Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
This is the first of a two-part essay looking at the state of South Sudan’s peace agreement.
From Washington DC to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, diplomats fret about the unimplemented parts of a peace agreement that was signed in 2018, and which should have ended conflict in the country. A national unified army remains to be formed, and the legislative and constitutional work that would be needed before prospective elections in 2023 has barely begun. Never mind that in many parts of the country, violence has actually increased since the signing of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) – an acronym as unpronounceable as its clauses are unimplementable. For diplomats, it’s the only game in town. In November 2021, one Juba-based ambassador told us that “the peace agreement is our Bible,” and held his hands up, clutching at the air.
The peace agreement is not a roadmap to a flourishing South Sudan. Far from it. It is the peace agreement that is the problem. Its partial implementation has largely destroyed whatever popular legitimacy the South Sudanese political system once had, undermined grassroots institutions, and intensified a process that began in 2005: the creation of a wealthy class of military and political leaders in Juba, atop a rentier economy, dependent on shrinking oil reserves and humanitarian resources, which uses violence as a tool of population management in the rest of the country.
Let us explain.
Horse-trading in the capital
While the international community tends to imagine the R-ARCSS as a means to return to the situation prior to the outbreak of civil war in 2013, with a political system that includes elements of federalized government and empowered South Sudanese state administrations, the peace agreement has instead created a behemoth: a centralized regime that appoints not only state governors, but even county commissioners, according to a political calculus determined in Juba.
The power-sharing arrangement contained in the peace agreement means that all positions are given out on the basis of party affiliation. For instance, five deputy ministerial portfolios are given to the incumbent regime, with three going to the main opposition group, the Sudan People’s Liberation in Opposition (SPLA-IO), and another to that contingent coalition of fortune-seekers, the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA). Such apportioning continues all the way down the chain, with a “responsibility sharing ratio” allotted for state and local government positions: 55% to the incumbent regime, 27% to the SPLA-IO, 10% to SSOA, and 8% to another opposition coalition, the appositely monikered OPP, or Opposition Political Parties (R-ARCSS, Clause 1.6. and passim).
This power-sharing arrangement has created new forms of political algebra. The two-year delay between the signing of the R-ARCSS and the appointment of state and local government officials is partly attributable to the horse-trading in Juba that resulted from their creation. The incumbent regime successfully fractured opposition forces – tempting them with offers of power and money – to increase its representation in the transitional government, even though many of the government apparatchiks so created belong, at least in theory, to opposition parties.
That many of the ”parties” included within the R-ARCSS are merely political vehicles for the advancement of the careers of briefcase rebels is the beginning of the problem. Neither the OPP nor the SSOA have any real content – neither shared constituency nor ideology – except for a shared interest in power and money: the very interests that allow both parties to be easily fractured by regime intercession.
Take the hapless governor of Jonglei state, Denay Chagor, who is hated in his home payam of Dengjok, and has neither armed forces or a supportive local constituency. While he is provisionally a member of the SSOA, Chagor is in effect a creature of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who supported him during internal struggles within the opposition coalition. Chagor is substantively a government appointee though formally a member of the opposition. He is exemplary of Kiir’s modus operandi: the president– with money and power on its side – manipulates the logic of the peace agreement to prise away candidates from groups like the SPLA-IO and the SSOA, fracturing the opposition. With such low-hanging fruit in his hands, Kiir then appoints weak candidates, plucked from the opposition, who are dependent on his largesse and without local constituencies. In Chagor’s case, this allows Kiir to check the influence of powerful Bor Dinka and Lou Nuer politicians in Jonglei state. Sometimes, a government politician told us delightedly at the beginning of December 2021, a pawn can block a queen!
South Sudan is full of Chagors.
If the po-faced diplomats gathered around the pool at the EU residency in Juba can pretend to take seriously the idea that Bapiny Monytuil, the brother of the Kiir-backed governor of Unity state, Nguen Monytuil, represents a separate faction within the SSOA, and thus receives a separate appointment within the logic of the peace agreement, the people of Unity state are under no illusions about the real unity of the two brothers. Across the country, the real political factions spread themselves across the putative divisions of the peace agreement, changing names and alliances to accommodate themselves to the fantasies of R-ARCSS, and so maximizing their power within the power-sharing arrangement.
