South Sudan at odds with itself

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 1 Spring 2014

A total shattering of the peace has led to more than 10,000 deaths and upwards of one million displaced

We opened with a minute of silence to remember those who have been victims of violence since December 15, 2013, when the world’s newest country, the Republic of South Sudan, began a descent into chaos.

On February 26 the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa and the Subsahara Centre hosted a gathering of Canadians committed to restoring peace in South Sudan. Representatives from different sides of the conflict presented their perspectives by SKYPE and telephone. Canadians from South Sudan were in the room to share their views. I spoke on a panel that examined ways in which Canada could more effectively contribute to peace and reconciliation. The day before several of us met with officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development to learn about Canada’s response to date to the crisis in South Sudan.

Before the crisis

Since the mid-1990s Project Ploughshares, with our friends at the Africa Peace Forum (APFO) in Nairobi, Kenya, has engaged in track two diplomacy efforts with local churches and civil society to end Sudan’s civil war, and in research on the security implications of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 between the North and South. This provided opportunities to visit Juba, now the capital of South Sudan, in 2006 and 2008. The second trip included a week of field research in sparsely populated Warrap State on the role of development and peacebuilding in countering armed violence (Siebert & Epps 2009)

Over the past few years I’ve also met neighbours in Kitchener-Waterloo of South Sudanese origin who fled the violence of the second Sudan civil war (1983-2005). Since the signing of the CPA, some have traveled to their homeland to help build a new society. They are passionate about what happens in South Sudan, but do not always agree on next steps.

The peace brought about by the CPA was followed by a census, elections, a referendum on self-determination, and the celebration of the birth of the Republic of South Sudan in July 2011. During this period the threat of renewed war between North and South always hung in the air. South Sudan resisted responding to many military provocations by Sudan as it pursued independence and self-determination.

Resisting provocations by Sudan to return to war, South Sudan since 2005 has also focused on balancing the interests of its many internal factions. Like a road-battered bus, the Government of South Sudan seemed to keep trundling along, with each major milestone on the road to independence met with international recognition and support.

It was a shock, then, on December 16 to see photos of President Salva Kiir in military fatigues and cap, responding to what he called a coup by former members of his government. The wheels had fallen off the bus. The lug nuts on the wheels were decidedly loosened last July when Kiir dismissed his cabinet, including then Vice-President Riek Machar, and formed a new one. But the total shattering of the peace, which has led to more than 10,000 deaths and upwards of one million displaced people, was unexpected.

A challenging situation

On February 26 at the University of Ottawa I focused on the underlying structural and cultural factors that challenge the integrity of South Sudan as a nation state. It remains largely a frontier society with community-based retributive violence operating where the reach of the state and its security apparatus is either minimal, nonexistent, or reinforces communal divisions rather than a shared national purpose.

Citizens of South Sudan do not yet trust the state to protect and serve them. After decades of civil war, with little development of economic and social infrastructure, this response is understandable. Attention has been focused on the threat from the North, allowing a semblance of unity within South Sudan to be maintained. Below the surface, however, unity has always been strained. The state apparatus wasn’t just weak or fragile, but struggling to take shape.

Amalgamating a national army and demobilizing troops have not made much headway. Civilians remain heavily armed with automatic rifles. Traditional cattle-raiding practices by pastoralists throughout the countryside are excessively deadly. As a result, distinctions between civilians and factional militias are difficult to establish in the current violence.

Since 2005 South Sudan has spent upwards of 40 per cent of its revenues on hard security. In a country of extreme poverty and food shortages, this expenditure represents a compounding tragedy. Now these tanks and rocket launchers are being employed by different internal factions against each other.

Building a stable peace

Although a ceasefire agreement was signed in January, it is not being observed and no one knows when the outlines of a peace agreement will be achieved or what it will look like. Those of us who are concerned observers of South Sudan need to be appropriately modest about what we really know and can do to assist in resolving the current conflict and building the conditions for longer-term peace.

Local traditional conflict resolution techniques will need to be married to international multilateral resources for restoring peace and stability. South Sudanese traditional leaders, the churches, and civil society organizations must play a key role if peace is to be achieved.

Solutions must emerge from the primary actors in the conflict, with the assistance and direct involvement of their immediate neighbours. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the subregional multilateral body, is providing the structure for mediating the conflict. IGAD is the shell organization in which the highly conflicted Horn of Africa periodically engages its members multilaterally to avoid direct bilateral diplomacy that may result in losing face.

The current talks on South Sudan hosted by IGAD in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, are inching forward. Ambassador Kiplagat and Ambassador Adala of the Africa Peace Forum are directly engaged with the Kenyan Government, IGAD, and the region’s churches in seeking a firm cessation of hostilities and a process that will lead to lasting peace. Reconciliation processes within South Sudan will need Canadian and other support in the medium and longer terms.

The University of Ottawa discussions reunited Canadian church and civil society representatives with academics who have contributed over the last decade to the emergence of an independent South Sudan. Two-and-a-half months into the current crisis, it seems we, along with Canadian officials, are all trying to move from shock to formulating new and appropriate strategies for Canada’s role in assisting reconciliation and sustainable peace in South Sudan (Siebert 2014).


Siebert, John. 2014. South Sudan needs Canada’s support.  Letter to the Hon. John Baird and the Hon. Christian Paradis, January 24.

Siebert, John and Kenneth Epps. 2009. Addressing Armed Violence in East Africa: A Report on World Vision Peacebuilding, Development and Humanitarian Assistance Programmes. World Vision Canada.

Spread the Word