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Taming the Dominant Gun Class in South Sudan

A “gun class”—the fusion of security leaders with political power, class, and ethnicity—is at the heart of the predatory governance system that has taken root in South Sudan. Changing this trajectory will require redefining the roles of political and security actors.

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South Sudan fighters in Leer - northern South Sudan. Photo: UNMISS

Fighters in Leer, South Sudan. (Photo: UNMISS)

Stunted Political Development

Like many post-independence African countries in the early stages of state formation, South Sudan’s military, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), plays a larger than normal role in the polity. Indeed, even though militaries have tended to recede into the background as democratic evolution gathered pace, there are countries where “military aristocracies” dominate public life. In their prime, these self-styled reformists are always driven by a particular penchant for social change, but there often exists a gulf between their sloganeering and practice.

Unlike previous eras marked by ideological differences, contemporary coup plotters and insurgents in Africa tend to create a close-knit governing elite whose main aim is to share rents and power. However, the type of leadership that emerges from such an agenda shapes the structure of these insurgent movements. This, in turn, influences the trajectory of any subsequent government that emerges.

In South Sudan, the dominance of the SPLA, which won independence at the edge of a sword in 2011, has precluded the building of effective institutions. What caused this dismal failure? The lack of commitment to reforming the military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies has caused stagnation and quick atrophy at an embryonic phase of state formation. Instead, the SPLA has morphed into a degenerative gun-toting aristocracy that straddles the sociocultural, political, and economic spheres like a colossus.

“The dominance of the SPLA, which won independence at the edge of a sword in 2011, has precluded the building of effective institutions. What caused this dismal failure?”

Historical Evolution of the Gun Class in South Sudan

South Sudan’s proclivity for violence and conflict and its inability to acquire institutional depth is broad and deep. In part, this is attributed to age-old militarization of all facets of life and society stretching back to slavery and colonialism. Self-interested elites have held sway because of the utility of violence. In the past, native servicemen provided military clout to the extractive colonial enterprise and plunder. Afterward, similar arrangements were utilized by the indigenes to purge the homeland from foreign occupation—particularly from Sudanese Jalaba colonialism.1

Egypt under Muhammad Ali Dynasty map . 1805 - 1914

The reach of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Dynasty, 1805–1914.

The formation of the dominant gun class in South Sudan traces its origin to war and slavery when, in 1821, Mohammad Ali Pasha, the Viceroy of Egypt, conquered Sudan with the chief objective of capturing slaves to provide manpower for the Vice Regal Army.2 Following decades of Anglo-Egyptian rule, Sudan gained independence on January 1, 1956. However, indifference to pleas from inhabitants of Sudan’s southern regions for greater autonomy from northern dominance bred dissent. This culminated in a mutiny of the Sudanese Equatoria Corps of the military in Torit in the months leading up to independence, effectively launching the first civil war. The Anya-Nya Movement and subsequent revolts transformed this externally driven, mercenary-like service into a resistance. In 1972, a semiautonomous administration for southern Sudan was created following the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement. However, the effendiya (the noble class of mainly ethnocentric political elites), whom the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) later described in its 1983 manifesto as the “bourgeoisified southern elites,” dominated post-1972 politics. Alongside this burgeoning political class, former rebels began to occupy senior positions in government and to control the economic levers of society. They became aware of their shared interests as another tier of privileged social class.

Eventually, the coalition of educated elites and the gun-toting insurgents displaced the traditional chiefdom class that formed part of the previous Anglo-Egyptian colonial administration. Tacit class struggle between the chiefdom class, the effendiya, and former insurgents continued. This explains why the SPLM was initially impervious to demands for legitimate political and administrative structures, and this curtailed the development of institutions outside the military and liberation movement.

John Garang

John Garang.

With the resumption of the civil war in 1983, the nascent civilian and traditional institutions of public administration established in the semiautonomous South disintegrated or were ignored. As the war wore on and areas in the South were liberated, the military would dominate the administration, consequently paving the way for the gun class to flourish and to dominate the post-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) political order.

Upon his ascension to power, following the death of John Garang in a helicopter crash on July 30, 2005, Salva Kiir abandoned the plan developed by Garang to decouple the SPLA from the SPLM and place the former under civilian control. Kiir’s “Big Tent” policy, by which militias were granted amnesties and integrated into the SPLA, halted these plans and undermined reform efforts. All the while, the narrow ruling clique retained control. As a result, a top-heavy security sector lacking in diversity evolved.

