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.

South Sudan’s diaspora in Australia: coping with war, criminalisation, trauma and citizenship

Rebecca Lorins and Gabriel Kiir at the University of Juba.

This commentary was co-authored by the research team, Freddie Carver, Dr Santino Atem Deng, Dr Nicki Kindersley, Gabriel Kiir, Dr Rebecca Lorins and Dr Sara Maher. It offers initial reflections on an ongoing research project; the full report will be released in early 2018.

Australia’s roughly 30,000 South Sudanese residents are currently faced with crisis on all sides. Especially since the so-called ‘Moomba riot’ in March 2016, South Sudanese Australians are being criminalised by the Australian media and political classes, are subject to the highest levels of discrimination of any migrant group in Australia, and increasingly face the risk of physical violence from neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups, who are threatening vigilante action against black people in public space.

As new black migrants in Australia, the South Sudanese community face alienation and disenfranchisement; and they are also struggling — on the other hand — with the violent collapse of South Sudan since civil war broke out in December 2013. As the South Sudanese Pound (SSP) collapses and inflation escalates, many of their relatives at home are increasingly reliant on money sent from their international relatives. This is placing intense strain on the financial, personal, and psychological resources of Australian South Sudanese people, as they support their friends, relatives, and the wider community with basic needs including food and rent, healthcare and education, funeral costs, and the emergency costs of fleeing from South Sudan’s spreading conflict.

Now that people can’t return to South Sudan safely, they are struggling to support families and extended communities who depend increasingly on them for basic survival, the education of their children, and mental support. As famine back home escalates, and friends and relatives flee for their lives into refugee camps, families are becoming dislocated and disconnected; an estimated 14,000 unaccompanied children are currently resident in refugee camps in Uganda alone. The costs and emotional support of this community disaster are falling heavily on those living in refuge abroad. The personal and psychological stress of this burden is immense.

Together, with the Rift Valley Institute, a group of South Sudanese, Australian, US and UK scholars have addressed the relationship between Australian South Sudanese communities and their friends and relatives at home in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The project has brought students and staff of Monash and Juba Universities together to highlight this largely hidden part of this small community’s daily lives in Australia. Our data paints a bleak picture: Australian South Sudanese residents struggle to access trusted information about events in South Sudan, and struggle to build trust in a community fragmented by the civil war back home. The continuing violent events in South Sudan are deeply traumatic and provoke highly emotional responses that are exploited by political partisans on all sides of the conflict: this is working to fragment the South Sudanese community at home and in Australia at a time when solidarity and mutual support is desperately needed.

RVI’s research is unpacking these complex sets of reciprocal personal, familial, wider kinship and political obligations, and how conflict continues to affect those in places of refuge, and how it shapes their responses to the situation they left. As conflict worsens, and this impacts directly on diaspora communities through personal tragedy, economic commitments or growing ethnic division, the pressure to act increases, but the actual effect — both in reality and perception — of these actions can be hard to control. Often relying on kinship and ethnicity networks, they can be easily interpreted as playing into existing conflict fault-lines, and concerns easily arise that diaspora actors, perceived as having greater access to resources, are stoking the conflict.

This perception is exacerbated by the fact that it is South Sudanese elites, those most implicated in driving the current conflicts, who can most easily leverage transnational networks to their advantage, since they have the resources to move themselves, their families, and their assets back and forth most easily. Indeed, many of the South Sudanese elites — on all sides of the conflict — have dual citizenship themselves, a source of serious consternation to those who face the impact of conflict in South Sudan and who have no means of escape.

The current Australian debates over racial tensions and immigration — as with many other refugee and immigrant hosting countries — generally fail to recognise the combined pressures that these communities face. But this is a vital part of any discussion with this community of their needs and problems. South Sudanese communities worldwide are struggling to manage the immediate burdens of civil war, while trying to forge new paths to peace for their troubled nation. This is vital work, but it cannot be done in a climate of intense public criminalisation and exclusion — but only through a sense of common humanity, collaborative engagement, and collective support.

New Project Launch: South Sudan Diaspora Impacts

South Sudan’s civil conflicts, economic crisis and political fragmentation continue. Diaspora communities around the world – numbering in the hundreds of thousands – are engaged on a daily basis with this situation: via social media, remittances for family and funding of organisations, and through regular visits or work in the region. This engagement appears to financially and practically underpin the survival and organisation of many families, civil organisations, and armed groups.

