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Confronting the Challenges of South Sudan’s Security Sector: A Practitioner’s Perspective

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South Sudan Police Recruits at Training Academy (Photo: UN/Paul Banks)

South Sudanese police recruits at training academy. (Photo: UN/Paul Banks)

Countries emerging from conflict confront numerous challenges relating to the reform of their security sectors. Some countries succeed in addressing those challenges, are able to reform their security sector gradually, and achieve peace and stability for their people as a consequence. Other countries fail to do so, at times contributing to the recurrence of conflict. South Sudan falls into the second category of countries. Following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, the parties failed to live up to their commitments, which included reducing the size of their militaries. It was not surprising, therefore, that the failure to carry out meaningful reforms of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the post-CPA period had some bearing on the eruption of the crisis in December 2013.

It is reassuring that there is continuing recognition among South Sudanese and the international community that reforming the security sector is essential for peace and stability. It is for this reason that special attention was paid to the issue of the security sector in the 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) between the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GOSS), the SPLM/A-In Opposition (SPLA/M-IO), and other actors.

The State of the Security Sector and the Imperative for Reform

In South Sudan, the components of the uniformed security sector include the:

  • Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) (the military of South Sudan)
  • National Security Service (NSS) (the intelligence organization)
  • South Sudan National Police Service (SSNPS)
  • National Prisons Service of South Sudan (NPSSS)
  • South Sudan National Wildlife Service (SSNWS)
  • South Sudan National Civil Defence Service (SSCDS) or fire brigade (all of which are armed)

All the components of the security sector, SPLA-affiliated militia, and rebels have been accused by both local and international human rights groups of committing crimes and serious human rights violations during the conflict. Violations and crimes committed include the use of rape as a weapon of war, the killing of innocent people on the basis of ethnicity, the recruitment of children, the forced displacement of populations, and looting. Political leaders and senior military leaders in the SPLA—which has acquired the reputation of a tribal army dominated by ethnic Dinka—also stand accused of land grabbing and ethnic cleansing.

One of the enduring characteristics of the SPLA is its close relationship with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), of which it was the armed wing during the war of liberation. Today, it is commanded by some of the officers that dabble as politicians while politicians tend to maintain militia loyal to them. The relationship between the SPLA and the SPLM party is deep and structural, in part because the President of South Sudan is both the commander in chief of the military and the chair of the SPLM party. Moreover, many officers are politically active. Politicians tend to have their own militias or command loyalty from sections of the Army. This has resulted in the militarization of public and political life in South Sudan, with deadly results.

The other uniformed forces—police, wildlife, fire brigade, as well as the NSS—have over the years drawn heavily from the SPLA or become, according to some, its “dumping ground.” For this reason, they suffer from the same structural, administrative, and managerial problems as the SPLA. As the current conflict illustrates, the separation between the SPLA and the other uniformed forces is in name only. Personnel from wildlife and fire brigade have fought alongside the SPLA.

“The rampant unprofessional behavior of uniformed personnel is partly responsible for the drive within many communities in South Sudan to acquire small arms and light machine guns for their protection.”

While the SSNPS is accused of serious human rights violations, including the detention of innocent people, looting, and corruption, the NSS has a reputation of being the “political police” of the President. It has been linked to the persecution of the media, civil society, and academics, as well as to arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances. In addition, the NSS is alleged to have participated in illegal renditions of regime opponents from neighboring states. The intelligence organization has also become “a parallel army” equipped with tanks, heavy artillery pieces, and multiple rocket launchers. The remaining three security sector organizations are also accused of various unprofessional acts in the areas of their mandate.

The rampant unprofessional behavior of uniformed personnel is partly responsible for the drive within many communities in South Sudan to acquire small arms and light machine guns for their protection. Some of these arms are reportedly acquired from members of the security forces. These arms fuel intercommunity conflicts, including cattle rustling and revenge killing of innocent people. In short, reforming the security sector will be starting from a very low baseline and demands immediate attention in order to restore normalcy and stability in South Sudan.

Key Recommendations

The following recommendations require the attention of reformers in South Sudan.

Conduct a comprehensive strategic review of the security sector. None of the six security organizations has ever conducted this kind of review. The Strategic Defence Sector Review (SDSR) mandated by the ARCSS relates only to the defense component of national security. At the start of the armed conflict in December 2013, estimates placed the SPLA budget at 50 percent of national expenditures, of which 80 percent was reportedly allocated to salaries. One of the primary objectives of a strategic review is to determine force strength and to align this with the resources and security threats for which each entity is responsible. Rightsizing the SPLA would free up resources for allocation to other security components or social services.

The review of all players in the security sector should take place simultaneously. However, there is scope to combine the SPLA review with that of the fire brigade and wildlife because these services are ill-developed and their members are often called up into combat roles within the SPLA. To ensure a high caliber and even-handed review, international technical and financial support for this process is critical. Moreover, attention must be given to implementing the recommendations generated from the review. This may seem obvious, however, in the past, reform measures agreed upon at the highest level have often gone unimplemented. A good example is the Objective Force 2017 and the Transformation Programme 2012-2017, which sought to transform and develop the SPLA in a 5-year time frame.