Instrumentalization of Violence

In South Sudan, social mobility depends fundamentally on five key endowments: guns, wealth, religion, education, and tribe, which often exist in a recursive feedback loop. The rise of ethnocentric elites had much to do with the education they had acquired previously. Local prophets with certain messianic claims, such as the 19th-century Nuer prophet Ngundeng Bong, used the power of religion to mobilize. All of these elite groups have used firearms to boost their power. As such, access to firearms and wealth have been critical multipliers for enhancing privileged social status.

Warlords built parallel networks of prebendalism, by which they feel they have the right to access public revenues for their private interest. Public jobs and financial rents were allocated to supporters as a form of patronage. Political power and appropriation of public resources were strictly determined on the basis of patrimonial linkages and some allegiance to the leader. Upward social mobility depended all the while on control of the instruments of coercion. The monopoly of the means of compulsion, consequently, became the single most critical factor in acquiring power and accessing means of consumption.

“The sanctity of the state’s monopoly of the legitimate means of violence became distorted with the emergence of the gun class in all its variants.”

The abundance of conscripts from one’s tribe or clan, as well as a modicum of external support, which was linked to access to guns, gave solid assurances to any particular leader that he would prevail. Ethnicity became a formidable tool for consolidating patrimonial loyalties. Literary advantage and reliance on witchcraft and local deities gave certain warlords an edge. Under these circumstances, a new set of organizational skills, management capacities, value systems, and public ethos emerged. Unsurprisingly, the sanctity of the state’s monopoly of the legitimate means of violence became distorted with the emergence of the gun class in all its variants. While the independence of South Sudan from Sudan has severed traditional forms of foreign hegemony by the Jalaba mercantilist class in the North, the fundamental condition of domination by an ethnically mobilized military class still exists.

Even if the state remains a trophy for contestations, the artificiality of the South Sudanese state is manifest, as its judicial, legislative, and administrative capacities have been hollowed out. Space for independent voices such as civil society has shrunk considerably and a combination of corruption, violence, and ethnic mobilization have placed the country on a staircase to the abyss. In the vacuum created—but also as a deliberate effort of warlords to shore up sectarian strength—community vigilantes have emerged to achieve a kind of collective security for designated segments of the population.3 Furthermore, the lucrative war economy of South Sudan has encouraged new rebels and cartel networks to contest an extractive domain in the marketplace.

The lack of political will to reform the security sector and eliminate the wicked problem of the dominance of the gun class remains the main stumbling block to the state-building process in South Sudan. To date, “to think of various security institutions [in South Sudan] as subordinate appendages to the state is fundamentally to misunderstand South Sudan and South Sudanese society.”4 South Sudan is an atypical case of a military taking hostage of a country. Furthermore, it is inching toward a country without a state.5 Therefore, mounting security sector reform initiatives in the face of a seemingly entrenched gun class that dabbles in politics organized around ethnicity is a daunting task akin to hunting a python in the mud.

Possible Exit Scenarios

New organizational norms and doctrines are generated when there is political will. Repeated social adversity early in life can program a defensive phenotype in organisms which accentuates vulnerability to disease later in life. The gun class draws from these biological and cognitive residues of a violent legacy that now asphyxiates reforms.6 To demilitarize South Sudanese society and curb the reigning gun class, therefore, presupposes the existence of a civil space, popular rule, and restoration of the rule of law. These prescriptions must transcend the security sector if the monopoly of legitimate means of coercion is to meaningfully revert to the state.

There are multiple ways of squaring the circle, however. In Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Mozambique, colonial armies disengaged ignominiously and were replaced by a dominant insurgent group or a coalition of insurgents. In Ethiopia, Uganda, and Chad, oppressive militaries and security apparatuses were disbanded when former rebels took power. In post-Apartheid South Africa, new security sector institutions were reconstituted from among protagonists. More recently in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, and Somalia, new security sectors have been built from scratch with significant external support. The question remains whether any of these models can be relevant to South Sudan.

Disarming the Rebels

Giving war a chance may allow one side in the conflict to impose its will. The victory of the MPLA in Angola against UNITA led to the disbanding of the latter with a few fighters being integrated on the victor’s terms. This final outcome brought into the military not only UNITA ex-combatants but also MPLA reservists and militias. It also involved a massive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process. This scenario is quite unlikely in South Sudan considering the SPLA’s inadequate capacity to wage a long and effective counterinsurgency to defeat an expanding array of rebel factions. Even if possible, it would still perpetuate gun class dominance.

Disbanding the SPLA

A new security architecture for South Sudan may only be possible if guns either fall silent or violence is reduced significantly. For example, overhauling security sector institutions in Uganda in 1986, Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1991, and Rwanda in 1994, followed the overthrow of dictatorships and the radical transformation of the state. Like in the preceding scenario, there are inherent risks with this approach, which would require interim security arrangements in order to avert the possibility of the country sliding into anarchy. Since South Sudanese rebels have not demonstrated the capacity to defeat the SPLA, and the likelihood of the parties agreeing to the disbandment of their armies to allow for the formation of new security institutions is remote, this scenario is unlikely. If, through a peace settlement, the rebels opt to voluntarily disarm or disband in exchange for certain political gains—including renunciation of violence by all parties, a democratic transition, and radical reforms in the security sector—a new security sector design may take root. However, this is also unlikely given the inherent gun class mentality within the armed opposition.

