Escalation since April in the conflict in South Sudan left little hope a settlement could be reached any time soon. Both government and opposition forces appeared dedicated to a military solution. In the past weeks however renewed hope has come from a series of engagements by 1) the South African government, 2) progress in reconciliation between the G10 group of leaders, and 3) renewed offers of conciliation by President Kiir himself. Those close to the situation however continue to see a major impasse from the various commanders of the opposition forces, who continue to reject deals on offer. In particular the infamous General Peter Gadet, likely the most effective and feared of the opposition leaders, is still likely to reject any deal between the opposition group and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir.
The reluctance of many involved in the fighting to accept any of the peace offerings to date, from both sides, points to the fact that the military and thus security sector reform considerations are at the heart of previous failure and the key to future success. While politicians haggle over power sharing equations, commanders in the field are concerned what will happen to their men and their own rank and status. Some are comparatively doing well out of war and still others simply see little opportunity with laying down their arms. With the number of active fighters growing, the challenges of any security sector reform agenda and security provisions of a peace agreement are exacerbated.
Source: Matthew LeRiche and Matthew Arnold, South Sudan: From Revolution to Independence
The Perils of Military integration in South Sudan
To date, security elements of the various peace agreements proposed and resolved through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have tended to mirror those of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which brought an end to the decades long Second Civil War in Sudan (1983-2005) and culminated in South Sudan’s independence. While some might see value in this approach, since during the CPA period there was no return to all out open warfare, the various security provisions should be seen as major failures. What’s more, I argue that a key element of the current conflict rests with the security provisions themselves. Most acute is the reliance on integration of former belligerents into the same force. This armed group integration has resulted in the creation of incentives for rebellion rather than a tool to cement peace.
Conventional wisdom holds that integrating former belligerents into a new force can be used to build trust and support the creation of an army of a national character; blending efforts at nation building and practical military reform along with professionalization. Many cases support this wisdom such as in Lebanon, Mozambique, Bosnia, South Africa, amongst others. The history of this peace building tool in Sudan (and now South Sudan) is one of failure however. I have argued elsewhere that its pioneering use in the Addis Ababa peace agreement (1972) that ended the first civil war in Sudan directly contributed to the return to war. In South Sudan the case of military integration as a peace building tool is proving even more dyer in the contemporary setting. This approach of negotiating with various armed groups became known as Kiir’s Big Tent. It has resulted in a counterproductive cycle of threat and violent rebellion rather than integration and reconciliation. This approach became most dangerous when the interests of those engaging in this rebellion market coincided with the political designs and fortunes of the most senior leaders. Now political leaders in many ways are trapped atop military groups that see as much potential in combat as in peace. The perceptions of being sidelined by political counterparts grew amongst top military leaders, particularly in the opposition factions of the SPLM-IO. Now it seems clear the military leaderships have veto over any political arrangement.
Peace through SSR and DDR?
After the resolution of ceasefire modalities in most peace talks, SSR provisions such as DDR and armed group integration tend to be treated as a matter of course. And the same is true currently, with near carbon copies of previous provisions being produced to the unsurprising frustration of most military actors involved, both government and opposition. The current security provisions proposed by IGAD and parties involved in that forum draw on previous cases all the way back to the CPA. Some examples include the following:
- SPLM-IO have demanded there be two separate armies, their own SPLA and the current government SPLA, mirroring the CPA provisions that kept both the Southern rebel army (SPLA) and the Sudan government army (SAF) intact during the peace period. The situations are significantly different however.
