for about two weeks in June 2011 and again in December. My experience there inspired the article which I later co-authored with my MA adviser Richard Grant, on how the Development Complex drove spatial fragmentation and the development of fortress architecture in Juba amidst the insecure environment in South Sudan. Richard was an invited contributor to the issue of Local Economy, and despite our primary focus at the time on Johannesburg, we decided to review recent literature and data on Juba for the contribution on urban development in Africa. We found that between the 2005 CPA and South Sudan’s independence in 2011, at least 700 development organizations had flocked to Juba. The city was filled with “expats” (I use the term with some irony, in agreement with a recent piece in the Guardian as to its hierarchical connotations) and government officials, all of whom seemed divorced from the contexts inhabited by South Sudan’s citizens on a day-to-day basis. In fact, relations between international development workers and government officials merely seemed in my experience to reinforce the distance between these upper-level groups and the majority of Southern Sudanese. Most “expats” that I talked to had never been very far outside of Juba, and many had never even been to some of the poorer areas on the outskirts of the city. The UN would regularly issue security updates banning its workers from patronizing certain venues. Ironically, one of the venues that was flagged during my stay was literally next door to Logali House, which was one of the most popular expat hangouts in the city.

Our assessment of conflict conditions along the Warrap-Unity border in June 2011 also revealed the stark disparities between Juba and other areas of South Sudan, which were seemingly being compounded by the inability of aid and government finance to escape the “Juba bubble”. In Juba we could pay $250 US for one night in a dirty hotel room and $10 for breakfast; in Tonj and Marial-Lou, we slept in a tent or in a tukul and paid a couple of Sudan Pounds (SDG) for food. Development workers were taking hefty salaries and shocking per-diems in Juba because of the price bubble there (unfortunately for me, I was on contract as a graduate assistant with a flat monthly stipend).

Cattle camp in the toich of eastern Warrap, June 2011.

Cattle camp in the toich of eastern Warrap, June 2011.

The officials in the villages along the Warrap-Unity border accused Peter Gadet’s SSLM/A faction of causing all of the problems in their areas. But when Peter Gadet was offered amnesty in August 2011, the fighting continued. The Government of South Sudan’s strategy of offering amnesty and creating government positions for former rebels/warlords seems to stem from both international pressure to respect the human rights, even of rebels, and the legacy of the SPLM/A as former rebels themselves. Fast forward to 2014 and Salva Kiir’s creation of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area and appointment of David Yau Yau as the administrator… Yau Yau certainly had legitimate grievances, but the appointment of rebel leaders as government officials has continued and seems to encourage more violence in the country.

Another side of Juba: 2012

In September 2012 I returned to Juba in a very different capacity, as the guest of a friend that I had made in Johannesburg who was returning to South Sudan for the first time since independence in order to obtain his ID card and passport and to attempt to pave the way for some investors from South Africa to establish businesses in South Sudan. I took a bus from Kampala with a group of SPLA officers who were returning to Juba after military training in Uganda. We arrived at the South Sudan-Uganda border before sunrise in the morning and waited in line with hundreds of Ugandans and Kenyans waiting to gain access to South Sudan in order to do business in the cash-flooded markets of Juba. In Nimule, South Sudanese merchants were buying and selling clean, 2006-issue hundred-dollar bills to travelers.

I stayed in a small but clean mud-and-thatch hut in Buluk and got to see a different side of Juba as I walked the streets or took motorcycle taxis to different parts of the city. At the time, rumors said that bank officials were making a killing in the black market by taking US dollars and selling them on the streets. You could get about a 20% higher exchange rate for a hundred-dollar bill on the street than in an official setting.


