Context and the Limits of International Engagement in Realizing Durable Stability in South Sudan

International actors should actively work toward resetting the levers of structural power within the political economy so that a less violent South Sudan is possible.

With more than 4 million South Sudanese people displaced since December 2013, recovery from the current war requires a significant reset of the systems and structures through which safety and security are provided. The government security apparatus and opposition forces have used collective punishment, forced displacement, and asset-stripping as part of the war effort. Large-scale recruitment efforts (including of children), the mobilization of ethnic militias, a multiplicity of conflict actors, and easy access to weapons transfers have characterized a conflict in which ceasefires have been meaningless. The legitimacy of the government and its security services rest on overcoming the extreme levels of violence that have been enacted against the population and establishing substantive controls on the use of force. However, there are significant reasons why international support of a large-scale reform of the security sector is unlikely to achieve this.

There are two impediments to reforming the security sector: the nature of South Sudan’s political economy, which produces violence, and the limits of international interventions to devise a coherent, long-term approach and commitment to implement a holistic security sector reform (SSR) process. These two challenges, combined with the continued state of war, mean that, in the short term, any approach to reform can, at best, only lay the foundations for future programming while enabling a decrease in the daily use of violence. Interventions should therefore prioritize functional changes in the structure of the political economy to create an enabling environment for a sustainable reform agenda.

On Change

Before addressing the obstacles to reform, some consideration should be given to the notion of reform. The downward trajectory that South Sudan has been on is the product of reinforcing layers of political, social, and economic pressures embedded within deeply contested regional politics. Strategic shocks that could have reversed this trajectory have been largely insignificant and have not generated the positive change that was assumed possible. Independence provided an opportunity for a nationally unified security service and governance agenda. Yet, not even the significant change of creating a new country was sufficient to bind the divergent interests and alter the hardened core of a liberation movement that struggles to be more than an ethnic militia. The 2012 oil shutdown and consequent austerity did little to slow the pillaging of the state.

The 2013 constitutional crises that preceded the outbreak of civil war merely shored up the strength of the executive and ended lip service to legislative and judicial authority. The ruling regime has been adept at using challenges to its power to reinforce its overall strategic goals of ethnic-based domination. The inability of international actors to appreciate the resilience of these power structures resulted in the production of rather underwhelming approaches to changing the situation on the ground. To call the regime in Juba weak is a misnomer. There is an alarming degree of resilience in the Kiir-led state despite the depth of crisis in the state formation process and the fundamental imbalances that lie at its core.

“International actors may best help, then, by focusing on laying the tracks that will, one day, steer the security forces and their political taskmasters in a different direction.”

There is a lack of imagination in terms of how to significantly alter the overall strategic decline, and international intervention is perhaps ill-suited to the task in any case. Overall, there is seemingly a lack of convergence of energies to create a structural disruption significant enough to produce an incentive for change on the part of the government. International actors may best help, then, by focusing on laying the tracks that will, one day, steer the security forces and their political taskmasters in a different direction.

This is a call for practical programming that takes a realistic approach as to what is achievable in South Sudan with the level of effort the international community is willing to expend. International actors should do more than just develop alternative ideas that could, one day, become politically possible. They should actively work toward resetting the levers of structural power within the political economy so that a less violent South Sudan is not only politically possible but inevitable.

Understanding the Context

The international approach to SSR before 2013 used an idealized conception of state and society as the basis for policy priorities. As part of the state building project, prepackaged interventions were rolled out, with the aim of building the state’s capacity to perform core functions with little understanding of the political economy of South Sudan.

The current environment and changed donor context means that efforts to reform the security sector in the short term must be based on more realistic assessments of what is possible before engaging with ambitious intervention-driven agendas. This means placing political engagement ahead of technical solutions and looking for more creative programming solutions while accepting that the security sector is a core component of an ethnically biased, predatory state whose legitimacy rests on coercion.

The South Sudanese state represents a convergence of patronage, ethnicity, and criminality. Resetting these relationships is a multigenerational endeavor. Until this patronage-based governance model is reformed, it would be naïve to assume that increased access to and diversity in governance will result in manifestly different governance. Additionally, the “Big Tent” approach to governance works only so far as the kleptocracy can afford it.

“Efforts to reform the security sector in the short term must be based on more realistic assessments of what is possible before engaging with ambitious intervention-driven agendas.”

For many in South Sudan, violence is a realistic livelihood option, and the security sector—both in state and nonstate form—exists as an extension of, and probably the core viable part of, their political economy. Before there was the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), an oil economy, or an independent state, there were self-defense, cattle-raiding, and mutually exclusive ethnic hierarchies. The organizational unit of an independent state has been laid upon a history of fear and violence which sits atop a sprawling geography that is as illogical for a nation-state as it is harsh.

