Since fighting first erupted in South Sudan earlier this month, the conflict has largely been portrayed as a battle between rival political factions drawn along ethnic lines.
Since an alleged coup attempt on December 15, the country’s government, dominated by the Dinka ethnic group of President Salva Kiir, has fought rebels allied with former vice president Riek Machar of the Nuer ethnic group.
But increasingly, the focus of the fighting is shifting to the battle to control the country’s most important natural resource – oil.
South Sudan has one of the largest oil reserves in Sub Saharan Africa and the commodity is the lifeline of the country’s economy, accounting for 98 percent of the government’s financial resources.
Whoever controls South Sudan’s oil, therefore, could seize the upper hand in the battle for power.
Oil-rich Upper Nile and Unity states have been the scene of much of the fighting, with Machar’s rebels now claiming to be in control of the majority of the country’s oil wells, though this has been disputed by the government.
Highlighting the importance of the natural resource to the country, Machar has said that keeping the oil flowing is a top priority.
"We will protect the oil companies, we will protect the workforce in the oil fields, we will protect the facilities," he said. "All we need is that there will be an international body that will market and sell the oil of South Sudan."
But despite such promises, the battle for the country’s oil has raised concern among foreign governments, particularly China a major investor in South Sudan oil and where much of it is exported.
Earlier this week more than 300 Chinese oil workers were evacuated from the Fuluj oil field in South Sudan's Upper Nile state after clashes erupted nearby and Chinese authorities say more evacuations could follow if the fighting continues.
“If the situation worsens, we will enact different evacuation measures, including moving operators out of Juba. If it deteriorates further, we may consider closing the oil field,” said Zhao Dong, China National Petroleum Corporation’s chief representative in South Sudan.
China's oil interests have forced it to play a key diplomatic role in the region – helping to break a pipeline freeze following a dispute between Sudan and South Sudan in 2012 – and a Chinese envoy will be traveling to Juba in the coming days in an attempt to broker a peace deal.
But with the country’s oil fields such a valuable prize, convincing South Sudan’s warring factions to gather round the negotiating table could be a difficult task.
On the other hand, if the violence continues it could prove disastrous for the country, no matter who is in power.
Further evacuations could lead to a full production shutdown – something from which many observers fear the country’s economy would be unable to recover.
The last shutdown, in 2012, saw the country’s GDP plummet by 55 percent.
Date created : 2013-12-27