Reengineering the State-Security Sector Relationship

The security arrangements detailed in the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) speak to the creation of inclusive and representative security institutions shared mainly among the warring parties (akin to the South African model). If there had been stronger political will in 2016 when Riek Machar rejoined the government in Juba, these arrangements may have worked because there were fewer parties to the conflict at that time. However, the slant toward zero-sum bargaining caused the collapse of the ceasefire in July 2016. Likewise, the creation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) under the ARCSS unlocked new scenarios for security sector transformation by creating opportunities for interparty cooperation. However, the collapse of ARCSS puts the country in a transition trap by legitimizing the permanency of the temporary.

“The collapse of ARCSS puts the country in a transition trap by legitimizing the permanency of the temporary.”

Thus, an interim arrangement—be it a government of technocrats, a hybrid government of technocrats and respected politicians, or a coalition of political adversaries based on a stringent selection criteria—must detach the function of rebuilding the security sector to a neutral body for a period of at least 2 years. This implies complete disengagement of the current leadership in the government and opposition from control over the security sector. This understanding can be reached in a roundtable conference of all the stakeholders in which the warring parties relinquish this core function voluntarily to an independent body comprising distinguished national experts and practitioners and under the governance and oversight of the Commission for Peace and Security of the African Union (AU). In the interim, a special police task force, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, and the Regional Protection Force can cater to urgent public security needs and maintenance of law and order. Once the institutions of a functioning and accountable security sector are established, this responsibility can revert to the South Sudanese state.

This option is the only viable scenario for creating new, accountable security sector institutions in South Sudan. Left to their own devices, leading actors in deeply divided South Sudan will fashion a loyal security sector that serves the political interests of these leaders. Moreover, genuine change requires political will, which is in even shorter supply under the current circumstances. This scenario would follow models of state revival and rebuilding elsewhere in Africa—such as in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Côte d’Ivoire. As in other cases, this option would have to be buttressed by significant United Nations backstopping and involvement—especially in the areas of DDR and civilian disarmament. Adequate guarantees pertaining to safeguarding the territorial integrity of South Sudan from possible external aggression and territorial ambitions of the neighbors must also be clearly spelled out.


In South Sudan, Band-Aid approaches such as integration and reintegration of various armed groups without a clear political roadmap for the country and in the absence of political will have turned out to be catastrophic. A clean break is therefore needed. In order to restore the state’s capacity to provide security, reconstructing the security sector so that it is accountable to a civilian democratic government and totally purged of the metastasizing cancer of political violence is necessary. This will require the expansion of the mandate and operationalization of a special body of experts—such as a Strategic Defence and Security Board partially provided for in the ARCSS—to design and implement a new security architecture. To this end, the AU will have to be empowered by the United Nations Security Council to undertake this function for a limited number of years. However, countries that have clear and expressed geopolitical interests in South Sudan’s conflict will have to be excluded from this endeavor lest their rivalries and clash of interests scuttle it.

Majak D’Agoôt is an independent analyst for the Changing Horizon Institute for Strategic Policy Analysis (CHI-SPA). He previously served in the Intelligence and Defence Departments of the governments of Sudan and of South Sudan, respectively.


  1. Jalaba refers to extractive, mercantilism practiced by the Sudanese Arabs.
  2. John O. Udal, The Nile in Darkness: A Flawed Unity, 1863–1899 (Norwich: Michael Russell (Publishing) Ltd, 2005), 208.
  3. Koos Malan, Politocracy: An Assessment of the Coercive Logic of the Territorial State and Ideas around a Response to it, trans. Johan Scott (Pretoria: Pretoria University Law Press, 2012).
  4. Jeremy Astill-Brown, “South Sudan’s Slide into Conflict: Revisiting the Past and Reassessing Partnerships,” Chatham House (December 2014), 9.
  5. Daniel C. Bach, “Inching towards a country without a state: prebendalism, violence and state betrayal in Nigeria,” in Big African States, eds. Christopher Clapham, Jeffrey Herbst, and Greg Mills (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2006), 63-96.
  6. Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart and Joanna Tochman Campbell, “You Don’t Forget Your Roots: The Influence of CEO Social Class Background on Strategic Risk Taking,” Academy of Management Journal 58, No. 6 (2015), 1614-1636.