- Integration of armed groups into the SPLA is also on offer, following a similar equation to previous agreements with cash payments followed by demobilisation of some and integration of others, once vetted. The main forces that rebelled in support of the SPLM-IO, such as those of Peter Gadet had purportedly been reintegrated after a series of previous integrations. According to the UN (reported by Small Arms Survey) Gadet’s forces had been integrated and were thus less of a risk than others. However, despite this integration it turns out they became the vanguard of the rebellion. Similarly reported by the UN the forces of David Yau Yau – another rebel leader – were not yet integrated. They were perceived to be a greater security threat than those already integrated such as Gadets forces. This was the basis for pressure by the international community advocating for more effort to integrate other armed groups into the army – confusingly there was also the expectation of demobilization and shrinking the size of the military. As it turned out Yau Yau’s forces were actually key in bolstering the government as the forces of Gadet and other previously integrated armed groups rapidly advance through Jonglei state under the SPLM-IO banner.
- DDR is to be a focus of the security provisions in the various proposals. The spectacular failure of the DDR effort in South Sudan by most accounts is clearly not being taken into consideration and negotiators seem at a loss to devise anything other than the typical package of SSR programming.
Opposition forces are no more interested in being integrated into the national army than the national army is interested in bringing their current foes into the fold. The experience of the past ten years is increasingly viewed by both sets of military actors as bankrupt in conception and even more dangerous due to poor execution. Some seem to see the creation of a new army created out of the various groups with a completely new name and command is the solution, the current military however see this as deeply problematic and yet another reason to assert themselves on the battlefield in defence of what they see as their victory in the liberation struggle. Also, while some are proposing new names as a part of this departure from the SPLA, the recent record suggests that most will struggle to retain the moniker of the SPLM/A seeing it as the brand of liberator and few except those long in opposition to the SPLM/A itself are likely to be willing to let-go of the name.
Beyond greed and grievance: A new security market in South Sudan
Negotiation of Integration of South Sudan Liberation Army armed forces under Johnson Olony in Fashoda 2013. In recent months Olony has re-defected and is central in fighting over Malakal. Credit: Ally Ngethi.
What much of the SSR agenda has created, the integration component in particular, is a market whereby loyalty is a commodity used in the bargaining game between local leaders and the central state. The decision to rebel is not seen as somehow contrary to national cohesion or anti-patriotic but instead a practical tool to assert local influence and garner access to wealth and prestige. Some even frame rebellion as a path to improve the national character and society. In South Sudan there is already a martial culture based around a social capital system with roots in pastoralist life. To assert oneself and ones age-set cohort in order to gain respect and authority is normal, not exceptional.
Within the mechanics of SSR these customs and social realities are difficult to incorporate. It is easier to accept wholeheartedly classic greed and grievance explanations. Thus a combination of satisfying what development experts see as basic needs and providing education are the mantra of SSR in environments such as South Sudan. DDR is of little value to those asserting their status and with alternate designs of life than those conceptualized by development experts. Added to this, the meagre offerings in the DDR programs pale in comparison to what can be gained through threat and violence, for such programs to be successful in a pure rational calculus they need to at least be as lucrative as rebellion. Yet the reality is the process is neither rational in a conventionally understood manner nor is it even about wealth, education or the two.
Finding a way to integrate these youth and appreciate the social systems at play have confounded the typically cookie-cutter approach to SSR. Many advisers have approached South Sudan as a clean slate upon which to place their slightly adapted frameworks and approaches from other contexts. With such strong particular dynamics underlying the nature of violence and politics in South Sudan, SSR needs to be similarly special and particular; in its current form it is not. The result is causing more harm than good as has been seen in relation to the use of integrating armed groups as a central tool for peace building. Experts and practitioners are left reaching for answers and ideas. Thus until a drastic re-interpretation of SSR is rolled out in South Sudan, potential for sustainable peace is not only lost but the danger is certain SSR ideas may contribute more to conflict than peace.
Matthew LeRiche is a researcher, academic, political adviser and filmmaker. Before joining the Political Science Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland as a visiting assistant professor, he was a Fellow in Managing Humanitarianism at the International Development Department of the London School of Economics. He has been an adviser on defence education in South Sudan supporting wider security sector reform efforts.
 Roy Licklider (ed.),2014. New Armies From Old: Merging Competing Military Forces After Civil Wars, Georgetown University Press,p. 260.