“A disciplined and highly professional security officer corps must stand ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state.”

Convene a national conference for the professionalization of the six security sector organizations. The proposed national conference should be attended by, but not limited to, the representatives of the political parties and civil society groups. One of the primary objectives of the conference is to generate consensus among political and military leaders as well as the public to professionalize all the security organizations. Professionalization will entail severing ties that exist between sections of the political class and the components of the security sector. This should facilitate the demilitarization of public life and the establishment of effective mechanisms for civilian control and accountability. Those programs will aim at making the security organizations independent from the ruling class. The institution of effective civilian oversight over the security forces is essential for their professionalism.

A disciplined and highly professional security officer corps must stand ready to carry out the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state. The organizations must be politically neutral and recognized by all social groups of the society. The government and the political class as a whole must promote professionalism of all six security organizations so that they operate independently and cultivate an apolitical posture. In turn, the government and political players must commit to forbear—backed by criminal and other sanctions­—from interfering in the security sector with the aim of serving partisan interests. Norms should be established to achieve these ends.

Reintegrate belligerents into the security organizations. It is recognized that the civil war in South Sudan has reduced the national security organizations into ethnically based forces. For their part, rebel groups have also largely recruited on ethnic lines. Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of surplus fighters should be conducted as part of a jointly agreed DDR program that implements SDSR objectives. Policymakers should draw from failed DDR programs of the past—the post-CPA and 2012 DDR programs—which failed due to lack of political will. The reluctance to disarm and demobilize during the immediate post-CPA period was in part informed by fear of an attack from Sudan to reverse or stall the transition.

In terms of benchmarks, these reforms must:

  • Lead to the creation of a truly national army, police, and intelligence organization
  • Provide for the requirement that all security agencies recruit from all ethnic groups on an equitable basis, including consideration of ethnic quotas
  • Establish training as one of the top priorities of the reform agenda

Focus on the institutional development of security sector organizations. This includes continuous training of the personnel in uniform and human resource development of the civilian component. The SPLA should focus on the preparation of defense capability and the effective conduct of military operations. Preparing defense capability includes: recruitment of suitable people, training of both individuals and collective units; ordering, receiving, operating and maintaining military equipment; establishing information and communication channels; and generation and application of operational doctrine. Executing military operations means building on this range of tasks.

“The Ministry of Cabinet Affairs should take the lead in the development of the national security strategy of South Sudan in order to ensure it encompasses all of the country’s security challenges.”

The central function of a defense ministry should be to make, monitor, and review defense policy.1 Through the generation and implementation of defense policy, the defense ministry can be the central enabling institution for providing policy direction on defense matters. Currently, there is no national security strategy for South Sudan, making it difficult for any security organization to work out clear policy. The SPLA White Paper on Defence of June 2008, which was never made public, set out broad objectives to be achieved by the Southern Sudan Ministry of Defence during the transitional period (2005-2011). The Ministry of Cabinet Affairs should take the lead in the development of the national security strategy of South Sudan in order to ensure it encompasses all of the country’s security challenges. In addition to a national security strategy, sectoral policies setting out the ways and means for achieving set objectives will also need to be developed.

Strengthen the oversight of the security organizations. Oversight is needed in order to reduce abuses of security offices. Mechanisms of oversight are allegedly established in the Constitution of South Sudan and sectoral laws pertaining to each organization. Broadly, there are two types of oversight systems. Internal oversight systems of the security sector, for example, comprise the Army Inspector General and the Internal Auditing Section. External oversight mechanisms include parliament and the judiciary.

Parliamentary committees should be empowered to scrutinize budgets, policies, and operations. In the performance of their duties, they should be able to access classified information that is otherwise unavailable to the public. Civil society should be empowered to hold the security sector to account. Civilian involvement may lend credibility to the process, make decisions more legitimate politically and socially, and generate a sense of ownership among stakeholders. Currently, some of the existing oversight mechanisms listed are very weak and will require review and strengthening.


In the past, reforms of the security sector have been doomed by a lack of political will. One of the consequences of this failure is that the sector remains one of the main destabilizing forces in the country. The proposals made in this review could contribute to the creation of a capable, accountable, and effective security sector. However, reforms are unlikely to take root in the prevailing political, economic, social, and institutional environment. Broader institutional reforms are necessary to build the foundation for and foster the deepening of the rule of law while strengthening democratic institutions. Additional reforms to circumscribe and limit the powers of the political branches (executive and legislative), empower the periphery, expand human rights protection, and facilitate democratic expression are imperative as is the need to combat the entrenched culture of impunity.

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Kuol Deim Kuol was an active lieutenant general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army until 2013. He led the Jonglei disarmament campaign launched by President Kiir in 2012.


  1. Laura R. Cleary and Teri McConville, eds., Managing Defence in a Democracy (Oxford: Routledge, 2000).