The South Sudanese Conflict and the Pirates of the Nile

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

A UN Peacekeeper patrols and protects civilians in the UN base in Malakal, South Sudan (Photo: UNMISS).

A UN Peacekeeper patrols and protects civilians in the UN base in Malakal, South Sudan (Photo: UNMISS).

Not since the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, more than two millennia ago, has piracy on the Nile River been a significant issue. But the threat of piracy may soon emerge as a critical new aspect to the South Sudanese conflict in 2015. Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will continue to airlift internally displaced persons and refugees, the World Food Program and other international aid agencies have indicated that barges on the Nile River and airdrops are cheaper alternatives to airlifting food aid and equipment. Barge convoys have not previously been possible due to the close of the border between Sudan and South Sudan following the latter’s declaration of independence in 2011, but this restriction was lifted by the Sudanese authorities in early 2014 and aid may now flow freely down the Nile to conflict-affected communities.

This new traffic on the Nile has already come under attack. In April 2014, a barge convoy en route to the UN base in Malakal, South Sudan, came under small arms fire. Rocket propelled grenades fired at the convoy reportedly wounded four crew members and UN peacekeepers, imperiling delivery of 65,000 kilograms of food rations, 372,000 litres of diesel fuel, and other important supplies. Although this has been the only reported attack on a Nile convoy to date, the security situation on this waterway affords ample opportunity for piracy in the future.

For example, rogue elements of the Sudanese Navy could potentially interfere with aid shipments on the Nile. Although much of Sudan’s maritime forces are stationed at naval bases on the Red Sea coast, the country does have approximately 16 inshore patrol vessels which could just as well raid supply convoys as defend them. For its part, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which functions as the newly independent Republic of South Sudan’s military, does not possess any formal maritime forces. As some recent economic and sociological research has indicated, an increase in legitimate economic activity in a given area without a proportional increase in security presence can lead to a rise in criminal activity, particularly directed toward exploiting the increase in the aforementioned legitimate commerce. The lack of professional maritime forces on the Nile suggests that little could be done to save a UN barge convoy were it to be faced with a determined enemy.

Both the SPLA and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) denied involvement in the April 2014 attack and it can also be said that both parties are still bound by the 1995 Agreement on Ground Rules in South Sudan, which specifically prohibits attacks on humanitarian convoys. But it is difficult to ensure the Ground Rules are upheld by all the parties to an intra-state conflict, especially when governance is weak among both South Sudan’s internationally recognized authorities in Juba and the rebel forces. In the 2014 edition of the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, South Sudan is listed as the world’s worst failed state, where internal disorder is even deeper than that seen in Syria or the Central African Republic. Under such conditions, splinter groups are constantly being formed and disenfranchised members of the SPLA or SPLM-IO could readily undertake piratical activities if presented with the opportunity.

UN aircraft crew carrying the remains of three crew members to memorial service in Juba, South Sudan. They died when their helicopter came down near Bentiu, Unity State, on 26 August 2014 (Photo: JC McIlwaine, UNMISS).

UN aircraft crew carrying the remains of three crew members to memorial service in Juba, South Sudan. They died when their helicopter came down near Bentiu, Unity State, on 26 August 2014 (Photo: JC McIlwaine, UNMISS).

Perhaps the best means by which to stave off a pirate threat on the Nile is for concerned Western states to invest in enhanced maritime capabilities for Uganda. This landlocked East African state nonetheless possesses inshore patrol vessels to maintain security on those sections of the Nile River and Lake Victoria within Ugandan borders. The Marine Wing of the Ugandan People’s Defence Force possesses eight riverine patrol vessels, each of which with a displacement of less than 100 tons. Given previous remarks by Ugandan officials regarding counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the role of Ugandan forces in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), it is clear that there is a political will in Uganda to see an African-led response to piracy. Much as Canada donated 105 armoured personnel carriers to the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) in 2005, inshore patrol vessels could be donated to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) with the understanding that these will be primarily manned by Ugandan troops already familiar to some extent with policing the Nile.

Uganda has been accused of interfering in the South Sudan conflict, supporting the SPLA while calling for reconciliation with the SPLM-IO. But the continued presence of Western diplomatic offices in Juba suggests Uganda is not alone in its support of the SPLA and President Salva Kiir. It would be unfair and impractical for potential donor countries to exclude Ugandan forces from a maritime component to UNMISS. Furthermore, inshore patrol vessels restricted to escorting barge convoys would not afford Ugandan forces any opportunity to further intervene in the South Sudan conflict, functioning primarily as a deterrent to those groups which might otherwise see aid shipments as targets of opportunity.

This would not address the threat posted to UN barge convoys as they pass through Sudanese waters, unfortunately. As mentioned previously, it is not only South Sudan’s section of the Nile that can be dangerous but Sudanese authorities would most certainly object to the presence of Ugandan forces so far north on the Nile. Without escorts for part of the voyage, attacks could still occur and the donation of the inshore patrol vessels to UNMISS or directly to Uganda might accordingly be seen by potential donors as a futile act. To make matters worse, in a crisis scenario whereby aid is airlifted to an Egyptian airbase rather than to a locale in Sudan or South Sudan, the barge convoy would also be unescorted on the Egyptian section of the Nile. Attacks by Egyptian-based terrorists or pirates would not be unthinkable. As recently as October 2014, Islamist militants launched a series of attacks in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, reportedly killing 33 Egyptian security personnel.

Clearly, the Nile is becoming an increasingly unsafe waterway, just as UN agencies are looking to minimize costs associated with delivering humanitarian aid. Yet barge convoys may be the safest option available when one considers the risks associated with airlifting or airdropping aid. In December 2012, the SPLA reportedly shot down a clearly marked UN helicopter conducting reconnaissance in the eastern Jonglei region of South Sudan. In August 2014, another UN helicopter was shot down, likely by SPLM-IO forces although an investigation into the incident is ongoing. UNMISS aircraft come under attack from time-to-time, making airdrops and airlifts risky indeed. In comparison, the April 2014 attack on the Malaka-bound barge convoy may seem to UN officials a relatively small price to pay in the fight against famine and disease in South Sudan. If that is the case, it is imperative that patrol vessels be obtained to defend White Nile ports in South Sudan like Renk, Shambe, and Malakal. This gesture would prevent UNMISS from inadvertently contributing to the instability of its host country.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

This entry was posted in English, Paul Pryce, Peacekeeping, Piracy, Security Policy, South Sudan.

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