Admittedly, I was and remain uninitiated to the ins and outs of family and tribal ties in South Sudan, but I watched the process of attempting to do business in South Sudan’s capital city. The guys with whom I was staying were somehow distantly related to government administrators and managed to ply some connections in order to get a meeting with a security official who also served as a businessman for a very high-level official. We were offered a major road contract if we brought South African investors into South Sudan. At the behest of our would-be investors, we went about the complicated process of trying to secure raw materials (in other words, buy a mountain on the outskirts of Juba to crush in order to create asphalt). After numerous visits to chiefs, villagers, county commissioners, etc., we managed to get no clear idea of how we could secure rights to the mountain that were satisfactory for the investors in South Africa. It was as if everyone thought that they didn’t need to give investors satisfactory terms, because if these investors declined, someone else would come along to bring business to the South Sudanese. During this time, I was basically just along for the ride, and I gained a lot of (worrying) insight into the business environment and the social dynamics at work for people trying to do business in Juba and its surrounds. As a Westerner, I was offered a large site for agricultural investment in Upper Nile, among other opportunities.

People were optimistic about South Sudan’s prospects over the coming years. My friend truly believed that South Sudan was ripe for investment and heading toward a peaceful future, despite signs of continued unrest throughout the country. Juba was booming, with hundreds of foreigners arriving every day to do business in the city. During 2011 I had noticed that most of the hotels and restaurants were owned by individuals who were not of South Sudanese heritage; now this was true of many of the smaller businesses and motorcycle taxi drivers (though the government of South Sudan later cracked down on foreign motorcycle drivers, and government officials have repeatedly complained that the motorcycle traffic in Juba prevents them from getting to meetings in a timely manner).

On the other hand, it surprised me how wealthy some of the people living in shacks near Juba were. Perhaps the case of my friend’s uncle was an exceptional circumstance. The man sent his sons to Uganda to import cattle, which he then sold in Gumbo, on the east bank of the Nile just across from Juba. When we visited his shack in Gumbo, he pulled out a thick wad of US $100 bills and counted off a thousand dollars to give to his nephew. The man was a capitalist who put little value in immediate consumption, instead keeping his wealth circulating between cash and cattle.

South Sudan’s Fourth Birthday

Today as I sit in my office in Atlanta after my return from fieldwork in Ethiopia, I continue to follow the news in Sudan and South Sudan. The headlines have hardly changed since the rebellion broke out in December 2013: violated ceasefires, a president’s refusal to consider change or to own up to any faults, a degree of local and international support for a rebel leader past his prime who has twice been involved in tearing the country apart along ethnic lines. The people of South Sudan are suffering at the hands of a prideful, selfish and corrupt style of leadership on both sides of the rift, and from the militarization of society that has gone on for decades. Localized discontent and increasing inequality have scaled up into large-scale social divides and conflict that spirals out of control.

I wish South Sudan a return to peace. I hope that some true leaders will step up who can get over their personal interest and serve their country rather than their pride or their pockets. The same goes for the international community and the development community, where people need to work for real transformation rather than taking the benefits they can get while working in a country riddled with poverty and conflict.

Jijiga (Jigjiga), Ethiopia: Jijiga Travel guide for the capital of Somali Regional State

Jijiga is booming, in terms of population growth, infrastructural growth, investment, and business opportunity. The capital of Somali Regional State, Jijiga (also spelled Jigjiga) has expanded dramatically over the past five years of enhanced peace and security in the region. Having just returned from a month-long visit to Jijiga, I am writing this post as a brief synopsis on travel conditions and recommendations.

By local accounts and by my observation, the area is very calm and secure on a day-to-day basis, though longer-term regional security trends along the Somalia Border remain somewhat uncertain – particularly several hundred kilometers south of Jijiga, past Gode. People in Jijiga generally report that they are very happy with the government’s efforts to bring about security and development, and the construction boom and huge influx of diaspora returnees bear testament to perceptions of peace and opportunity among the global Somali community. If you are going around town after dark, you will need your passport because police checkpoints are fairly common (going across town between 10 PM and midnight, I usually encountered one or two checkpoints). Of course, anywhere you go you must take some precaution, but on the whole my experience spoke to the safe and welcoming atmosphere of Jijiga.

