Splitting South Sudan into 28 states: right move, wrong time?

South Sudan’s fragile peace deal is already under heavy pressure. President Kiir’s decision to carve the country into 28 new states puts it under even more.

Voters wait to cast their ballots in South Sudan's independence referendum. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID.

Voters wait to cast their ballots in South Sudan’s independence referendum. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID.

President Salva Kiir’s decision, announced last Friday, to create 28 states in South Sudan, up from the current ten, risks adding another destabilising element to the peace pact signed between the government and the SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM_IO).

The peace deal is already under extreme pressure with both parties having violated the ceasefire. But according to opposition leader Riek Machar, the decree to split the country into smaller pieces is retrogressive and risks undermining the deal further. Machar was quick to denounce the decision, calling it “a clear message to the world that President Kiir is not committed to peace.”

Splitting the country

The proposed move by Kiir is ostensibly an answer to the long-stated objective of “taking towns to the villages”, a code word for spurring grassroots development through the devolution of power via a decentralised governance structure.

The devolution of power, or federalism, has long been a popular demand in South Sudan, both before and after gaining independence in 2011. In the early 1950s, when a nascent Southern Sudanese political identity was born, members of the Liberal Party first mooted the idea as a political tool at a meeting at the Juba Dance Hall (currently Rokon Hotel in the Malakia residential area).

Ever since, federalism has been embedded in the South Sudanese national psyche.

However, throughout South Sudan’s modern history, the primary motivation for a devolved governance structure has been rooted in the fear – real or perceived – that a certain political entity (racialised or ethnicised) will come to dominate.

As a result, federalism has evoked different meanings to its supporters and detractors since independence. To proponents, a devolved power structure means self-empowerment and equality. To the opponents, it is a dangerous prelude to breaking up the country. Supporters of devolution cite the existence of federalism in other countries as evidence that it is a viable governance mechanism to explore. And in response, opponents emphasise that it will be an expensive and uncertain endeavour to embrace. In fact, this latter view was President Kiir’s own response when the SPLM-IO suggested the idea of creating 21 states in South Sudan early this year.

Nevertheless, since 2011, the call for a federal system in South Sudan has continued to garner popular appeal among various communities, and the government explained the recent decision by saying it is “actually a response to calls of our citizens”. For example, to the Padang, Ngok and Ruweng Dinka, a federal system that would grant them autonomy over their own states would free them from Nuer domination and discrimination in the Greater Upper Nile. Similarly, the Baka and Mondu tribes view a separate state carved out of the present Western Equatoria State as freedom from domination by the Azande.

Indeed, in December 2014, a year into the civil war, the SPLM-IO read the political mood correctly when it suggested the establishment of a federated South Sudan consisting of 21 states based on the old British colonial district boundaries. Amidst the extenuating circumstances of war, however, there were doubts about its implementation although many quietly welcomed the idea.

Why now? How now?

While President Kiir’s recent decree is designed to cash in on the popular demand for federalism, it will not be interpreted as a wholly altruistic or positive move, especially since increasing the number of states at the moment clearly violates the terms of the peace agreement, which are based on the current ten-state system. From a legal point of view, creating 28 new states in the next three months would abrogate what was agreed upon in the peace pact with the SPLM-IO and could therefore unravel it.

At the peace talks in Addis Ababa, government delegates had vehemently opposed the SPLM-IO’s suggestion of federalism, suggesting that it should be decided in the constitution-making mechanism during the proposed interim period. Eventually, the rebels backtracked on their proposal and agreed to sign the deal based on the present ten states. Under the deal, the SPLM-IO gets some element of control by nominating governors for the states of Unity and Upper Nile – but the decree would abolish these states.

The 28-state decision has thus pulled the rug from under the SPLM-IO by giving President Kiir the credit for implementing a popular demand, casting him in a populist light.

However, given that South Sudan’s economy is currently in the intensive care unit, with run-away inflation and a depreciating local currency, the move begs the question: where will the country get the money to finance such a huge government structure when the country’s sole revenue earner – oil – isn’t generating the requisite cash? What has changed to warrant the establishment of 28 states?

