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Aug 13, 2014 | Commentary

South Sudan’s security sector faces a multitude of issues, including lack of funds, lack of equipment, low institutional capacity, as well as poor training and education. Thus far, the government has made certain improvements in policy formation and in the provision of resources, equipment, and training for its forces. However, they have yet to successfully address two issues crucial for the achievement of a professional security sector: disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), which would help reduce the size of the armed forces, and ethnic patronage and ethnic imbalance within the army and police.

South Sudan’s government and its international donors recognize that the country’s bloated and oversized army is a serious issue. For example, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) currently consists of upwards of 210,000 personnel. The force consumes about one third of the government budget, 80 percent of which are given out in salaries (see here and here). Given the size of the SPLA, which is widely regarded as unsustainable, DDR initiatives have been implemented to try to correct this situation.

In 2009, as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the South Sudan DDR Commission was established to oversee its side of the National DDR Strategic Plan which entailed DDR activities in both Sudan and South Sudan. The Commission worked closely with the UN Mission in Sudan, the UN Development Programme, and other key agencies to carry out its DDR mandate. Phase I of this programme ran until 2011with the aim to demobilize 90,000 ex-combatants in South Sudan, with an equal number to be demobilized separately in (North) Sudan.

Over the course of two years, however, Phase I only saw 12,525 soldiers demobilized and 5,000 reintegrated before the country’s independence and this CPA-mandated period ended. Overall, DDR efforts were clearly failing in the South (and indeed in the North as well). The ranks of the SPLA continued to swell for a number of reasons, not least the continuing high levels of recruitment, the integration of militia forces, and the return of former soldiers enticed by the increase of soldiers’ salaries.

With South Sudan’s independence, the new country began its own National DDR Programme, as its Phase II follow-up to the CPA-era process. Yet this programme also did not start out auspiciously. It was postponed a year until 2013, due to “logistical problems, lack of funds, and political wrangling over ownership.” For instance, disagreements between the government and the donors over the objectives and modalities of DDR, with the SPLA being keen to simply use this program to expel unfit soldiers in sharp contrast to the expectations of DDR planners, have seriously stymied its function.

Moreover, Phase II aims to process 150,000 personnel from the SPLA and the organized forces over a six to eight-year period. However, this goal is widely seen as overly ambitious. Phase I only processed just over 6,000 personnel per year, so Phase II would require processing around 18,000 per year to reach its targets.

Undoubtedly, South Sudan has shown some initial signs of being more committed to DDR. For Phase II, it did promise to provide wages to the participants to help with career establishment once they finish the programme. Moreover, it developed an official strategy  the SPLA Objective Force 2012-2017 – to transform and downsize the army forces. However, the current civil war will likely alter the priorities of the Government and possibly divert its attention away from DDR. Moreover, South Sudan’s government may not have enough resources, funds, or political will to successfully complete such an ambitious project, even if the conditions were more ideal.

The ethnic patronage is another issue that has not been effectively addressed by way of security sector reform. Ethnic patronage corrupts, weakens discipline, reinforces a sense of impunity, and fosters public distrust of the state itself. In South Sudan’s case, it also leads to an over-representation of the Dinka ethnic group in the security sector.  For example, in the South Sudan National Police Service, 70 percent of the senior officers are from the Dinka group. Yet South Sudan has 60 ethnic groups, most of which are not being properly represented in the security sector. So the over-representation of the Dinka– even if they are the largest ethnic group in South Sudan – remains a serious concern.

The SPLA is the most ethnically representative force in South Sudan; yet it still falls prey to quick mobilization of ethnic loyalties. In January 2013, the government discharged 100 high ranking officers from active service, which led to the mobilization of ethnic loyalties and unrest within the military. Moreover, the current civil war began with a political disagreement between President Kiir and former Vice-President Machar, which quickly resulted in a quick mobilization of ethnic loyalties and the SPLA’s split along ethnic lines. Since the conflict quickly turned into a civil war with a district ethnic undertone, ethnic patronage/imbalance within the security sector need to be addressed aggressively and promptly by SSR – once the ground situation permits to do so.

Ethnic balance would foster positive internal dynamics within South Sudan’s security forces and improve the forces’ relationship with the communities. Moreover, since the country is increasingly plagued by inter-ethnic civil conflicts, it is crucial for the security providers to be impartial, which in part depends on them being representative of the ethnic diversity of the general population. Yet it is almost impossible for external donors to tackle the issue of ethnic patronage within a country’s security sector without the full support of its government.

Still, South Sudan’s government could find ways to begin to address the ethnic imbalance within the security sector. One possibility is to ensure that DDR programmes are focused on trying to create an ethically balanced security sector. The upcoming peace agreement is a great potential opportunity in that regard. The agreement could have a provision ensuring that a certain percentage of organized forces personnel comes from certain tribes and that each force is ethnically representative of the general population. Although this would not end the practice of ethnic patronage, it would work towards a more ethnically balanced (and thereby professional) security sector. More importantly, by making it more difficult for a politician to successfully mobilize ethnic loyalties, it would do much to decrease the chances of repeating the current conflict.


Margarita Yakovenko recently received an MA from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.