The problems with the peace agreement, however, do not end with the briefcase generals that the government uses to maximize the number of positions under its control. The real problem with the agreement lies in the logic of power-sharing itself. It’s a feature, not a bug.
In 2010, during gubernatorial elections around the country, the democratic process occurred not during voting (generally a fait accompli), but prior to it, within the machinery of the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), as it discussed who the candidates should be for the elections. It was during these discussions that local factions were able to negotiate amongst themselves.
The power-sharing formulas of the peace agreement, in contrast, mean that all over the country, the SPLM is bypassed by a centralized despotism that is focused on the Offices of the President and First Vice President (whence the vast majority of political appointments issue). Nowhere in the country is the SPLM a viable political organism. Nowhere does the peace agreement allow for genuine discussions between political constituencies. All decisions are made in Juba, according to a political calculus foreign – and often hostile – to local interests.
While diplomats in Juba may agonize over the prospects of holding elections in a one-party state dominated by the SPLM, the reality is more ominous.
South Sudan is a no party state.
The apparent divisions between the ruling regime, the SPLA-IO, and the SSOA are less important than the fact that the political elite in Juba make almost all political appointments in the country by manipulating the power-sharing formulas of the agreement, undercutting any possibility for state-based or party-based accountability.
Everything flows down
In Warrap state, Kiir’s homeland, which remained steadfastly loyal to the government during the war, one can now witness the spectacle of life-long SPLM politicians ”joining” the SPLA-IO so as to take up positions in the state administration or as county commissioners, as per the power-sharing ratio. They sacrifice whatever local legitimacy they might have had as they do so.
The county commissioners so appointed often remain in Juba, and lack any ability to influence events on the ground. Over the last three months, all too often we have arrived in Warrap or Upper Nile only to be told that all the local politicians are in the capital.
In Juba, there are politicians and the peace agreement; on the ground, the almost total withdrawal of government from any sort of legitimate rule.
For SPLA-IO appointments, the situation is accentuated by the steadily weakening position of Riek Machar, the first vice-president of South Sudan, and the movement’s leader. His appointments are entirely drawn from his family and a narrow coterie of courtiers who are trusted only in Juba.
Sometimes, there is sufficient local strength to resist. In Mayendit county, Unity state, Machar’s appointment of one of his bodyguards as county commissioner was greeted with local disquiet, and the commissioner was told he should remain in Juba. In the end, a choice more palatable to local interests was agreed upon. Successful contestations of such appointees remain rare, however. Power resides in the capital.
The centralization of power in Juba has created two worlds in many of South Sudan’s states. Deputy governors were previously appointed by the governor (as were the county commissioners). This allowed governors to build state administrations in their image. Under the peace agreement, however, the deputy governors are selected, as per the power-sharing ratio, by an opposition group. This formula has created parallel structures of governance across the country. In much of Unity state, the extant systems of local control (county commissioners and paramount chiefs) were loyal to the SPLA-IO. The governor, Nguen Monytuil, has attempted to create his own rival political structures, by appointing new chiefs, for instance, but the SPLA-IO deputy governor, Tor Tungwar, has resisted, effectively creating two rival governments in the state. This has led to a fragmentation of power in Unity, and the dilution of institutions of local legitimacy, as chiefs proliferate, instrumentalized and beholden to either the incumbent regime or the SPLA-IO.
Despite international claims at the beginning of the South Sudanese state that the country was a tabula rasa, without legitimate political institutions (which international consultants would need to create), the reality is that South Sudan was, at its base, an immensely democratic society, full of institutions that had popular legitimacy. There were diverse vernacular democratic systems in the country. In many places, villages and neighbourhoods chose their chiefs, who then elected representatives at the boma level (the small administrative unit in South Sudan). These chiefs often then selected officials at the payam level (representative of several bomas). Such officials chose paramount chiefs at a county level. While there were attempts at political interference in this process in the past, they cannot compare to the current situation. Power flowed up.
