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Jun 11, 2010 | Commentary

In little over a year’s time, sub-Saharan Africa’s maps may require some edits.  As part of a 2005 peace deal that ended a 22 year civil war, itself following an earlier civil war from 1955 – 1972, the region of Southern Sudan is due to hold a referendum on independence early in 2011.  Southern Sudan may be a new entrant in the community of nations as early as July 2011, following the end of the latest peace agreement’s interim period.  If, as is the aspiration of many, independence does occur, Southern Sudan’s ongoing process of state formation will remain challenging; the 10 states of Southern Sudan, collectively the size of Afghanistan, represent a region containing one of the greatest vacuums of state governance on the planet.  Even the most basic role of the state, a monopoly of control over the machinery of violence, remains a struggle for the nascent Government of Southern Sudan.  In a land in many areas bereft of a viable state presence, individuals and communities take responsibility for their own security, often in a zero sum game that results in insecurity for others, in what the Small Arms Survey describes as “a deeply militarized society that sanctions the use, or the threat, of force.”

Sudan’s peace agreement contains unique provisions.  Two national armies, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) of northern Sudan, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of Southern Sudan, are retained as separate and legally permitted forces, in addition to a special joint force of SAF and SPLA known as the Joint Integrated Units.  The semi-autonomous government in the south has wide ranging powers, with a regional presidency independently commanding the SPLA.

National elections in April saw both incumbents—national president Omar al-Bashir, and President of Southern Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit—re-elected.  In his inauguration speech, Kiir noted this challenge to his administration and to the stability of Southern Sudan:

“The prevalence of arms in the hands of unauthorized persons poses an imminent threat to peace. In this regard, the SPLA has collected to date some 22,838 various arms including RPGs [rocket propelled grenades], PKMs [Kalashnikov machine guns] and rifles. I shall see to it that the SPLA continue with those efforts until the whole of Southern Sudan is free of illegal weapons.”

Yet since disarmament efforts in Southern Sudan began several years ago, the process has itself proved deeply difficult to execute and controversial as a policy.  Conservative estimates suggest that as many as 700,000 small arms are held by Southern Sudanese civilians alone.  In such a context, piecemeal disarmament may in fact create more difficulties than it solves—privileging one community or ethnic group over another, marginalizing local authorities, and stoking further resentment in an already impoverished populace. Is the proliferation and availability of small arms the cause itself of insecurity or merely the means to provide security and opportunity for people with little of either?

To be continued in Part 2.


Aly Verjee is a writer and analyst, specializing in the study of contemporary African politics.  He has lived in East Africa since 2005.