South Sudan’s Security Sector Reform (SSR) failures helped create the conditions for the current civil war. Brian Adeba explains how and argues that effective SSR is crucial for any peace to be sustainable.
The degeneration of a political conflict into an ethnicised civil war illustrates the failure of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in South Sudan. SSR did not create a cohesive national army. As a result, South Sudan’s post-independence military appears national in character but, in reality, is loyal to several ethnic, regional and ideological centres of power. These multiple centres and ethnic clientelism are exploited to advance competing political agendas.
In the current conflict, which began in December 2013, the dispute between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar over personal political ambitions, the failure of the SSR process pitted Kiir’s Dinka against Machar’s Nuer.
After more than a year, and multiple rounds of peace talks between the two factions of the SPLM, a durable peace is still elusive. At the latest round of talks in early March in Ethiopia, the two sides were poles apart on almost all the agenda items proposed by mediators from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Moving forward, however, lasting peace in South Sudan will depend on how various issues are resolved, including reforming its ethnicised, politicised, and fragmented military and the role outside forces play in stoking what some see as a proxy war.
At the onset of independence, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had a troop size – estimated at 210,000 soldiers – that was far too large for the defence budget to accommodate. Also at independence, the government faced challenges in consolidating its authority across the country. A key headache for the SPLA was the presence of several militia groups around the oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile states in the northeast of the country. The militia groups, predominantly Nuer in ethnicity, were not part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005 that ended hostilities with the Sudan government and midwifed independence for South Sudan. These militia groups were armed and trained by Khartoum to help secure the oil fields and to counter the SPLA insurgency in the south during the war.
Although orphaned by the CPA, the militia groups continued to receive military support from Sudan. These forces threatened to derail the then upcoming 2011 referendum. As a result, Kiir issued the Juba Declaration in 2006, which offered amnesty to the militia groups and unconditional absorption into the SPLA.
Despite eliminating the military threat posed by the militia groups, the blanket amnesty increased the size of the SPLA and reconfigured its ethnic composition. Nuer troops went from being a minority to as much as 60% of the total. Nuer make up around 16% of the total population of South Sudan. The officer corps, however, remained predominantly Dinka – the country’s largest ethnic group, comprising around 35% of the population. This rearrangement exacerbated the thorny issue of ethnicity in the army.
Although the CPA technically ended the Sudanese civil war, it failed to resolve a host of contentious issues, among them border demarcation, the status of the Abyei enclave and other contested areas. Suspicious of Khartoum’s military intentions, Juba, South Sudan’s capital, spent around 40% of the national budget on defence. Eighty per cent of the defence budget was spent on salaries for the bloated troop numbers, weakening investment in professionalisation and capacity improvements.
Starting from 2006, subsequent efforts at security sector reform in South Sudan, encapsulated in a policy dubbed Objective Force 2017, focused on trimming the size of the SPLA and professionalising the army. An essential component of force reduction entailed the demobilisation of combatants and rehabilitating them into society as civilians through the provision of skills-training incentives and education. However, from 2006 to January 2014, the government continued integrating rebel groups, including several that came into existence after South Sudan’s independence in 2011. This absorption undermined the core components of Objective Force 2017.
Most importantly, the demobilisation component was compromised on several crucial fronts. The SPLA displayed a half-hearted commitment to the process. The process was selective and discriminatory in several aspects too. For instance, a combatant could be demobilised because he/she was not from the “right” ethnicity. Or a soldier could be sent home because he/she was relatively “new” in the SPLA, meaning they did not fight during the war.
The current conflict has made meaningful SSR even more challenging. In addition to exacerbating ethnic animosities, the war has attracted a plethora of non-state actors, most notably the Nuer component of the SPLA that defected to Riek Machar’s rebels, the SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO). The defection reduced the number of SPLA troops available to counter a rebel offensive successfully in the initial stages of the conflict, prompting Kiir to request military assistance from Uganda. Because the conflict acquired an ethnic dimension, it attracted the participation of the Nuer White Army, a civilian defence group now fighting on Machar’s side. Exact figures on the size of the White Army are scant, but estimates put the number between 50,000 and 80,000.
On the government side, prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Kiir recruited a predominantly Dinka force from his native Northern Bahr El Ghazel region. There are no official figures on the size of this force. Peter Adwok Nyaba, a former minister, suggests 7,000 in his book South Sudan: The Crisis of Infancy; a leaked version of the African Union Commission of Inquiry into the crisis gives an estimate of 3,000 to 15,000 troops. A few days before the outbreak of hostilities in December 2013, Machar and his supporters denounced the president for recruiting a force without the authorisation of parliament.
Government efforts to supplement the military support from Uganda included a massive recruitment drive and the enlistment of thousands of formerly demobilised troops. The Small Arms Survey, a respected publication that monitors armed groupings, also stated early this year that the government has recruited a new militia force in Upper Nile to help secure oil wells in the state. Elsewhere in Upper Nile, a militia group called the Maban Defence Force has been active and appears to be allied to the government.
In addition, a new rebel group was formed in late January in Western Equatoria State. The Revolutionary Movement for National Salvation (REMNASA), led by Major Losuba Wongo, a former SPLA officer, issued a press statement listing grievances against the government, including ethnic domination, corruption and incompetence. It denounced negotiations between the government and Machar’s rebels as being about political positions rather than the interests of the South Sudanese.
All of these various fighting factions will have to be brought together through negotiations and SSR will have to be implemented. It remains to be seen whether the leading belligerents will be able to carry this process forward.
The leaked version of the AU’s Commission of Inquiry has recommended the creation of an oversight force from African countries that don’t have a stake in the ongoing hostilities to draft a programme to oversee SSR. It also calls for Kiir and Machar to be barred from politics. An impartial oversight force may just be the antidote needed for the deeply fragmented military in South Sudan and so may well be an idea worth exploring.
Demobilising and reintegrating combatants will be more difficult now than before the conflict. The costs of SSR are also likely to be higher. But these are challenges and costs that must be confronted in the shaping of a post-conflict South Sudan. Future stability rests on how the reform process is designed and implemented.