Under the current peace agreement, power flows down. The continued fragmentation of chiefly institutions is exemplary. In Warrap state, as elsewhere, chiefs are now arrested and dismissed by the state government. In places where the chief is too powerful to dismiss, the government tries another tactic, and appoints further chiefs, loyal to the regime, in an attempt to dilute customary authority.
Such moves are explicable because the search for power is shifting down. If the peace agreement has created a situation in which power is centralized in the Office of the President and the Office of the Vice-President, who appoint state and county-level positions, then state governors, who now lack the ability to appoint their own staff, effectively try and “jump levels” and regain some of their lost power by appointing loyalists at the boma or payam level, dismissing chiefs, and politicizing civil service positions. The result is a total fragmentation of the political landscape, largely along ethnic and sub-ethnic lines. As we stated in the title of this piece: the peace agreement ate the grassroots. Rather than representing local concerns, grassroots institutions are now politicized according to the power-sharing logic one finds in the peace agreement.
This is the world that the peace agreement has made. A world of at least 3,000 politicians, of which some 2,400 are directly appointed from Juba, and who lack almost any popular legitimacy. The diplomats may respond that this situation is only temporary: a holding pattern before elections. What this claim elides is that R-ARCSS, now three years old, has transformed the logic of government in the country, and it is unclear that there is any way back. As the refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) of South Sudan know only too well, the temporary often has a way of becoming permanent.
South Sudan is part of what Magdi el-Gizouli and Eddie Thomas, in an earlier piece on Sudan for African Arguments, term “the neoliberal chaos zone that stretches from Afghanistan to the Congo.” What characterizes Kiir’s regime, along with many countries in the chaos zone, is what we term “centralized fragmentation.” This is the permanent condition created by the peace agreement. Under conditions of austerity, violence is the central tool of population management, and local actors are kept weak and instrumentalized, the better to be controlled from the centre. It is in Juba that power is increasingly centralized, both thanks to the mechanisms of the peace agreement explored in this essay, and through the control of flows of international capital – via IMF loans and income from oil – that remain firmly under the control of the Office of the President.
Elsewhere in the country, the exploitation of resources – such as gold and timber – is outsourced to security services and private companies. Such companies are controlled by the Juba elite, albeit outside of any mechanisms of accountability. The country is ruled by a hydra-like set of security services that are not only the most powerful military actors in the country, but – as in Sudan – also the most significant economic players. These services are at once part of the government, and absolutely private: their income is nowhere to be found in the account books handed over to the IMF, just as the assassinations and torture that remain their modus operandi are not mentioned by the UN bureaucrats eager to assist a government that is “on the cusp” of creating a “peaceful, stable country.”
The centralization of power in the government is consolidated by fragmentation at the local level. The deliberate disruption of the SPLM party machinery and the multiplication of forms of customary authority erodes possible sources of opposition. The deliberate appointment of weak figures – such as Denay Chagor – to state and county level positions means that local politicians remain dependent on Juba, unaccountable to the communities they putatively represent, and, thankfully for Kiir, unable to mobilize effective resistance.
Strength in weakness
Centralized fragmentation has created a form of government that is simultaneously weak and strong. Let us deal with the weakness first.
Kiir’s regime has entirely withdrawn from service provision in South Sudan. Populations are not considered as constituencies with needs, but rather as resources, to be predated upon, or else instrumentalized as foot soldiers in wars of position in the capital. The regime does not depend on popular legitimacy, unless it is its own legitimacy amongst the diplomats in Juba.
Since 2005, and the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought an end to Sudan’s second civil war (1983–2005) and created the southern regional government that became the South Sudanese state, service provision was never a priority. Yet many saw the Sudan’s second civil war as a struggle to remedy the racialized unequal development put in place by Khartoum, and with the war’s end, there was hope for a developmental state in the south. That hope has ended. More people are now dependent on humanitarian assistance in South Sudan than ever before. This is the essential drip-feed that both sustains the patient and enables the hospitalization to continue. The government’s withdrawal from service provision is enabled by the humanitarian sector’s provision of services.
