South Sudan’s New Battle: Building a State amid Internal Violence

John Siebert Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2011 Volume 32 Issue 1

The creation of a new state—the Republic of South Sudan—and the creation of the state in South Sudan are two very different matters. The first will be easy; the second is a project for generations. An important report written for PACT Sudan (Schomerus & Allen 2010) describes the pervasive contradictions of South Sudan and links state-building initiatives with an increase in internal violence. As the report notes, “some of the solutions on offer just make things worse” (p. 9).

On February 2 the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission announced the preliminary results of the vote on secession: eligible voters almost unanimously opted for separation.1 Few irregularities were documented and peace prevailed during the voting from January 9 to 15. The referendum process had already been given the stamp of international legitimacy by observers from the European Union and the Carter Center. On January 31, Sudanese Vice-President Ali Osman Taha publicly confirmed Khartoum’s acceptance of the preliminary referendum results. Barring the unexpected, South Sudan will declare itself the world’s newest state on July 9. This will be quickly followed by international recognition and a seat at the United Nations.

The creation of the state apparatus—the institutions, the mechanics of security and delivering services, and an effective process by which leaders can seek and realize the legitimate will of the population—is the real challenge now facing South Sudan. This structure must be created in a context of pervasive rural violence. In January 2010 the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) reported that an estimated 2,500 people died and 359,000 were displaced in Southern Sudan in 2009 because of intertribal conflict and raids by the Lord’s Resistance Army (UNSC 2010).

The population of South Sudan is predominantly rural. The land is marginal. People are poor and an estimated 80 per cent are illiterate. There are few roads, schools or clinics.
Most in South Sudan are pastoralists who measure their wealth primarily in cattle, and for whom a “culture of honour” prevails.2 Violence enters their world through cattle raids, made more lethal by large numbers of automatic weapons, and followed by retaliatory attacks. Without modern infrastructure and choices of livelihood, and only the sketchiest of police or military presence to fulfill the state’s primary role of maintaining a monopoly on the resort to violence, protection of wealth and personal and family honour rests in the hands of those who appear fierce and follow through. For these rural citizens, the creation of an effective state apparatus that provides security through the rule of law and effective policing, and delivers services to all regardless of clan or ethnic affiliation, presents fundamental contradictions.

A typical list of negotiation hazards between South and North Sudan in the period before secession in July 2011 includes lack of a defined border, the status of Abyei state, citizenship, oil production and revenue sharing. Increasingly, many see the survivability of the Khartoum-based regime in Northern Sudan as a major challenge to peace in itself.  

The PACT Sudan report Southern Sudan at odds with itself instead focuses on the internal causes of violence in the South. It describes the socio-cultural dynamics of conflict and “also identifies problems with the development/reconstruction/peace-building approach that have exacerbated tensions. In particular, current attempts to establish state institutions, notably at the local level, are actually making outbreaks of violence more likely” (Schomerus & Allen 2010, p. 5).

The report rejects or severely qualifies the two primary default explanations for this violence: destabilizing interference by the North and pernicious tribalism. While these cannot be dismissed out of hand, the results of extensive interviews in remote parts of the South point to other problems.

The PACT Sudan report describes the dilemma of trying to create a centralized state structure where, in essence, none existed before, while simultaneously devolving authority to local mechanisms, both formal and informal or traditional. Decentralized institutions are needed to address “Sudan’s legacy of marginalisation” (p. 6). However, “the very same institutions lack accountability particularly at the local level where most violence is caused” (p. 6). Decentralized county, payam (district) and boma (village) structures “have in reality begun to resemble ethnic fiefdoms” (p. 6).

Frustration has mounted over the failure to deliver a peace dividend in most rural areas during the six-year interim period accorded by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which started in 2005. “Patronage politics and a proliferation of government structures have lessened governmental accountability and intensified the violent struggle over access to resources and political space” (p. 7).

The ability of police to control local violence and address conflicts through the rule of law has been compromised by the appointment of former Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers to policing positions, often in their home areas. Justice is then tailored to suit family and clan interests.

Peacebuilding activities by nongovernmental organizations are not spared criticism (p. 8). Tribalism and the creation of ethnic fiefdoms are reinforced by NGOs that support tribal and ethnic leaders in peace conferences. Who then is to blame when these leaders cannot deliver on commitments made in those processes?

The report also questions the timing and implementation of democratic processes where none previously existed:

An aspect of that vision will be a more explicit recognition of the acute tensions between democracy and statebuilding. It will inevitably take a long time to build the necessary accountable institutions for the former, but peace requires functional means of imposing and maintaining order now. (p. 11)

It is important, on the one hand, to acknowledge the incredible strengths of pastoralist communities in surviving and thriving in harsh and marginal environments. Pastoralists do not appear to want fundamental changes, even if they sporadically express the desire for peace or take steps to participate in more urban, technologically advanced economic and social schemes. People are proud of their cultures and ability to survive in the privation and beauty of their home lands. This way of life has intrinsic value and contributes to the diversity of the human imprint on the world.

