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Jul 24, 2010 | Commentary

That a liberation movement attempting an uneasy transition to becoming a contemporary, effective, sleek and professional military organization faces issues of discipline and insubordination is unsurprising. I say this with a degree of sympathy, despite having been at the wrong end of an SPLA-issued AK-47 rather more frequently than I consider desirable.  Any former guerrilla army, itself composed of a multitude of disparate elements, will have command and control issues.  Why should transforming the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) be any different than the long challenges still unfolding in the transformation of Mozambique’s FRELIMO, Angola’s MPLA and UNITA or Ethiopia’s EPRDF, all once major guerrilla forces fighting their own oppressive regimes?

Yet as the April elections demonstrated, the much vaunted goal of long-term stability in Southern Sudan is as much at threat from within as from external forces.  Central to managing stability will be the continuing professionalization of the SPLA.  And with statehood beckoning next year, the time for Southern Sudan to get its own house in order is rather briefer than the comparative decades of transition enjoyed by Mozambique, Angola and Ethiopia

The relatively autonomous (from the national government in Khartoum) Government of Southern Sudan (G0SS) has independent control in determining its own spending priorities.  In the 2010 budget, 1.146 billion Sudanese pounds (see the budget speech, p27-28 of the PDF file) (abbreviated as SDG; approximately equivalent to US$458 million; note that Sudanese exchange rates are volatile) was set aside for the security sector, defined as financing the SPLA, demining activities and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants (DDR).  More than 97 percent of this money was allocated to the SPLA.  By comparison, the Southern Sudan Police Service (funded separately under the “rule of law” sector) received SDG 213 million (US$85.2 million).

Combined, the security and rule of law sectors received more than a third of the total 2010 budget, exceeding the total spending allocation for education, health and infrastructure combined.  For one of the poorest regions of Eastern Africa, it would seem that spending on security is grossly disproportionate.  But this percentage of total government spending is not dissimilar to figures recorded in a still-in-turmoil Ethiopia during the 1980s, where military spending was a huge 38 percent of central government expenditure.  Still, GoSS spending is far greater relative to more current data from the neighbourhood: as a percentage of government spending, in 2008, Kenya dedicated 9 percent of its annual budget; in 2007, Ugandan spending reached almost 14 percent2002 figures for Ethiopia suggest spending of 18 percent.  Reliable figures for Sudan as a whole are difficult to obtain – evidently, Northern Sudan spends a vast amount of money on its security apparatus, but also has a much larger financial pie to use, and higher living standards across most of its 15 states than those found in Southern Sudan.

There are no easy alternatives to just chopping the defense budget;  the majority of expenditure is not on capital equipment – although there have been controversially high profile acquisitions recently – but on less glamorous line items: salaries and subsistence costs.

Sudan’s peace agreement required that existing militias and armed gangs – the gently named “other armed groups” comprising another alphabet soup of bands of armed men, some only a few rifles strong, others extremely formidable fighting forces, be “incorporated into the organized forces of either Party [ie. the SPLA or the Sudanese Armed Forces]…with the view of achieving comprehensive peace and stability in the country…” (Article 7, Chapter VI, Security Arrangements, Comprehensive Peace Agreement, 2005.)

And so the SPLA, an already historically unwieldy force, was now required to become an even bigger tent.  In January 2006, the SPLA and the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF) signed the Juba Declaration which committed the parties to “complete and unconditional unity between the SPLA and SSDF…one unified, non partisan Army under the name of SPLA… declaration of general amnesty covering any criminal acts committed during the past period of hostilities between the two forces.”  As the Small Arms Survey wrote in the same year, “the Juba Declaration is almost as significant as the CPA in terms of ensuring South Sudan’s security,” and “the SSDF represents the foremost of the excluded armed entities [in Southern Sudan].”

Years later, tensions between the former SSDF (now integrated into the SPLA but still largely loyal to long time leader Gen. Paulino Matip) continue to cause havoc.  But banishing thousands of armed men who define their existence as military operatives is no choice for a region already suffering from insecurity and with few other substantial economic opportunities to offer these fighters.  Even if the security services are themselves often responsible for insecurity, violence and crime, pragmatism would suggest merely downsizing the military – even if there are desperate needs for government attention elsewhere – may only exacerbate problems.  Yet indefinite postponement of this hard reckoning will bring no solace.  As with so much else in Southern Sudan, many difficult decisions are deemed acceptable to delay until the promised deliverance of independence comes.


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