The government’s withdrawal from service provision has, since the beginning of the South Sudanese civil war, been paralleled by its withdrawal from wage provision.
During Sudan’s civil war, southern Sudan became increasingly reliant on markets for basic necessities, and thus wage labour to get access to those markets. During the CPA period (2005–11) prior to South Sudanese independence, this reliance was assuaged by a massive increase in employment in the security sector, thanks to donor funds and oil revenues. There was no developmental state in South Sudan during this period. Instead, via security sector expansion, the South Sudanese state became a militarized rentier political economy. Since the beginning of the civil war, the nature of this state has changed. The collapse in oil prices and drawdown of development income following the 2012 oil shut-down and subsequent civil war necessitated a state that rules not only by withdrawing from service provision, but also from wage provision.
The state that once distributed wages now distributes licences. County commissioners are not paid by the state, but are effectively allowed to become neoliberal entrepreneurs, encouraged to predate on their own populations, levy taxes, and attempt to control resources and humanitarians, in exchange for the government getting a cut of the proceeds. This is governance as violent resource extraction.
The people left in the wake of this withdrawal find themselves in the paradoxical situation of being simultaneously more reliant on markets and wages, and yet with ever fewer wages to be had. In November 2021, civil servants and soldiers in Wau, Western Bahr el Ghazal, recounted that after eight months of non-payment of wages, they had finally received a single month’s salary, “in time for Christmas.” For a private soldier, that’s $8, a huge devaluation of the $200 a month that soldiers made back in 2011, when South Sudan became independent.
The paltry sums received as wages, and the irregularity of their payment, make it impossible to live a viable life on a government salary. Every state employee must find other ways to make ends meet, and so bribes, checkpoints, and hardship everywhere flourish. As a recent report showed, checkpoint taxes have increased by 300% since independence, and humanitarian organizations pay millions of dollars in illicit bribes. The only real wages that now exist in South Sudan are for those lucky enough to be employed by NGOs and UN agencies: just as the humanitarian sector has provided the minimal services that assuage the government withdrawal from service provision, so the sector also provides the wages that effectively function as a social security net for entire families. In Malakal, NGO employees told us that a single humanitarian salary can provide for as many as twenty people.
In a final turn of the screw, not only has the government withdrawn from service and wage provision, but also from the provision of security. In Warrap state, on the road to the homeland of Akol Koor Kuc, the director-general of the country’s powerful National Security Service (NSS), the villages of his own section have been burnt down, while his forces look out from armoured personnel carriers at the destroyed landscape. The wars being fought in South Sudan are waged by militias and hastily conjured ”self-defence” forces. To be sure, these forces are armed and funded by politicians vying for influence in Juba, but the form this conflict takes is not a war between belligerent parties. This too is thanks to the peace agreement. In order to maintain the pretence that the country is at peace, conflict must take another form, so that IMF funds can continue to flow into the country (and pay for the NSS), and the World Bank can continue its ”development” schemes. War thus takes on the appearance of ”inter-communal violence” or ”ethnic conflict,” which enables the international community to maintain that there has been a reduction in political violence in the country – between belligerent parties – and call for further government intervention to prevent such conflict. In such a reading, the violence scarring South Sudan is the result of the anarchy created by the absence of the state, and an indication of the compelling need for a bigger state.
Au contraire: Such violence is the result of the South Sudanese state. This is clear everywhere in the country. Last November, sitting outside Warrap town in the gathering dusk, few of the young men to whom we spoke seemed convinced of the international community’s reasoning. “It’s the politicians in Juba,” one young man told us, “that are causing all the problems here.” In Western Equatoria, Azande militias supported by the government fought SPLA-IO backed Balanda “community defence forces” throughout the second half of 2021. In October, one of the Balanda militia members fighting in Tombura only a week earlier said: “No reconciliation between the communities is possible, even if we were fighting each other, as long as the big bosses in Juba do not agree.” Current international efforts to create community-level peace processes are ways of eliding the fundamentally political nature of this violence.
