Armed work and state reconstruction in South Sudan: Beyond the peace deal

A paper for the Observatoire Afrique de l’Est, available to download here.

This paper examines the state of demobilization and security sector reform in South Sudan’s current fragile peace. It outlines the military-security reconstruction work of both the South Sudan government and its armed opposition, which is currently happening outside (and in defiance of) the peace agreement’s terms and control. The paper also sets out current critiques of the peace deal’s security and military provisions: that a ‘payroll peace’ that is structured around buying out military factions is incentivizing rebellion-for-profit and further recruitment; and secondly that this peace through brokerage between military leaders undermines civil state power and authority.

This paper does not disagree with these criticisms but seeks to move beyond them. Current analyses of South Sudan’s military-political system – focused as they are on payrolls and state dividends – do not explain why men across the country are seeking incredibly small and unpredictable financial gains through armed work, in exchange for extreme personal and family risk. This paper seeks to put the ‘payroll peace’ in this deeper context.

Exploring these fundamental structures of South Sudan’s military economy allows a better understanding of drivers of continued societal militarization and mobilization. The paper details how and why work in armed forces gives a few possibilities for most people beyond scratching a bleakly ‘resilient’ subsistence; and how communities organize military recruitment because of actual societal and economic crisis, specifically the impact of commodification and expropriation of land and resources, and resulting injustices and gross inequalities.

Any real response to these structural issues necessitates fundamental economic and political reform within and beyond the state. But this raises several fundamental questions: Other than armed work, what opportunities do men and women have to support their families, to strive for a better life, and to construct real futures for their children? How can trust in governance, ideas of citizenship, and mutual political community be rebuilt, and what mechanisms are there within South Sudan that can be supported to do this?

Answers to these questions require civil space and fundamental reform, which cannot be made from the top down through more agreements or strategic reviews. This paper emphasizes the need to make space for, and listen to, these fundamental conversations which are already happening within societies across South Sudan.

To find this space, the paper recommends that the precipitous progress of the same partially-made, barely-implemented elite deal (as led to the last crisis in July 2016) must at very least be slowed down and reworked insofar as possible. Reformist proposals focused on monitoring and implementation of the current agreement are too limited and impracticable within this momentary, monetary peace. Their success also relies on a level of trust in state power, and in the near-future ability to create a united military, that are both deeply unrealistic.

It is likely that at very least localised conflict, and the Kiir government’s pursuit of military victory over factions outside the peace agreement, will continue. Stopping the hunt for a national-level solution around elite personalities would allow a re-focus on regional political economies, where there is more space for civil discussion of how grievances might be addressed and economic opportunities opened, and where local commanders have more invested in their communities than the personalities in Juba. There is local expertise about resolution-making, about risk mitigation and ways to seek morally powerful restitution, that might have more weight and power than the current status quo.

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