Travelers from Europe and North America are likely to meet many compatriots in Jijiga. About halfway through my visit I was walking down one of the side roads in the morning and a young woman rode up beside me on a bicycle, chewing an ‘adey (tooth-brushing stick) and with her face covered in facial cream. “Hey man, where’re you from?” She asked. “I’m from the US,” I replied.

“Hey, me too! I’m from Minneapolis! My name’s Farah. I’ll see you around!”

The diaspora is in the house.

Jijiga’s Development Boom

Sayyid Mohammed ‘Abdille Hassan, the “Mad Mullah” who plagued the British by leading a 20-year anti-colonial struggle at the turn of the 20th century, leads the charge of progress in Jijiga’s main roundabout (in statue form). On either side of the main road that runs East to West, new hotels and office complexes are going up quickly. It is fascinating how straight buildings emerge from the crooked scaffolding used during construction. Diaspora investment and government infrastructure development are two of the main forces driving this infrastructure boom. Diaspora returnees (called “Qurba Joog” in Somali) are taking advantage of the invitation offered by the Somali Regional State government, and invitation that has become the subject of numerous songs inviting the Qurba Joog to return and invest in the development of the Horn of Africa. Featuring prominently among the new buildings is a G+5 financed by Kaah, a Somali bank that has long provided financial transfers across far reaches of the globe.


Downtown Jijiga, June 2015. Copyright D.K. Thompson.



Kaah Building

Kaah Building, nearing completion. The Ethiopian Airlines office in Jijiga is located on the first floor and several banks are on the ground floor facing the exterior. Copyright D.K. Thompson, 2015.

Getting to Jijiga

International travelers will land in Addis Ababa before proceeding to Jijiga. You can fly to Jijiga on Ethiopian Airlines, or to Dire Dawa and take a 2.5-hour bus ride to Jijiga. Alternately, you can take a bus from Addis Ababa, which will take between 9 and 11 hours. If you are not in a hurry, I recommend the bus, as it is cheap (350 ETB, or about $15 US) and takes a beautiful route through the eastern highlands. Selam Bus and Sky Bus are up to Western standards and boast very good safety records. I cannot recommend the cheaper local buses (they may be fast, but the road is also winding and dangerous, and you will probably see some minibuses and trucks wrecked on the side of the road along the way). Selam Bus and Sky Bus leave from Meskel Square, Addis Ababa. Get tickets a few days in advance, as the buses leave very early in the morning and will probably be full.

