South Sudan’s ruling party and opposition are founded on military movements with weak political wings, a key cause for the country’s stalled and frustrated security reforms.
South Sudan has failed to unite the country’s armed factions into a unified force with the overarching aim of guaranteeing national security. The work of security sector reform has been hampered by a militarized political culture that threatens to escalate political tensions into military conflict.
The most recent example is the spat between Vice President Riek Machar and top members of his opposition party. The leadership attempted to depose Machar as party leader in August, with First Lieutenant General Simon Gatwech Dual emerging as the leader of the opposing side.
Reports of shooting between military personnel loyal to the two camps echoed the December 2013 gunfight between members of the presidential guard at the outset of the civil war. Although Machar retained control of the party, the aftermath demonstrates how quickly political infighting may escalate into violent bloodshed.
In South Sudan, both the governing and opposition parties are based on military organizations with minimal political branches. As a consequence, the distinctions between the leadership and the armed forces have become blurred. This trend has also exacerbated ethnic divides inside the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA In Opposition.
The armed forces have evolved into strong tools that are linked with people rather than the state.
The armed forces have evolved into a potent tool, mostly associated with individual leaders rather than the state or central party institutions. Combining these organizations under a national framework would diminish the influence acquired by opposing generals from leading their own militias. Unless the role of party military wings is altered, political tensions in the opposition are likely to develop into violent clashes, perhaps causing widespread instability.
The failure to restructure the security sector has harmed not just the armed forces, but also the police and other security organizations. Changes that began in 2005 were put on hold when the civil conflict broke out in 2013.
The current changes were started in 2018 as part of the Revitalized Agreement for the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) – and are proving to be a critical step toward achieving peace. Unfortunately, the country’s political and institutional landscape complicates matters.
Following many unsuccessful peace treaties, the R-ARCSS inspired cautious hope that the nation might be stable, enabling reforms that had stalled throughout the civil war to resume. The UN Mission in South Sudan has been in the forefront of assisting with these renewed efforts.
During the 18-month transition phase, the R-ARCSS includes security measures to monitor the changes. The Joint Transitional Security Committee is in charge of training and redeploying unified forces; the Joint Military Ceasefire Commission is in charge of monitoring cantonment areas and training opposition forces; and Area Joint Military Ceasefire Committees are in charge of training opposition forces.
Three years later, the procedures in place to monitor security sector changes are still not completely operational.
These buildings were scheduled to be in place two weeks after the R-ARCSS. They are still not completely operational almost three years later, with armed groups stationed outside their cantonment sites. These camps were created to register, screen, and disarm troops, as well as to ease the recruitment of members for the police, army, and other security organizations.
However, owing to terrible living conditions and food shortages, soldiers have continued to abandon cantonment facilities. As a result, delays and missed deadlines have hampered the process of forming an united South Sudan People’s Defense Forces to replace the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.
There is also considerable misunderstanding over the army command unification ratios, with Machar claiming that he consented to the SPLA In Opposition getting just 40% of the posts. This attitude is consistent with his habit of breaking promises made during the transitional administration.
Machar’s assassination attempt is related to an effort to prevent the unification of the armed forces. These difficulties demonstrate how fragile the political environment and institutional structures that support the changes are.
The latest effort to depose Machar as opposition party leader is proof of this. Disagreements within the SPLA in Opposition also resulted in the departure of the party’s deputy from the transitional government, Henry Odwar. Odwar has delivered a stinging rebuke to Machar, citing his failure to protect opposition troops in cantonment locations.
Machar’s spokesman accused Dual’s opposing group of orchestrating the attempted coup in order to prevent the armed forces from uniting. Machar and the SPLA are at odds. The military wing of the opposition may have violent consequences that further undermine the country’s reform process.
Resolving these difficulties and resuming armed forces unification will be difficult. A critical stage is to ensure that the Joint Military Ceasefire Commission and Area Joint Military Ceasefire Committees are fully operational, allowing the nation to create an unified defense force.
However, restoring South Sudan’s reforms would ultimately rely on the country’s leaders’ political commitment to the 2018 peace deal, especially the opposition.