So the state is weak. It provides neither services nor wages, and far from providing security, it is the main motor of violence. But it is not a failed state. This violence is the state at work.
The constant invocation of the international community is that the state should man up and do its job. In this fantasy, the current period is an interregnum, a pause, before the state assumes its responsibilities. The reality is that the current disorder is the state that the peace agreement has built. It is not an aberration. Kiir’s regime has created a stable form of disorder: a type of centralized fragmentation that will prove to be a durable and disastrous way of ruling South Sudan.
For as much as the state is weak, it is fundamentally strong, and we must see these two paradoxical tendencies together. Via predation and displacement, it has effected an enormous wealth transfer from the peripheries to the capital. The population is exhausted, immiserated, and any institutions of local legitimacy have been largely destroyed. There are almost no alternative sources of power outside the spider-like reach of the Juba elite.
The village has come to the town
Almost forty years ago, the SPLM’s founders spoke about taking “the town to village.” After decades of unequal development in Sudan, in which rural peripheries were used for resource extraction and little else, the rebel dream was to generalize development, and bring the services of the cities to the rural villages of the rest of the country. Ten years after South Sudanese independence, the village has come to the town. There is no rural service provision outside of the ministrations of a humanitarian sector exhausted by government exploitation and its own funding shortfalls. Following waves of violent displacement, people have increasingly flocked to urban environments. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) may pretend – with government encouragement – that widespread returns are possible for these displaced populations, but the reality is quite otherwise. People lack the resources to go back and establish lives in areas that government forces intentionally despoiled. Given increasing dependence on humanitarian wages and service provision, the enormous IDP camp in Bentiu is not temporary, but the reality of a future South Sudan. Village life is becoming impossible.
The village has come to the town in other ways, too. Power has not been democratized or federalized in South Sudan. Instead, it has become almost entirely centralized in Juba: locally powerful actors have homes in Gudele, or else compete for hotel rooms on their trips to the capital, hoping to curry favour with figures higher up the food chain.
All of this has nightmarish echoes of Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s. Under a crushing international debt burden, Bashir’s regime pioneered a new form of neoliberal governance. It withdrew from whatever minimal service provision it provided in the peripheries of the country, used militias as a tool of violent population management, often by militarizing ethnic leaders, committed the government to austerity, and used a proliferating set of security agencies to effectively privatize the state in the hands of government actors, but outside any form of accountability.
Sadly, South Sudan has become a low-grade version of its northern neighbour. Independence, after a twenty-two-year struggle against Khartoum, has created its mirror image. Once again, militias are used as a tool of violent population management; once again, security services are the actors controlling resource extraction, and once again, the government has withdrawn from any provision of services. In some ways, the situation is even worse. Civil society in Juba is either depoliticized or entirely politically captured, the trade unions are weak where they even exist, and there is little in the way of professional associations that would be able to stand up to the government.
The Sudanese revolution is unimaginable in Juba. South Sudan is a slimmed down Khartoum, fit for a century of austerity and climate crisis, with the humanitarian sector administering the band aids that prevent the situation being one of palliative care, and thus also assuaging popular discontent. Since 2018, there has been no comparable round of internationally-backed state-building to match the post-independence-period. Instead, humanitarians attend to a permanent emergency, ministering to the millions who are hungry and homeless, while sending millions into the pockets of those immiserating their own people, thanks to the compounds the humanitarian sector rents from the elite, the workshops it holds in their hotels, the logistical companies it hires that belong to them, and the burgeoning checkpoints that demand cash from every humanitarian convoy. This is the heavenly damnation of the humanitarian class: They get to be angels, but only on the condition that they contribute to hell.
