South Sudan’s bid to build a new army is troubled

Soldiers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) cheer during the commemoration of SPLA Day at the SPLA headquarters in Juba, South Sudan. (Albert Gonzalez-Farran/AFP)

Soldiers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) cheer during the commemoration of SPLA Day at the SPLA headquarters in Juba, South Sudan. (Albert Gonzalez-Farran/AFP)

COMMENT

A fortnight ago, the United Nations envoy to South Sudan, David Shearer, noted that, after five years of civil war and many botched peace deals, fighting in the world’s newest nation has diminished greatly since the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan was signed on September 12 2018.

South Sudan plunged into violence in December 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and those loyal to Riek Machar, the former vice-president and a Nuer, fought.

The main protagonists are trying to rebuild trust and develop a security sector reform (SSR) strategy to merge their forces and several other militias into a new South Sudan People’s Defence Force (SSPDF) capable of providing the security that the South Sudanese citizens expect and demand.

The stakes could hardly be higher. The country’s brutal civil war has killed nearly 400 000 people, displaced millions and left seven million — two-thirds of the population — in dire need of humanitarian aid.

Ideally, the integration of distrustful and hostile forces in the context of an ethnically polarised and traumatised young state uniquely lends itself to the promotion of national reconciliation as part of the broader state- and nation-building project.

The reform of the army is a potential site in which earlier animosities between those members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) who are in government and those who are in opposition parties could be mediated.
A reconstituted defence force can thus be a foundational element for building a stable and politically capable state.

Paradoxically, the path to ensuring that the former South Sudanese fighters, whatever their prior allegiance, would henceforth serve in the reconstituted military and be loyal to civilian authorities, or be equally loyal as disarmed and demobilised citizens of the young nation, is a rocky one.

There are four critical roadblocks on the complicated and sensitive road to a professional, efficient and inclusive defence force. First, the country’s civil war was highly ethnicised, making it imperative for unity in diversity to be part of the new unitary army’s DNA. But there is also concern that Kiir may attempt to maintain the “Dinkaisation” of the military, particularly its top brass, to guarantee loyalty, his control and political survival. This would mean the exclusion of significant numbers of Nuer, Shilluk and Equatorian militias. Such moves would undermine full military integration and prospects for an ethnically balanced military to serve as a reconciliation and nation-building vehicle.

Second, the peace in South Sudan is brittle and the spectre of a return to violence still looms. As Klem Ryan, a security analyst, noted, the baseline against which the current level of violence is assessed is not clear, particularly when the rainy season in South Sudan (traditionally between May and January) often brings a reduction in larger-scale operations because roads become impassable.

Away from the UN envoy’s optimistic announcement the picture could be less rosy. Inter-party mistrust and attendant precarious politico-security circumstances may result in the rivals maintaining strategic reserve forces and weaponry outside the cantonment sites as insurance in the event that the peace process is sabotaged.

Tensions are already brewing over the cantonment of the adversary forces that are party to the revitalised agreement. Machar, who has toiled to provide for his forces, was quick to order some of his troops into various cantonment sites, ostensibly in line with the peace agreement. This may attract new recruits gunning for inclusion in the defence force and its attendant perks. With a bigger militia under his command, Machar’s political power base would be bolstered. And his likely call for inclusion of large numbers of Nuer fighters in the reconfigured army would be emboldened.

Kiir, who strategically has also not revealed the strength of his army, has not shown any enthusiasm to order government forces back to their barracks. Some conflict analysts worry that Kiir will infiltrate some of his government forces into the police force to buttress his political posture and maintain Dinka control of the security sector.

There is a danger that simmering tensions about cantonment will ignite clashes between government and opposition forces, thereby derailing security sector reform, as it did in July 2016. The skirmishes contributed to the collapse of the transitional unity government.

Third,some militia leaders used their forces as bargaining chips in the revitalised agreement negotiations and need them for their personal and community security. They may be reluctant to disarm and participate in purely peaceful political activities. Even if they eventually accede to cantonment, poisoned wartime relations could also affect military integration and state- and nation-building if distrustful militia groups form rival camps in the SSPDF. Furthermore, some warring parties did not sign the revitalised agreement, which means the continued existence of militarised structures with no clear vision for the nation state.

Last, there may be a restricted resource base partly because South Sudan’s economy is ailing and the provision of international humanitarian aid is already under pressure. The country struggles with its civil service wage bill, including perks for a top-heavy bureaucracy, which includes a president and at least five vice-presidents. Critics believe that donors may be hesitant to fund the cantonment of between 200 000 and 300 000 combatants, some of whom have been implicated in substantial human rights violations. Failure of cantonment because of a shortage of funding may be used by some parties to delay force integration, other military reforms and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of armed fighters. 

But resource-intensive cantonment may also have adverse consequences from a peace perspective because they encourage new armed groups to join non-signatories of the revitalised agreement in the fighting.

South Sudan’s rivals may demonstrate the necessary political commitment to implement the peace agreement, resulting in sufficient progress in cantonment of their forces. The African Union peace and security department, in co-ordination with the UN’s security sector reform unit and other key partners, could provide technical expertise and support for force integration that helps to address problems of persistent violent conflict in the fledgling nation.

South Sudan may become a test case for the implementation of the AU’s policy framework on security sector reform (2013) as well as Security Council Resolution 2151 on the matter. A neutral AU-led advisory and training framework could mediate between distrustful and hostile South Sudan militias in the establishment of a professional defence force. This would also advance the continental body’s goal of “silencing the guns” in Africa by 2020.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, the regional body in the Horn of Africa that led the mediation effort that resulted in the agreement, along with other national and international actors, should continue to provide strong institutional support for South Sudan’s peace process. This could include sanctioning ongoing offensive operations and formally engaging the non-signatories to the revitalised agreement so that they participate in the military integration.

The SSPDF will present a major employment destination, absorbing some militias and offering stability to these and their dependants. Other former fighters will be made redundant. This makes it imperative for the South Sudanese authorities and other key stakeholders to co-ordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to facilitate the reintegration of the demobilised fighters into society.

Indeed, disgruntled, unemployed and destitute former fighters could pose a serious security threat because of their military background, possible access to arms caches and susceptibility to (re)recruitment by renegade warmonger generals.

Dr Gwinyayi A Dzinesa is a freelance peace and security researcher and author of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration in Southern Africa: Swords into Ploughshares. His current book project is DDR and SSR in Contemporary UN Peace Support Operations.

Gwinyayi A Dzinesa

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