Jan 20, 2014 | Article, David Law

Is South Sudan going south? Not necessarily, but the world’s youngest state is clearly in big trouble.

In the fall of 2008 I was briefly posted in Juba, what was then the future capital of South Sudan. My assignment was to train the future trainers of the South Sudan Army for their role in supporting the transition from an army of national liberation to an army under democratic control, one that was at the service of the population, not just the revolution.

I was dispatched to Juba as a member of the International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT). This was in response to a request by the Swiss authorities, who had a small group on the ground. I was accompanied by a colleague from the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of the Armed Forces (DCAF).

We delivered several modules, which were mostly interactive, to our group of future trainers. These included an introduction to security sector governance and an exercise in which we mapped the emerging security sector of South Sudan. We also held sessions on the oversight roles that government, parliament and civil society should exercise over the military. We discussed in depth the principles that should guide civil-military relations, how these principles had been integrated into various Codes of Conduct such as those elaborated by the OSCE and ECOWAS, and whether GoSS (the Government of South Sudan) needed to develop its own Code of Conduct to govern the military’s relations with the population. The next step was to engage in a critical review of the SPLA White Paper on Defence. Our mission closed with a discussion of the future training needs of the future country’s armed forces.

Our students were receptive and keen. Our working conditions were a curious mixture of hi- and low-tech. The little grey school house in which we worked had the latest version of PowerPoint, but no toilet. We had fewer students than expected. Apparently, other donors were holding similar events in Juba. I am sure that the lack of coordination of the western donor effort was not lost on our Sudanese colleagues.

That said, Juba was full of optimism at this time. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and the South, establishing a timeline for the referendum on South Sudanese independence had been in place since 2005. Despite ongoing altercations in the border areas between northern and southern Sudan, it seemed that there would be a steady path towards the long-promised referendum that would give the (largely) Christian south its independence from the (largely) Muslim north.

The backdrop to this was a civil war that had gone on for several generations, in a first phase from 1955 to 1972 and in a second from 1983 to 2005. These wars are said to have cost two million causalities.  As expected, the 2011 referendum on independence that was held in the south returned a vote of more than 98% in favour of a new state of South Sudan.

Three years on, South Sudan is a story of ethnic violence between erstwhile tribes once allied in the cause of independence, primarily the Djinka and the Nuer. Their rivalry is reminiscent of the dramas that featured in the old-time American cinema westerns, where farmers found themselves pitted against cattle-herders.  To a certain extent, the conflict shares similarities.

But there have been, of course, bigger questions at stake. What went wrong? For me, three issues stand out.

First, oil got in the way. Like the diamonds that have come to be known as blood diamonds, the oil fields in the border regions between South Sudan and the North promise huge wealth to whichever southern elite might control them. This has been an invitation to violent competition. Khartoum has been only too happy to support one southern group at the expense of the other in an effort to achieve through subterfuge what it has not been able to gain through war.

Second, much of Western policy towards Sudan has been predicated on the need to create a new Christian state in the South, no matter what. This was perhaps understandable in view of what had happened in Sudan’s horrific civil war. But I also believe it had more than just a little something to do with the reaction to 9/11. The Bush Administration embraced the notion of a South Sudan Christian state. Hollywood stars kissed it.

This leads me to a third and perhaps decisive point. The United States and its allies have invested huge resources in an effort to give the world’s youngest state a safe and prosperous landing. There is clearly no going back on this effort. But the question that plagues me is whether a similar determination to keep Sudan in one piece would have not been a better investment.

Let’s face it. The vast majority of the world’s states are diverse constructs, with all sorts of different identities rubbing shoulders, often uneasily. But this is the world we live in, and for my money it is usually for the better, enriching us all through multi-cultural experience – if only we are open to it and prepared to work for it.

As for Sudan and South Sudan, the challenge now is how to devise a formula whereby all of their entities end up winning.  Khartoum needs the wealth it can generate through control of the pipelines that transport the oil through the border areas between the North and the South. Southern actors can fight over control of these resources, or responsibly they can share them. In recent years, nobody made any money on the region’s oil because of debilitating infighting. And populations are not neatly divided up by religion or tribe or language in these lands – though are they ever?

For one group in historical Sudan to try to pull a fast one on its fellows is a dead-end policy. They are all joined at the hip. I expect that the various entities will either rise together or fall to a growing malaise. Whether they are part of the same statal construct if and as they try to do so is a secondary propos.

To return to the little grey schoolhouse in Juba, the lesson I retain from this experience is that security governance, to be meaningful, needs to look at the bigger picture. Can a state stay together? What can be done to help it on its way? And if it can’t make it, what can then be done to ease the transition to the next phase in the relations among the disintegrating state’s disparate parts? A continuing relationship, one way or the other, they will surely have.

All of these variables have huge repercussions for how a country’s security sector actors operate and interact with one another. They may have to transform themselves to come to grips with new statal and political realities. International and national donors can support this process but they need to be security-sector wise if they are to make a real difference.


David Law is a Senior Associate at the Security Governance Group and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Security Governance.