The Satanic Verses
When the South Sudanese state is viewed properly, the Biblical verses of the peace agreement appear not just Satanic, but also ridiculous. High on the list of diplomatic priorities for the future is the full implementation of the Chapter II Security Sector accords – a bureaucratic fantasy on a par with the power-sharing agreement. In theory, these accords would involve a unified command for a unified army, and regularized military forces. There are a number of reasons this fantasy is misplaced:
- Chapter II of the R-ARCSS is not consonant with the military reality of the country. Leave aside the fact that the bean-counting measures of the peace agreement allowed the SPLA-IO, military destroyed by the war’s end in 2018, to try and reconstruct its military base by going on a mass recruitment drive. The reality is that the major military forces in the country have never been included with the security sector reform (SSR) process. The NSS recruited an entire division in 2020, in Warrap state, which has now dispersed around the country. The SSPDF has recruited an entirely new division, Division 11. Military Intelligence and the Commando division have also been strengthened. None of these forces are even vaguely included with Chapter II in a substantive way. The forces active in conflict in South Sudan are composed of militia forces, often recently recruited. None of these forces are included within the SSR process of the R-ARCSS. The completion of Chapter II would not change the violent reality on the ground in South Sudan.
- The incompletion of Chapter II of the R-ARCSS is strategically useful for the government. The non-implementation of the peace agreement is a master class in what Magdi el-Gizouli and Alex de Waal term the ”politics of tajility,” the politics of delay. At present, Riek Machar, the SPLA-IO leader, is utterly weak: dependent on Kiir’s largesse, and with an attendant group of friendly security service personnel following his every move, he is effectively imprisoned in the capital. His weakness has not gone unnoticed, and has been followed by a raft of defections from his military command to the government. Machar is a bloodied body, strung on the rack of the peace agreement, and the government is content to let the red flow of defections drip into their bucket, as the opposition becomes weaker and weaker, more and more fragmented. In an irony even the diplomats might appreciate, the “Necessary Unified Force” that the SSR process is supposed to create will be the consequence of defections from the SPLA-IO to the SSPDF, rather than due to the unification of the two armies. At present, there is no political reason for Kiir to implement Chapter II.
- Chapter II of the R-ARCSS will happen. And it doesn’t matter. Politics occurs in time. Once the SPLA-IO has been entirely shattered, its commanders bought off by the government, and its remaining soldiers ill and disillusioned, eking out hardscrabble lives growing crops at the edges of the cantonment sites, then integration will happen. All the actual military power in the country, however, will be elsewhere, and those oppositions troops finally integrated into the army will become agricultural labourers at security-service backed farms, working the land from which their people were displaced. The diplomats will declare the peace agreement a success, and the war will continue.
The really real opposition
The peace agreement has created a static picture of South Sudan. It has locked groups that have no legitimacy, such as the Nairobi or Khartoum-based politicians of the OPP and the SSOA, into positions of political power. It has falsely created an image of the SPLA-IO and SPLM as equal partners in power and distended the reality of power across South Sudan. Insofar as it has done so, the peace agreement is an engine, not a camera. The fantasy it has made in Juba has had real effects across the country.
Nevertheless, the idea that the SPLA-IO is a plausible military actor in South Sudan is a lie only credible in the meetings of the well-paid international consultants overseeing the peace agreement. Outside of an elite SPLA-IO force, recruited in 2019 in southern Upper Nile, and now stationed north of Juba, and some remaining loyalists in central and southern Unity, the SPLA-IO has no credible military forces in the country. The major military forces putatively loyal to the movement, such as the forces under Abdullah Ujang in Western Bahr el Ghazal, have taken the moniker of the opposition group only as a flag of convenience, thanks to a peace agreement that has calcified a false image of the country, and in which one must be part of one group or another to get a seat at the negotiating table. While diplomats may worry about the SPLA-IO and the SPLM as opposing forces, the reality is that they form part of a single system, fractitious and quarrelling, but unified in their form of rule: a centralized despotism, dependent on fragmenting the country and fighting wars in the periphery.
There is a real opposition in South Sudan, though its presence can be found nowhere in the hallowed pages of the peace agreement. While Kiir may have successfully peeled off the SPLA-IO commanders of the Eastern Nuer, the loyalty of the ground troops remains substantively with Simon Gatwich Dual, a Lou Nuer commander who split from Riek Machar earlier in the year. His message remains attractive to Nuer across the political spectrum: Machar has used this peace deal to enrich himself, and there is no dividend from this peace agreement for the young men of South Sudan.