In short, like most policy statements of the government, evidence-based justification for the establishment of these states has not been articulated to the people of South Sudan. The move therefore appears arbitrary and motivated by political expedience.

While the main contentious issue with the decree centres on how it will impact the peace deal, it would also be prudent for South Sudanese policymakers in the upcoming constitutional review process to scrutinise what the long-term implications of establishing 28 states would be.

For instance, would the 28 states grant some communities an unfair advantage in future elections and ensure dominance of particular ethnic groups at the centre? Would the system of “ethnic federalism” being proposed open new fault lines and cleavages among communities? A thorough scrutiny of the intended and unintended consequences of the decree could save South Sudan from plenty of future trouble.

For the guarantors of the deal – such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), UN, AU and so-called Troika (UK, US and Norway) – the 28-state decision has the potential to affect the peace deal in a negative manner. While the proposal may have some popularity and merit going forward, for now it would be prudent for these guarantors to pressure the protagonists in South Sudan’s conflict to respect the terms of the already fragile deal.

Brian Adeba is an Associate with the Security Governance Group in Canada. Follow him on Twitter at @kalamashaka.

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6 thoughts on “Splitting South Sudan into 28 states: right move, wrong time?

  1. Mr. Brian Adeba,

    I’ve enjoyed your posts on South Sudan and the in-depth analysis of the ongoing peace process. The new 28 state initiative is surprising considering the circumstance. It is clear that Kiir does not care about the needs of the people at large, but he does care about his support base. While creating 28 states may appease certain minorities who will find themselves majorities in their new states, it is (as you say) no long-term solution. Is the initiative to tip the balance of states in favour of Kiir as opposed to Machar? Is it to buy loyalty and bring new elites into his fold? Is it just to make Machar and the IO angry and reject the peace proposal (thereby eliminating any power sharing)?

    Given the circumstance, it seems unlikely that this plan can be afforded or executed given the current state of affairs in South Sudan.

    Keep us posted!

  2. Your words speaks for themselves. Bravo! The move is save minority Dinka within States that are likely to be for opposition eg Ruweng, Padang etc, the danger is some minority ethnic groups are made to join majority Dinka. In Equatoria it becomes like dream comes true or unexpectedly you wake and find yourself the ‘minister for …. in a new State! Or the Governor

  3. Some comments has it that “the people want this”. I submit that if this indeed was the case, how would anyone know? No debate, no discussion, bypassing the parliament and so forth. No, the people worry about peace and the extreme cost of living, much more down to earth issues at this time. This a huge attempt to cgange focus from the peace agreement signed recently. I assume that the signatories are men of honor. That they stand by what they have signed. If so, leave the 28 state propsal on the shelf, go on with the IGAD peace agreement, have a luvely and peaceful discussion about the states, existing and future. And in the meantime, grab the blank yet unsigned pile of decree forms from Mr Kiir and burn them. Prevent any more decrees to be issued, after all, there is a parliament in place. Use it.
    Dictators love issuing decrees, surround themselves with huge national security apparatus, and curtailing press and free speach.
    The signs are not good, the IGAD peace a very precious opportunity to correct the out of control political situation in South Sudan. Don’t allow this opportunity to be lost by the spoilers and syccophants in the inner circle.

  4. Dear brothers in who inclusively trying to be in politics but not their expectancy let those alone do their game and take away ur rotten mouth which speak of exclusiveness in any decision of the country,s transitional alternation. I can see all who talk against kiir are oppositions and of greedness who don’t look for the future of s.sudan like riek Machar. Iam not the government employee and if u want to judge the problem of s.sudan go back and read story and secret story until u find the fact then u will know who are culprit

  5. I also want to talk to that south south dialogue is what brought problem today to the country since i was watching s.sudan politics. On deep consent if u want to understand me visit this email :johnsmalldragon@gmail.com

  6. The interference of troika and igad in support of riek machar,s decision is a boiling of s.sudan problem because we r tired of repeated attempt of riek which always loses more lives. For me including others we like the decision of curving out ethnic nuer to be alone so that riek can reign there and call his friends troika and igad to develop his states and leave us alone. Iam really sad in the way the troika and igad understand us.

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