Aug 18, 2015 | Article

Since the fracturing of the South Sudanese military in December 2013, South Sudan has been embroiled in civil war. As ongoing peace negotiations are likely to contain transitional security arrangements that would contain provisions to integrate non-statutory armed forces into the South Sudanese military, it is important to understand what factors previously compromised the implementation of military integration prior to 2013. This post argues that a poorly managed, open-ended integration process and the failure of rightsizing initiatives left the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in a state of arrested development, forestalling efforts to professionalize the military from gaining traction, and making the force more likely to fragment along factional lines during periods of heightened political competition.


In December 2013, South Sudan’s military integration process faced its most serious challenge, as a political crisis that had been developing throughout the year within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) suddenly escalated, dragging the country into civil war. Within days, Nuer elements of Division 8 in Jonglei state, Division 4 in Unity state, and Division 7 in southern Upper Nile state had defected from the military and formed an armed opposition. These units had been comprised of armed groups that had fought the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), but had since been integrated into the South Sudanese military. By February 2014, South Sudan’s parliament estimated that up to 70% of the SPLA had defected to the opposition.

The fragmentation of the SPLA certainly escalated the rate at which the political dispute metastasized into the civil war it is at present. However, the fighting that erupted between Dinka and Nuer members of the Presidential Guard and quickly spread to SPLA Headquarters at Bilpam in mid-December 2013 was a reaction to a political trigger. Consequently, beyond simple correlation, there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the government’s decision to integrate armed groups into the SPLA and the political crisis that led to the outbreak of conflict.[1] Rather, a poorly managed, open-ended integration process and the failure of rightsizing initiatives left the SPLA in a state of arrested development, forestalling efforts to professionalize the military from gaining traction, and making the force more likely to fragment along factional lines during periods of heightened political competition.

Origins of the military integration process in South Sudan

Non-SPLA armed groups, referred to in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) as Other Armed Groups (OAGs), were required by the Protocol on Security Arrangements and Agreement on Permanent Ceasefire and Security Arrangements to either be incorporated into the security forces (i.e., Army, Police, Prisons and Wildlife) of Sudan or South Sudan or be reintegrated into the civil service and civil society institutions by January 2006. Consequently, the government of Southern Sudan could have pursued three courses of action to address the threat that non-SPLA groups posed as potential spoilers for the peace agreement: They could 1) attempt to fight them, 2) ignore them and accept that the government lacked a monopoly on the use of force in the South, or 3) seek political military accommodation with them. Given Sudan’s history of supporting non-SPLA armed groups to destabilize the South, either fighting or ignoring non-SPLA armed groups risked derailing the 2011 referendum on self-determination – hence the necessity to pursue military integration.

The integration of armed groups into the SPLA, formalized by the signing of the Juba Declaration on Unity and Integration in January 2006, thus served three purposes during the Interim Period of the CPA (2005-2011). First, given the civil war-era (1983-2005) divisions in the South, military power-sharing, through integration into the SPLA, was a means by which to signal a genuine commitment to peace and a willingness to compromise. Power-sharing was arguably necessary due to the exclusion of OAGs from the negotiations that led to the CPA, as it granted them a share of the new political-military dispensation in the South, and made forcible disarmament the exception rather than the rule. Second, integration reduced the manpower available for armed groups, thereby limiting the extent to which the Government of Sudan could use its support of non-SPLA armed groups in the South to undermine CPA implementation. Third, integration allowed the Government of South Sudan to temporarily overcome the South’s history of factionalism and ethnic conflict in order to consolidate political-military power and create a more unified front in preparation for the referendum on self-determination. Consequently, military integration during the interim period may have helped avert civil war in the South, thus providing a level of stability in the region and making it permissive enough for the self-determination referendum to be held.

From military integration to fragmentation

The manner in which the military integration process was subsequently implemented, however, had four critical weaknesses that contributed to the fragmentation of the SPLA in December 2013:

The first weakness was that the SPLA appeared not to prioritize the management of the military integration process, which would normally entail dictating a strategy and allocating resources to implement the integration process. Despite the fact that the process was concurrent to the release of the SPLA’s post-CPA strategic guidance, these documents include rather limited detail on the means and modalities of military integration. The integration of OAGs is only mentioned in passing or not at all in the 2008 SPLA White Paper on Defence,[2] the 2009 SPLA Act, the SPLA Transformation Strategy Part I: Objective Force 2017 Concept[3] and Part II: Transformation Programme 2012-2017,[4] or the Battalion Reset plan.[5] Furthermore, there existed no implementation plan that laid out the long-term vision of military integration, timelines for execution, budgetary requirements, or measures of progress. As a result of the mismanagement of the integration process, subsequent efforts to reform the country’s defense sector were built upon an unsound foundation.

