South Sudan’s Army Will Make or Break the Country
Neglected army reform is South Sudan’s original sin
The ongoing civil war in South Sudan wasn’t started by a fringe rebel group in a far-flung part of the country. It began at the heart of the army, in the barracks of the presidential guard.
Can one of the world’s youngest countries reform its volatile armed forces … before it’s too late?
Tension between different political factions within the ruling Sudan’s People Liberation Movement ran high after president Salva Kiir fired his deputy Riek Machar in July 2013. Bitter political rivals, Kiir and Machar are also widely perceived as champions for their respective ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer.
The political conflict escalated into a military one on Dec. 15, when Kiir ordered his troops to disarm the pro-Machar, Nuer elements of the presidential guard, whom Kiir believed were plotting a coup. Fighting erupted between the Nuer and Dinka elements and quickly spread throughout the capital Juba.
In a matter of days, the armed forces of the new country split along factional lines.
That South Sudan — and especially its army — could disintegrate so rapidly only two years after its independence is a testament to the dramatic consequences of its original sin, the complete neglect of any substantial reform of its armed forces.
Ignoring the problem
The name of South Sudan’s army—Sudan People’s Liberation Army—isn’t its only link to its past as a rebel group fighting the Sudanese government in a long-running civil war. South Sudan achieved independence from Sudan in 2011.
Political and military structures are still closely interwoven, with the SPLA and the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement representing two branches of the same organization.
This history is responsible for South Sudan’s main weakness, explains Wolf-Christian Paes, South Sudan expert at the Bonn International Center for Conversion. “We think that it is the country’s central birth problem that the army consists of a mixture of different militias.”
After signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Sudanese government, the SPLM/A missed its chance to form a truly professional army from the various and often competing rebel groups, of which the SPLA was merely the strongest.
“Those groups were not, as was originally foreseen in the CPA, demobilized and reintegrated into civilian live,” Paes says. The new South Sudanese army was supposed to be built “from the ground up”—and be much smaller than the 200,000-strong force that existed until December.
According to Paes, the world “waited too long” to demand reform. “In the summer of 2005 [after the signing of the CPA], the international community wasn’t ready.”
Part of the problem were very complicated financing procedures, with the United Nations responsible for the demobilization, and governmental or private donors organizing the reintegration of ex-soldiers, Paes explains. The U.N. was also slow to get its people on the ground in South Sudan.
As a result, the SPLA became a vehicle for its officers’ political and financial ambitions. Individual commanders would frequently incite small rebellions in order to put pressure on the government.
The SPLM leadership in turn was content to “manage” these conflicts by essentially paying off the officers, offering them promotions, political favors and cold hard cash in return for their repeated reintegration back into the SPLA.
According to Paes, this deepened the army’s factionalization because it strengthened rank-and-file soldiers’ loyalty to their commanders, rather than to the state. “In a way, what we have seen in December is just the most extreme expression of this conflict mechanism,” Paes says.
With tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, the warring parties are now engaged in preliminary negotiations to reach a peace agreement, although fighting still flares from time to time.
Now is the time to fix the structural problems. “It would be of huge importance to tackle army reform seriously now,” Paes says.
Reform shouldn’t merely mean firing a few officers and mixing up units’ ethnic composition. Instead, the SPLM should entirely shut down the SPLA and offer its members the opportunity to apply for a post in a new army.
This would also get rid of tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers”—names on the payroll that are not actually people, but a way for corrupt officers to skim money.
The goal should be a smaller, more capable and ethnically integrated South Sudanese army. Paes cites the Liberian army as a possible model. Liberia totally rebuilt its armed forces after the civil war.
Internally, the biggest spoiler is probably the SPLA itself, which has profited from the status quo. And while the international community does have some leverage over the heavily aid-dependent government, Paes doesn’t expect too much from the U.N., U.S., E.U. or China. “My impression is that after a peace deal, people will return to business as usual.”
And that could light the fuze for yet another round of civil fighting in the near future.