Once in Jijiga

  1. Money: There are several ATMs in Jijiga that accept international VISA and Mastercard bank cards. One is located at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopian, Fafan Branch, on the main street near the pedestrian bridge on the west end of town. Another is beside the Bank of Abyssinia, two streets west of Sayyid Mohammed’s statue and just south of the main road.
  2. Transportation: The three-wheeledBajaj, an import from South Asia, is the vehicle of choice in Jijiga. Many of the drivers speak some English, but perhaps practice some Somali and/or Amharic before you go if you don’t speak them already (I’ve transliterated a few Somali examples below).
    1. “Wahaan rabaa inaa tago ______” (I want to go to ______)
    2. “_____ ii gee” (Take me to _____)
    3. “Waa immisaa la’agtii” or “Qaymiga waa mahay” (How much is it?)
  3. Lodging: Before coming to Jijiga, I looked at a travel guide that mentioned Nogob Garden, Hamda, and Bada hotels. When I was on the bus from Addis Ababa, I asked some people from Jijiga what was the best hotel and someone recommended Universal Hotel, so that is where I stayed during my visit. It is very clean, the staff is extremely friendly and helpful, and it is in a rather quieter area of town than Hamda or Nogob Garden, both of which are on the main road (but on opposite sides of town). The newly opened City Crown Hotel just north of Jijiga city center is another option; it is located on the main north-south road. Nogob Garden, Universal, and Safari Hotel are all out on the east side of the city, near the University and closer to the airport. From that side it’s about a 20-minute walk or a 15-birr bajaj ride (or 2 birr by Force with several other passengers) to the center of town.
  4. Food: Hilib geel (camel meat) and ‘aano geel (camel milk) are a must in Jijiga. For the full Somali experience, I recommend Raaho restaurant (Raaxo), near the town center. Given the heavily gendered dynamic of public space in the culture here, I have to say that I recommend this for men only. There are only Somali men eating there, as far as I have seen. It is the stereotypical Somali place, with people seeming to yell at each other (you would think they were about to fight, but then they shake hands and hug), pushing to get to the water tap to wash hands, and sloshing maraq (soup) from bowls onto the tables as the bowls are passed around. Try the camel hump meat, but don’t eat too much. If it’s your first time, expect your stomach to run a little bit later in the day or the following morning. Also ask around and you will find the opportunity to milk camels either at a small farm inside Jijiga or at a number of locations on the outskirts of town.
  5. Food from smaller vendors is cheap and delicious. You can find plates of fresh injera for about 10-15 birr (50-75 cents US) that will fill you up. Look for any of the little restaurants tucked away behind flimsy corrugated tin walls.The hotels all have restaurants as well, but tend to be a little more expensive. Expect to pay around 60-100 birr ($3-5 US) for a meal for one person. Amira’s and Ayaan’s are restaurants near the old location of the Taiwan Market just south of the main road in the town center. Both are good. Among the best options in my opinion is Qarrijiqood, owned by diaspora investors but managed by local guys. Qarrijiqood Restaurant is located between the Regional President’s compound and the new Taiwan market. The cooks are top-notch, the restaurant provides free wireless to customers, and seating options range from outdoor tables to traditional seating on the carpets in the rear of the restaurant.

If you are planning to travel to Jijiga and would like a trustworthy guide to show you around town, please contact me and I can provide contacts for some drivers who grew up in the area.

Sudan’s Opposition Parties (Sudan Election 2015: Who is Who, Part 2)

Sudan Elections 2015: A Brief Who is Who.

This article is the second part of a three-part series. Click here to go back to Part 1: The Incumbent Parties, or forward to Part 3: Sudan’s Armed Opposition.

Part 2: Sudan’s Opposition Parties for the 2015 Elections (Main Parties)

Sudan’s 2015 elections are scheduled for April, despite calls from Sudan’s opposition parties to postpone the decision in order to provide more time for the “national dialogue” that began in January 2014 to bear fruit. It is still unclear whether President Omar al-Bashir of the National Congress Party (NCP) will be declared eligible to run for president again (laws must be changed for that to happen, and a few people have been dismissed from prominent posts for stating that the president will NOT be eligible), and also whether opposition parties will boycott again as they did in 2010. In preparation for the 2015 Sudan elections, this series is a brief background of a few of the more prominent Sudanese political parties and individuals in the political scene in Sudan. Part 1 of Sudan Elections 2015 outlines the basics of the National Congress Party and its support group, the Islamic Movement. Part 2 of this series focuses on the political opposition, and Part 3 on the armed opposition. Continue reading

Free East Africa layer packages for ArcGIS (administrative data)

If you have ever used GIS data where the borders just don’t match up, I feel your pain. Of course, map accuracy varies greatly, even within a single map, because of distortions due to projection. However, there are options for increasing the accuracy, and especially for making sure that you don’t have gaps or overlaps between countries, states, or counties on your map. So I’ve pulled together some data and used topology rules to generate the most accurate (that I have seen so far online) free GIS data for all of East Africa, as well as for individual countries. These should come in very handy if you are working on maps of local areas along international borders or other projects of that type, as well as if you just need accurate maps for the area as a whole.