Yet Gatwich remains entrapped within the logic of R-ARCSS. His initial negotiating position – dismissed by the government – was to argue for a share of the SPLA-IO’s positions in government. He wanted his own slice of the pie, rather than to bake another cake. Like so many rebel commanders before him, bought off by the government, his absorption into the peace agreement would only make clear the inability of the current rentier politics at play in South Sudan to offer anything like a reasonable political settlement for its people.
It’s elsewhere we must look for signs of hope. As the government withdraws from the provision of security in much of the country, it is the ethnically organized defence forces – from the Gojam of Akobo to the Gelweng of Tonj to the Monyomiji of Torit – that now defend communities, and which are the only military forces that have a shred of popular legitimacy. The development of these forces is a two-sided coin: as easily instrumentalized by politicians as foot soldiers as they are a form of resistance to the political class. Nevertheless, they represent, in their increasing strength and distance from the government, the realization that the state is the problem in South Sudan, rather than the solution.
Across the country, displacement and government contraction have created a class of surplus young women and men that are unable to create flourishing lives for themselves, and so while away their hours in tea shops, or try to survive by working as migrant labourers, in the security services, or else selling supplies in the markets of South Sudan. This class of young men and women is the true opposition to the political class in Juba, which rules thanks to the immiseration and fragmentation of the population.
Recent youth protests throughout Greater Upper Nile and the Equatorias against the labour conditions at humanitarian agencies are an indication of the impasse in which this immiserated class of young men and women finds itself. Amid government withdrawal, aid agency jobs have become the locus for the dreams and aspirations of the young people of South Sudan. Wages from such jobs often function as a social security net for dozens of people, and are thought far more important than the services such NGOs provide. Such services, are, in any event, not determined locally, but by the priorities of donors far from South Sudan. Strikes against such agencies must be understood as an attempt to take popular control of the resources that actually circulate in South Sudanese communities. They are a demand for democratic ownership of decision-making processes about the labour market and the distribution of resources that are currently determined in Juba and Western capitals.
Yet even here, we reach an impasse. While these protests are everywhere the same, they are also everywhere particular, and premised on the idea that jobs with NGOs should go to a narrowly defined local constituency. These claims are indicative of South Sudan’s drastically reduced social compact. Such claims are consonant with the logic of the South Sudanese government: a process of fragmentation in which the centre manipulates the rest of the country by turning everything – from services to jobs to people themselves – into resources, to be fought over by particular ethnic and inter-ethnic groups.
What these protests amount to, nevertheless, is a growing clarification of the structure of South Sudan’s political economy. They are pockets of resistance to an increasingly despotic, centralized state, which rules in accordance with the bureaucratic platitudes of the peace agreement, through the complicity of the humanitarian sector, and via forms of violent population management. Despite our Biblical diplomats, it is the peace agreement that has brought about this situation, and it is the government that is the problem, not the solution.
A secular faith
Of course, seasoned diplomats in Juba are cognisant of all of this. If in 2016, there was some residual hope, especially amongst the Americans, that Kiir’s regime represented a viable route to stability in South Sudan, such pipedreams are now exhausted. The 2018 peace agreement, it is widely – albeit privately – acknowledged, was a negotiated surrender by the SPLA-IO. Just as widely, and as just as privately, diplomats acknowledge that the peace agreement is also their abandonment of any real imaginative commitment to South Sudan.
The peace agreement, everyone agrees, is not working. It will not bring a sustainable peace to the country, nor will it enable the country’s flourishing. To envision alternatives to the peace agreement, however, would require a level of political, economic, and intellectual investment in South Sudan that none of the diplomats’ home-governments are willing to consider.
So while the diplomats continue to mouth the Satanic Verses and harp on the importance of the security sector reform process, they are not true believers. Their evangelism hides a more dismal, secular rationality. No one believes in this peace agreement; it is simply that the diplomats lack the imagination and the political will to look beyond it.