Why should outsiders, whether from Juba or Ottawa, expect them to welcome change and abandon the life they know and want to protect? But some change will be necessary. Unless their economic base is diversified, these people will find it difficult to influence or alter governing structures and, hence, their conflict-resolution capacity. 

Slow, painful internal change
The options seem to boil down to

  • the massive and violating imposition of new economic and political orders on frontier areas by outside or inside actors, or
  • the emergence of internal change in these cultures over many years, with continuing high rates of internally generated violence.

South Sudan likely will follow the second route. No outside power will see an advantage in intervention. The SPLA, the only internal source of force, likely is too conflicted to muster such a response. After all, most SPLA officers are themselves the products of these competing pastoralist communities, although now a generation removed from the land by participation in the civil war with the North from 1983-2005.

It is difficult to identify the most constructive policy response to the very basic set of contradictions inherent in the political economy of cattle culture in South Sudan. While the PACT report makes some recommendations3 it mostly issues warnings. This is not to fault the report’s researchers. The best possible responses by outsiders, which would minimize harm and maximize the ability to lower violence in South Sudan, may not yet be apparent. The PACT Sudan report makes a valuable contribution to the accurate identification of the current state of affairs in South Sudan. This is an important step.
Viewing the new South Sudan as an incipient “fragile state,” the international community, including Canada, aims to help South Sudan create a stable, modern—albeit barebones—state apparatus. Ironically, the PACT Sudan report suggests that state-building initiatives since the signing of the CPA have contributed to increased violence in the South. State-building policies that focus on “decentralization of administration” and “security sector reform” are, in fact, making security more precarious.

Last December Canada’s House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (2010) released a report that points to these problems in South Sudan. Douglas Proudfoot, Director of the Sudan Task Force in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) is quoted as saying that internal violence “has been a problem throughout the conflict—the civil war and after. The year 2009, which was a year of peace, saw 2,500 people killed in southern Sudan in inter-ethnic violence” (pp. 20-21).

Since 2006 Canada has made extensive investments in Sudan, including $800-million to aid the UN mission in South Sudan and establish a state structure. If state-building efforts do not take into account the internal contradictions of the kind identified by the PACT report, these investments could be wasted.

Neither the Canadian International Development Agency nor DFAIT is currently mandated to actively support nuanced local peacebuilding in South Sudan as an integral part of a long-term development strategy. Clearly, support to Sudanese civil society organizations, particularly women’s organizations and the churches in Southern Sudan, could be fashioned to encompass effective local peacebuilding strategies. This may be the most effective way to support the longer-term change within South Sudan’s pastoralist communities that both establishes locally legitimate governance and lessens violence.

In the face of formidable obstacles, it is clear that creating an effective and legitimate state apparatus in South Sudan will take decades. While it may be painful to rain on the independence celebration, it is important to insist that Canada and the international community look squarely at the internal problems of South Sudan, so that aid and other assistance do not inadvertently make matters worse.



1.The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (Sudan Times 2011) announced on February 2 that 97.85 per cent of eligible voters participated; 3,792,518 voted for separation and 44,888 for unity with the North. A valid referendum required 60 per cent participation by eligible voters; separation required 50 per cent plus one of the votes cast.

2. A “culture of honor” is described by social psychologist Richard Nisbett (1993). He describes the roots of increased levels of violence in the US South as a vestige of pastoralist cultures. In vast geographic areas little touched by the state and formal law enforcement,

[t]heir livelihoods can be lost in an instant by the theft of their herds. To reduce the likelihood of this occurring, pastoralists cultivate a posture of extreme vigilance toward any act that might be perceived as threatening in any way, and respond with sufficient force to frighten the offender and the community into recognizing that they are not to be trifled with. (p. 442)

Moreover, Nisbett notes,

Southerners… are more likely to endorse violence as an appropriate response to insults, as a means of self protection, and as a socialization tool in training children. This is the characteristic cultural pattern of herding societies the world over. (p. 448)

3. At several points in the PACT Sudan report, people being interviewed appeal for the application of deceased SPLA leader John Garang’s vision for a New Sudan, which is based on citizenship rather than ethnicity.

House of Commons, Canada. 2010. The Referendum in Sudan: Where to After 2011?  Report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. December. 

Nisbett, Richard. 1993. Violence and U.S. Regional Culture. American Psychologist, April, pp. 441-449.

Schomerus, Mareike & Tim Allen, lead researchers. 2010. Southern Sudan at odds with itself: Dynamics of conflict and predicaments of peace. Study commissioned by PACT Sudan. Development Studies Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Sudan Tribune. 2011. Sudan announces referendum preliminary results. February 2.
United Nations Security Council. 2010. Report of the Secretary-General on the Sudan. January 19.

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