For those using ArcGIS who want accurate data for the Horn of Africa/East Africa region, check out our newly updated administrative layer packages:

East Africa layer package preview

East Africa layer package preview




Top: Mercator projection, preserving direction and exaggerating the area of regions farther from the equator.
Bottom: Mollweide Projection, preserving relative area of landforms while distorting shape.

A Critique of “Geopolitics and the New World Order” by Robert D. Kaplan (Time magazine)

Russia looms huge on the two-page map that serves as the title page for Robert D. Kaplan’s article “Geopolitics and the New World Order,” published in the March 31st issue of Time.  The Mercator projection, which significantly exaggerates northern landmasses, is the same map chosen by Cold War propagandists to emphasize the “red menace”; the center of the map is, of course, Ukraine – the focus of the article, which recalls a century-old argument set forth by Halford Mackinder’s famous “Geographical Pivot of History” (1904). Kaplan begins by asserting that “Geography increasingly fuels endless chaos and old-school conflicts in the 21st Century.” Kaplan proceeds, as he has many times before, to show how “geography” explains conflicts across the world. While Kaplan makes a number of good points, his typically dire predictions for a future dominated by chaos in which the bonds of blood and territory are apparently stronger than human reason, cultural development, and consensus should make us pause and consider what is really being said. Does “geography” – defined simply as the areal differentiation of the earth’s surface in terms of physical features, ecosystems, and human population and culture – necessarily mean endless conflict? Or is there more to the story that does not necessarily fall within Kaplan’s conception of geography?

Continue reading

MEA Book Summary and Review: Economic and Political Reform in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives, by Peter D. Little (2013)

Economic and Political Reform in Africa – A re-examination of economic development, markets, food aid, and wildlife conservation based on analysis of local outcomes.

Note: This is an expansion of a review posted on the Amazon product page for Economic and Political Reform in Africa, and was written by the same author as the Amazon review.

Economic and Political Reform in Africa: Anthropological Perspectives (Indiana University Press, November 2013) represents anthropologist Peter Little’s work in numerous contexts from Accra to Nairobi to Maputo over the past two decades. Little uses data and ethnographic interviews in a series of case studies to show how market-oriented, “pro-poor,” and democratic reforms have actually worked in society and in local economies, as well as how locals targeted as beneficiaries of economic reform or foreign aid programs perceive themselves, the programs, and the outcomes. Based on seven case studies in Ghana, The Gambia, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Kenya (including the Somali borderlands of Kenya), Little argues primarily that 1) despite the focus on “market liberalization” by development agencies such as the World Bank, the state has in many cases been an important actor during the period of neoliberal reform in Africa (sometimes as an active presence, sometimes more passively); 2) the extension of global markets into various African contexts has often disempowered smallholders and the poor; 3) democracy and “community empowerment” (including community conservation initiatives) have in some cases heightened communal/ethnic tensions; and 4) “pro-poor” development may serve as justification for African states to pursue political agendas targeting certain elements of their populations. Continue reading

Bullet holes in a shopkeeper's jacket, Thokoza, South Africa. Photo by author.

Anti-foreigner violence: At the Intersection of Identity and Economics

The conflation of foreign individuals in a country with their country’s political agenda or identity is often used as an explanation for anti-foreigner violence. In South Africa, foreigners – in particular, African immigrants from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Malawi, Somalia, and Ethiopia (although also many immigrants from Bangladesh) – have been targeted for years in bouts of xenophobic violence. South African voices sometimes cite these immigrants bringing their countries’ lawlessness or poverty with them into South Africa; yet more often, the targeting of foreigners has a strong economic component. Furthermore, it is not only locals who engage in anti-foreigner violence: rumors abound in the South African Somali refugee community about Somali shop owners fomenting violence against shops owned by other Somalis. Anti-foreigner violence takes place under a range of conditions, and itself has the potential to create a unique opportunity structure for foreigners.