1d6ce30The Rift Valley Institute’s Diaspora Impacts Project (DIP) aims to fill a vital knowledge gap on the networks and systems of this diaspora. It focuses on the Australian South Sudanese community, and the mechanisms through which they may influence South Sudan’s current civil war. The impact, credibility and use of this digital, financial, and practical engagement within South Sudan are very poorly understood. The project builds on a scoping study that was commissioned early in 2017 by the Australian Embassy to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Working with the Universities of Juba and Monash, the research project is designed to provide grounded knowledge of the real impacts of Australia-based diaspora engagement within the country. It actively engages the Australian-South Sudanese community both in Juba and in Melbourne in research and reflection. The project is run through a network of South Sudanese researchers, graduate student bodies, highly experienced regional and diaspora researchers. The research is led by Nicki Kindersley (University of Cambridge); Rebecca Lorins (University of Juba) and Sara Maher (Monash University).

In early 2018, the RVI will disseminate findings of the research in a series of events and publications. The project aims to provide an evidentiary basis with direct implications for policy on emergency aid, conflict mitigation/de-escalation actions, mediation and peace-building planning, and transitional and post-war justice issues within both the diasporic and international communities.

South Sudan: a political economy analysis

Written for the Norwegian Government’s major policy review with Øystein Rolandsen of PRIO, this report sets out a survey of the state of South Sudan, examining its military-political structures, government and popular economies, regional conflicts and rebel movements. The study involved extensive research in South Sudan and Uganda. The full PDF can be downloaded here: NUPI-PRIO Political Economy Report.

A response to The Economist

In response to the comment by ‘Jaded in Juba’ in The Economist, 12 October.

I am one of Jaded of Juba’s international colleagues. Yes, we are tired, upset, angry, emotionally drained, with little room to act, and aware of the near-inevitability of more horrific tales of brutality in a war run by a band of greedy elites. We are exhausted and horrified by the wilful myopia at best, and brazen denial at worst, of the ruling leadership of the rump regime.

Our feelings are a faint echo of the pain and anger felt by most South Sudanese residents, of all backgrounds. And here I would challenge Jaded: your frustration is voiced in the same dangerously ethnicised over-simplifications that many activists, artists, and normal people are desperately fighting against within South Sudan and its displaced communities today. You frame South Sudan’s war as Dinka – collectively – versus the ‘non-Dinka’: speaking the divisive language of political tribalism despite quoting the terrible denialism of government minister Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, who, despite everything, is not Dinka.

Maybe this fact in itself should stand to challenge your depiction of a ‘tribal war’. This conflict has seen ethnic groups, the familial networks that provide South Sudanese people’s basic social and personal security, instrumentalised and turned against each other by a privileged elite that use people to war over power and money. The short-hands you use only serve to entrench the binaries that these warring men are using to create and sustain profitable conflict over the central state spigot of oil revenue, land deals and sale of South Sudan’s futures.

Yes, the ‘sentimental ties’ of the Bush and Obama governments brought South Sudan’s current rulers into power with the peace deal in 2005. But I dispute that the Trump White House has a sense of realism – what sense does it have? Instead, the current disaster is partly of our making: the US, UK, and Western powers used South Sudan as a supposed ‘new country’ for our testing out of a grand state-building theory. But South Sudan was never a blank slate. Through its generations of armed conflict, the region has developed set practices of violent, extractive government and systems of profit since the very recent colonial period – in the memory of many people’s grandparents.

If we can’t broker peace or state-building effectively, we can at least look to the money. A British firm is implicated in dealing $169m of armaments to the South Sudan government; we can impose wider sanctions, controls, and transparency on laundering networks, companies and assets. Many of South Sudan’s government and rebel elites are dual national Brits, Americans and Australians, and have stashed money and houses in London and elsewhere. And we can amplify the ideas and activities of South Sudanese people struggling against societal collapse, ethnic chauvinism, and repression. They – of all people – have the right to be jaded; but they also know that South Sudan’s complex and violent system of government will take long-term energies and major interventions to change. We must support their efforts.

Letter from Aweil: Rift Valley Institute


In August 2017, I returned to former Northern Bahr el Ghazal State, now divided into four new states, to conduct research for the Rift Valley Institute’s Customary Authorities Project. I worked with Joseph Diing Diing Majok, a dedicated and enthusiastic anthropology student from the University of Juba, and an Aweil-based research assistant, Paulino Dhieu Tem, across Lol, Aweil North and Aweil East States. I reflected on the situation in Aweil in a short letter to the RVI, which you can read here. A full report and briefing note from the research will follow later this year.