State-building and nationhood will always be weak panaceas for the challenges of geography, history, and culture that South Sudan presents. Institutional presence, territorial reach, and increased capacity of the state apparatus cannot overcome the limited track record of state-provided security and the state-aligned forces. Both pre- and post-independence, these forces have operated more as invading and occupying forces than as security providers for citizens. The civil war has further shattered the illusion of state-provided security, and any medium-term strategy needs to recognize that local communities will continue to seek security through their own means.

One should be careful not to define the state and community in South Sudan in opposing terms. There is a spectrum of state-society relations in South Sudan mostly due to the ethnic, historical, and geographic fault lines that define the nature of the state. Dealing with patterns of state formation and the challenges being produced by these cleavages requires a reconsideration of local power relations and processes of institutionalization. Local power relations establish who gets what in terms of rights and resources. Institutions emerge as power relations manifest in the systems and processes of governance.

“The lack of functional political institutions outside militarized and ethnic hierarchies prevents the emergence of a political class that manifests its power in nonviolent, nonethnic ways.”

Trying to build institutions without significantly engaging the local power relations will always be a flawed approach. Yet, dealing with local power relations requires a nuance, presence, and patience that few in the international community would be able to entertain. Instead of solely focusing on national institutional support, there is room to consider more carefully how local leadership can be supported to negotiate deals with the state that lead to the realization of rights and protections.

Similarly, within the political realm, the need for reform within the ruling SPLM remains a core issue. However, the success of this reform, particularly dealing with succession tensions, relies on the existence of a nonmilitarized political institution at local levels. There is a high degree of political consciousness among South Sudanese, but this is not being translated into institutions able to govern in line with the aspirations of a rights-respecting, decentralized, service-delivering, and economic-growth-driven agenda. The lack of functional political institutions outside militarized and ethnic hierarchies prevents the emergence of a political class that manifests its power in nonviolent, nonethnic ways and articulates a governance agenda.

Accepting the Limitations of International Actors

Creating long-term change means resetting the interaction between the state and society. This requires international actors to engage not only with national-level processes, but also to consider what building safety from the bottom-up looks like and what external engagement with building resilience in social capital is. International actors also need to consider how international support often constrains local leaders rather than allowing them the space to develop their own agendas and to use resources embedded in local relationships to enhance institutional resilience. There are many points at which international actors influence local power relations, and yet, these varied interventions are not linked in any meaningful way. To generate meaningful change, the international community should adopt a holistic and comprehensive strategy for the effort in South Sudan. In an ideal world, the donor community, United Nations agencies, and myriad of profit and nonprofit external actors would create a common platform around which their efforts would coalesce. As this is unlikely to occur, programming will remain piecemeal and fail to maximize effectiveness.

The international community does not always have the ability, interest, or incentives to functionally cooperate and coordinate toward a widely agreed-upon goal. In South Sudan, international actors have also had difficulty attracting and retaining quality expatriate staff for South Sudan, and any intervention planning should consider the impact of short-term rotations and lack of experienced staff. Intervention objectives need to be balanced against the realities of global politics where levels of funding for South Sudan are unlikely to ever again reach into the billions of dollars, and assistance fatigue accompanies a deep sense of failure to achieve meaningful results.

“International actors need to adopt a more systemic understanding of South Sudan to be able to see their overall violence reduction goals not simply in terms of formal, technocratic, national-level processes.”

This reality forces international actors to carefully consider, with less money and attracting fewer experienced staff, what alternative paths toward a more peaceful future will look like. South Sudan is a confounding intervention context, and the impact of the civil war has been so extreme that any considerations of stability need to be cognizant of the extreme levels of need and the level of effort (in personnel and money) that will be required just to meet and maintain minimum humanitarian standards. Reforming the security sector and other efforts aimed at stabilizing the country must be embedded in these realities.

International actors need to adopt a more systemic understanding of South Sudan to be able to see their overall violence reduction goals not simply in terms of formal, technocratic, national-level processes. While there is undoubtedly a need for the national-level interventions, such as through the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) proposed in the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, such efforts need to be complemented by a range of local-level initiatives on security as well as other issues. By tying progress and funding to donor-driven benchmarks, national programming is ill-suited to the realities of environments where improvements may be slow and uneven. Such benchmarks also fail to engage with the complexity of a context in which militarization is often the only chance of survival for citizens. A singular focus on national and formal institutional interventions means that external actors are failing to change the risk-benefit calculation of violence at the subnational level for individuals and communities.