The second weakness was that the government of South Sudan’s response to the armed groups that proliferated after the April 2010 elections demonstrated its enduring commitment to use military integration to co-opt armed opposition. This approach continued through July 2011 – after which it was arguably not as critical to consolidate political-military power, with South Sudan having secured its independence from Sudan. As a result, the military integration process became de facto open-ended, thereby demonstrating that disobedience and the threat of violence could perpetually be utilized to extract benefits from the state. The open-ended integration process contributed to increasing personnel salaries associated with ‘buying peace’; the opportunity cost was investment in military professionalization, which contributed to the maintenance of a deeply fragmented force. Combined with the lack of strategic planning for military integration, the open-ended process turned what was supposed to be a transitional security mechanism into an end in and of itself. As a result, the SPLA was unable to ‘graduate’ from the integration process towards the development of a cohesive, professionalized force.

The third weakness was that the process for bringing armed groups into the SPLA through military integration outpaced the SPLA’s efforts to rightsize the military due to persistent internal insecurity and the threat of renewed conflict with Sudan, funding shortfalls, and disagreements with the donor community. The failure of demobilization initiatives, such as Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR), reforming the Wounded Heroes program, and establishing a Pensions program, meant there was no “release valve” for a security sector under pressure due to the continual influx of armed groups. Combined with the government’s decision to pursue an open-ended integration process, ineffective demobilization initiatives increased the pressure on integration as the most expedient means by which to accommodate armed groups.

The fourth weakness was that the Government of South Sudan received limited foreign assistance for the military integration process. One possible explanation is that both the South Sudanese and the international community saw integration as a purely internal military affair. In addition, prior to 2007, there was a gap in foreign engagement with the SPLA, and many decisions had already been made with regard to the security sector, which set the course for the foreign engagement that followed. By this time, post-Juba Declaration integrations were underway and it is possible that neither the government nor the international community believed that the process warranted external assistance. This is not to say the security sector was isolated from third party actors. On the contrary, the United Nations supported attempts at DDR, and contractors and military personnel from the United States, United Kingdom, and other security providers supported efforts to transform the SPLA from a guerrilla army to a professionalized, conventional force. Yet, none of these third party actors provided technical, financial, or logistical support, or bridging training that had been provided in successful instances of military integration (i.e., Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa). Although support from third-party actors may not have guaranteed a successful integration process, the investments that foreign security providers did make towards SPLA Transformation were undermined by the fact that they were building a security sector upon an unstable foundation, which eventually collapsed in December 2013.

Lessons learned for better military integration

Empirically, Burundi’s current political crisis, spurred by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s run for a third term, makes a useful contrast for South Sudan, whose military fractured almost instantly when faced by a political crisis. In contrast, the Burundian military has stayed relatively neutral and cohesive while under considerable stress for the past four months, due to popular protests, a coup attempt, the assassination of regime insiders, and opposition and civil society leaders, and Nkurunziza’s controversial re-election in July in violation of the Arusha Agreement that ended the country’s civil war. The Burundian military’s cohesion to this point may be attributed to the manner in which integration was implemented between 2003 and 2005 – including its management structures, guidance on means and modalities, use of quotas, and use of foreign assistance – which could be a useful study for South Sudan and other weak states emerging from conflict. (Post-apartheid South Africa is another excellent example of a well-implemented military integration process, yet as a more developed state, lessons are not as directly transferable.) Burundi’s deployments in support of peacekeeping operations in Somalia and the Central African Republic also appear to have had a positive impact on building the military’s esprit de corps. In other words, Burundi’s military has so far been more resilient than South Sudan’s amidst political turmoil.

Military integration has, over time, become an increasingly common mechanism to include in peace agreements. It has increased from being included in 10% of all agreements ending civil wars in the 1970s to 56% of such agreements between 2000 and 2006. Yet this increase in the utilization of integration during war-to-peace transitions has not had a parallel impact on our understanding of the means, modalities, impact, and implications of this process. In the context of negotiations to end the ongoing civil war in South Sudan, it is beneficial to understand precisely how the aforementioned weaknesses within the military integration process left the SPLA vulnerable to disintegration in December 2013. Indeed, South Sudan’s recent experience with military integration is a veritable list of caveats on “What Not to Do” to ensure a successful process.


Lesley Anne Warner is a doctoral candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where her dissertation focuses on the role of military integration during war-to-peace transitions. This post is based on interviews conducted in South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya between 2012 and 2014 with current and former SPLA officers and Ministry of Defence officials, United Nations officials, and consultants on South Sudan’s security sector. She blogs at Lesley on Africa, and you can follow her on Twitter @lesley_warner.


[1] The issue of correlation versus causation when it comes to military integration and sustained peace on one hand, or regression into civil war on the other, is addressed in Ronald R. Krebs and Roy Licklider, “United We Fall: Why the International Community Should Not Promote Military Integration after Civil War” (Workshop on African Government Forces: New Theoretical and Methodological Approaches, The Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden, 2014).
[2] Government of Southern Sudan, “SPLA White Paper on Defence,” March 2008.
[3] Transformation & Research Directorate, SPLA Headquarters, “Sudan People’s Liberation Army Transformation Strategy Part I: Objective Force 2017 Concept,” May 2011.
[4] Transformation & Research Directorate, SPLA Headquarters, “Sudan People’s Liberation Army Transformation Strategy Part II: Transformation Programme 2012-2017,” December 2011.
[5] “Reset Courses of Action, Information Briefing for SPLA Command Council” (SPLA Headquarters, October 28, 2013).