To put anti-foreigner violence in context, we can look numerous other places, from attacks on Korean businesses during the 1992 L.A. race riots to attacks on foreigners in Germany in the early 1990s. Yet xenophobic violence in South Africa provides perhaps the clearest example of conditions conducive to violence against foreigners in the African context. Continue reading

South Sudan Crisis Map and Analysis – Ethnicity IS Political

(Scroll down or click here for interactive South Sudan Crisis Maps of events so far in January)

The watch-phrase for international groups in South Sudan is “ethnic conflict,” something that is viewed as worse than a political conflict and something that both sides of the current conflict accuse each other of instigating. Unfortunately, the crisis that has unfolded in South Sudan since December 15 continues to provide reason for strong reminiscences about similar events 22 years ago, in which a “political conflict” degenerated into years of “ethnic conflict”. Can it be prevented? I think South Sudan needs the will to initiate something like the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation proceedings in South Africa or similar post-conflict measures in Rwanda. For now what we can do is to raise awareness of the issue, the dynamics, and what is at stake. Thus our continued effort map the 2013-2014 South Sudan crisis.

Continue reading

A Brief Word from Kismayo and VISDO

The staff of Voluntary Initiative for Social Development Organization (VISDO) in Kismayo reported today that the situation on the ground in Kismayo is very good and improving by the day. In November, VISDO began initiating a mine education campaign in cooperation with Mine Advisory Group and the UN Mine Action Strategy. VISDO chairman Abdirahman “Tamaam” and colleagues have been traveling around southern Somalia informing communities in at-risk areas about mine risks and approaches to eliminate use of landmines. The local organization has been working hard since their beginnings early last year to bring meaningful change to the Wamo region by supporting community security and engaging in livelihoods training for IDPs and other groups affected by Shabaab violence over the past several years.

How do environmental conditions influence conflict dynamics in South Sudan?

The fighting between David Yau Yau’s forces and the SPLA in the Pibor area over the past few months has me thinking about environmental factors influencing conflict dynamics in South Sudan. Jonglei’s swamps along the borderlands between Murle and Nuer territory have always proved volatile areas – perhaps more so now than ever since the early-mid 1990s, when the White Army was last on the move and a rinderpest epidemic had killed off many of the area’s cows, pushing cattle herding youth to raid other areas to regain lost wealth. Conflict analysts in South Sudan have long pointed to seasonal trends in conflict: Armed conflict heats up in the dry season because conventional army can access the swamps where militias or rebel groups are active; ethnic conflict and cattle raiding also increases in the dry season because of the accessibility of specific areas.

By 2011 I had spent several months over a course of three years compiling what I consider a fairly comprehensive dataset on media-reported armed conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan. I downloaded the Sudan Armed Conflict Location Event Dataset (from the ACLED website) as a skeleton, deleted all duplicate events and selected only those qualified as “armed conflict” between groups of people rather than armed crimes. I pored over books, journal articles, NGO/IGO reports from Small Arms Survey and others, and hundreds of news articles in local and international news sites to verify reports and add others that were not included in the dataset. Breaking down the data, I found no correlation between the season (wet vs. dry) and the number of reported conflicts. However, as we will see below, dry years tended to have more conflict than wet years.

Looking at overall trends, the mean center of conflict shifted northward from 2005-2011 and the directional ellipse centered along an axis through the region in which Dinka, Nuer and Murle ethnic areas meet. Reported conflicts within 40 km of the Dinka-Nuer ethnic boundary (much of this is along the Warrap-Unity border; see the full paper below for other map sources) rose significantly between 2005 and 2011. For those of you who have not visited this border area, much of it is a flat floodplain interspersed with areas of higher ground on which villages are set. Especially along the Warrap-Unity border, the floodplains are miles wide and create a lot of difficulty in accessing the opposite area during the wet season or in wetter years. I proceeded to investigate whether there was some correlation between the surface water coverage and the number of conflicts.


