South Sudan: Turbulence, the Political Market, and Prospects for Peace

Creating a peaceful political order in South Sudan often seems like trying to cage a torrent: however creative the formula, however forceful its application, the water always escapes.

Three recent publications from the research team at the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics and the World Peace Foundation deepen our analysis and point towards important policy lessons.

The routine machinations of South Sudan’s politics are hideously complicated, and risk dragging the analyst and policymaker into a tangle of ever-changing details, but there are some general lessons to be learned and applied.

In South Sudan, we are dealing with transactional politics determined by money and guns, not a state-building process. In the last three years, the regime of President Salva Kiir has emerged militarily dominant and financially more capable than its rivals. Kiir has ‘won’ in the sense that there is no immediate contender for his position, but his government has not consolidated authority over the people or the territory. In this context, ‘peace’ means moderating the coercive, autocratic kleptocracy in Juba.

The occasional paper analyzing South Sudan as a political marketplace by Alan Boswell, Nanaho Yamanaka, Aditya Sarkar and Alex de Waal charts the shifting forms of transactional power in South Sudan and how this plays out in the expansion and contraction, fragmentation and consolidation, of the numerous armed actors. The political marketplace framework allows us to follow the logic of turmoil and bloodshed, and understand—and anticipate—the unintended consequences of international interventions.

The memo on security sector reform by Sarah Detzner draws on this to emphasize the futility of attempting top-down, template designed SSR programs in such an environment. Comparative analysis of when and where SSR has actually worked across the world shows that there are two essential political preconditions. One is a well-informed and capable reform coalition, consisting of civil society, civilian political parties and individuals within the security establishment, who demand change. The second is an opportunity for making that demand: a democratic disruption. Currently, South Sudan has neither—but the policy starting point is building the coalition for reform, so that its members can make their claims when the right conjuncture arrives.

The third memo, ‘South Sudan: The politics of delay’, by Alex de Waal, Alan Boswell, David Deng, Rachel Ibreck, Matthew Benson and Jan Pospisil (of the Political Settlements Research Programme), develops a vocabulary to help understand the pitfalls and opportunities in trying to find peace and order amidst turbulence and persistent instability. The memo emphasizes the dangers of deadline diplomacy and suggests how to practice the art of setting the pace and sequencing of a peace process. The recent 100-day postponement of the deadline for forming the Government of National Unity (now with 71 days remaining) can be turned to the advantage of the peacemakers, by moving forward on crucial issues that might become orphaned if there is an exclusive focus on forming a government by a certain day. Among those issues are resolving tricky questions regarding the number and boundaries of the states, enacting and implementing legislation on land, and keeping up the momentum on transitional justice.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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