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.
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.