Looking for Alternative Approaches

A truly bottom-up approach to address security needs to be holistic in its design and long term in its intentions. Avoiding the single-track focus of either national- or local-level support can only happen with some form of strategic coherence. There is a need for multitrack approaches that work at both the national and local levels with a unifying theory of change set within a generational time frame. The challenge for international actors is to program in a unified manner at national and local levels simultaneously so that the fundamental long-term drivers of conflict are addressed.

“We need to throw away the handbooks on SSR.”

Given that the above is unlikely to happen, we need to throw away the handbooks on SSR and begin to look at what spaces exist in the current context to be able to work toward some form of political economy that is less likely to produce violence. The SDSR will develop good documents and plans that may have buy-in from some elites (and will also create some spoilers), but even the best laid plans at the national level need to be supported by functional changes in the lived experiences of individuals who turn too easily toward violence. We need to work toward changing the decision-making parameters of individuals and communities and toward programming that does not overstate the capacity of international partners to generate change. Interventions should internalize the dualities of South Sudan—urban-rural, state-nonstate, traditional-formal, etc.—and begin to rework the complex relations that have resulted in an ethnically biased and deeply militarized core ruling structure. Some features of such an approach would be the following.

Begin working on area-specific reconstruction plans that integrate conflict mitigation with livelihood support. There are too many differences between geographic areas to have a national or regional reconstruction agenda. International actors can start working with local reformers in selected areas to deal with the impact of the war and to lay the foundations for civilians to return. No national or community disarmament, demobilization, or reintegration (DDR) initiative can be successful without alternative livelihood strategies. Local assets—especially cattle and livestock ownership—have been dramatically affected, and all aspects of the market system have been disrupted, access restricted, and ethnically biased. Functional relationships need to be rebuilt and functional decentralization—to overcome marginalization—can only occur through changing the patterns of production and wealth accumulation. With transformation in mind, actors should adopt systemic approaches to communities with programing focused on changing the functional components of the political economy—security, production, wealth, and knowledge.

Engage with other armed groups to understand their grievances and interests. Such engagement could lead to the development of local solutions to some of the conflicts but, importantly, could also increase accountability for future integration or demobilization plans. As the opposition has become a fragmented and disjointed set of actors, any national initiatives will not be able to address unique grievances. Without international engagement on resolving local conflicts, elites can strike deals that are primarily concerned with integration into the state apparatus—as was the case for the “Big Tent” policy—and not with enhancing the quality of governance.

Re-evaluate how to provide human rights training and mentoring. Despite the fact that the international community has provided many different streams of human rights training to the security forces, there has been little reflection on which courses are most effective, what the impact of human rights training has been on individual behavior, and how best to start institutionalizing a culture within the Army and every individual that rejects the uncontrolled and inhumane use of force. Education should include a significant focus on providing psychosocial support to current soldiers and fighters so that, one day, when demobilization becomes an option, people will be more accepting of a civilian life and move beyond the extremes of violence that they have perpetrated and witnessed.

Revisit support to rule of law with a focus on prisons and courts. These institutions have been stripped of their budgetary support and have lost staff, leadership, and relevance in the national discourse. In 2017, judges and magistrates went on strike over poor working conditions. Moreover, detention facilities around the country have witnessed the starvation of detainees. The mere provision of food and medication to prisoners would be a big win for basic human rights in South Sudan. To enhance access to justice and, by extension, reducing violence, future justice efforts have to be embedded in local institutions—be they state or traditional.

Re-imagine support to local actors in relation to local power relations and the potential for the institutionalization of nonmilitarized governance practices. From trader associations, market regulators, cattle keepers, and women’s groups to churches, traditional courts, and chiefs, there are so many avenues for support to institutions that predate the state and continue to fulfill political purposes. International support to these actors has come in a variety of forms with little reflection of who, what, and why—never mind linking support to the volumes of academic research on these topics.


While reforming the security sector is essential to overall violence reduction efforts, South Sudan’s political environment favors militarization over governance. External interventions should not make the same mistake and should seek to promote an improved governance strategy that, at its core, is concerned with the basic welfare and rights of all South Sudanese. This requires international actors to be acutely aware of the spaces in which traction can be gained to explore future reform opportunities. The focus should be on enacting change in the baseline of extreme vulnerability to begin to alter the overall conflict dynamics. This means engaging with how structural power is manifesting in the political economy and resetting the relations and practices that enable that power to continually manifest as violence. While there are significant impediments to reforming the security sector, there are many spaces and opportunities for international actors to work toward those goals.

Lauren Hutton is an independent political analyst and strategic communications consultant.