After organizing and mapping the conflict events I had recorded, I downloaded 250m MODIS 8-day composite images from the end of each wet season, selecting the clearest two images for each year from between September 20 and October 20 – basically taking the two clearest images that were taken as soon as possible after the rainy season cloud cover cleared enough to allow what appeared to be an accurate ground cover map. I used known bodies of water to reclassify imagery to show flooded areas, and checked this against 15m Landsat imagery, which for the most part lined up pretty accurately.

In some cases, my MODIS classification seemed to miss areas that appeared flooded in the Landsat images, but it is very difficult to tell whether there is actually water on the ground in some of these swamps. In this case, MODIS said there was not much.

In some cases, my MODIS classification seemed to miss areas that appeared flooded in the Landsat images, but it is very difficult to tell whether there is actually water on the ground in some of these swamps. In this case, MODIS said there was not much.

In other places, such as northern Warrap, I got low matchup in the other direction - MODIS indicated more water than I saw on the Landsat images. This area also appeared flooded, and MODIS agreed. This is an example of poor matchup, but classifications for most years matched very well between MODIS and Landsat (check next image).

In other places, such as northern Warrap, I got low matchup in the other direction – MODIS indicated more water than I saw on the Landsat images. This area also appeared flooded, and MODIS agreed. This is an example of poor matchup, but classifications for most years matched very well between MODIS and Landsat (check next image).


Area north of Bor showing a good match between pixels classified as water using MODIS and those classified as water using Landsat. Note clouds in Landsat image, which make using non-composite images nearly impossible for the tropics this time of year.

Area north of Bor showing a good match between pixels classified as water using MODIS and those classified as water using Landsat. Note clouds in Landsat image, which make using non-composite images nearly impossible for the tropics this time of year.

Based on this satellite imagery, we can get an idea of how much the surface water coverage at the end of the rainy season fluctuates each year, indicating the amount of rain that has fallen on that area in the late wet season and how much water is left in the toich for cattle herds to utilize during the drier months.



After classifying the imagery for all of South Sudan, I calculated the area of South Sudan that had surface water remaining at the end of each rainy season, providing an idea of overall dry years vs. wet years. I then compared each year’s “wetness” with the number of conflicts that year for every year since 2005, since that is when we could begin to differentiate ethnic conflict and Southern rebellions that had ethnic dynamics from the Sudanese Civil War in the media reports. Keep in mind that from 2005-2011 is only 7 years, a very small population for a statistical study. Nevertheless, there was a decent negative correlation between surface water coverage and the number of conflicts during the year, indicating that conflict is more likely to occur during dry years than during wet years. This makes sense for a couple of reasons: 1) floods keep warring groups separated; 2) dry years bring pastoralist groups into closer proximity as they search for water for their herds; and 3) it could also be the case that conflict reporting is poor during wet years due to inaccessibility.


Taking it to the next spatial level, I broke it down by county and found that the counties in which armed conflict correlates negatively with surface water coverage were highly clustered, mostly in counties along the Dinka-Nuer-Murle ethnic boundaries.


That makes sense because those areas between Abiemnhom and Bor Counties are largely flooded during wet years and therefore are less accessible. The stats indicate that the trend toward conflict in these areas is significantly clustered enough that it is nearly impossible that it is random, which indicates that we could predict that conflict is more likely to happen in these areas during dry years, rather than just during the dry season.

Because of the small sample size, in 2011 when I worked on all of this, I was unable to find seasonal trends. With a few more years of data tucked away, I think there is good potential for updating this study. What I determined from the study is that there is an apparent relationship between the number of armed conflicts each year and the wetness or dryness of certain areas of South Sudan. I also found that the data for water and conflict locations could be meaningful compared based on a theory about accessibility related to pastoralist groups herding cows toward water sources during dry years, and water creating barriers between groups during wet years. Using MODIS composites seemed to work well for determining surface water coverage. I hope this provides a good basis on which to build a future study of environmental influences on conflict.

You can download the whole study below.