South Sudan From Fragility at Independence to a Crisis of Sovereignty

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Lauren Hutton
Clingendael Institute
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What started as a political conflict in South Sudan in December 2013 has created a community security crisis drawing in a range of uniformed, community and foreign security actors. At the heart of the crisis, are fundamental questions about democratic values, about accountability and justice, and about overcoming narratives of marginalisation, impunity and ethnic bias.

This conflict is a contest between social orders in which the authority of the prevailing order is being challenged. The relevance of the systems through which resources are accumulated and dispersed is also being challenged. This is a crisis of the legitimacy of the state. The state represents the formal expression of a range of highly subjective interfaces and partnerships through which power is shared and order finds expression.

This paper outlines some of those interfaces and partnerships, and the dynamics that affect them. It is by no means an exhaustive analysis but rather a tracing of threads of interaction at local, national and regional levels as a way of mapping some of the webs that connect across space and time in South Sudan. The overall approach is one that seeks to understand how South Sudan moved from fragility at independence to a full-blown crisis of internal and external sovereignty in December 2013. The paper is divided into sections addressing different aspects of state behaviour – the search for internal legitimacy; the search for security; and the search for economic growth and development. These sections provide an overview of the domestic context and key dynamics determining the national agenda. After the internal focus, the paper provides an overview of regional relationships that affect South Sudan’s internal and external political behaviour.

The main argument presented here is that the current crisis in South Sudan is the result of challenges to the internal legitimacy of the SPLM as part of the state formation process and the expression of sovereign authority. The current configuration of power in Juba has proven an astute capacity to build and break alliances across different interests and to dominate the narrative in a way that limits response options. This is not a nascent government anymore but one which is demonstrating how it wants to run internal affairs and how it will exercise sovereign authority. The narrative of this internal legitimacy is based on overcoming the threat of rebels and a coup; it is a narrative firmly rooted in the politics of ethnicity and the focused use of coercion, and which seeks to reinforce the centrality of the party as liberator and guarantor of order. But for the South Sudanese state (and by extension the ruling SPLM), the ability to exercise sovereign authority remains dependent on managing increasingly competitive external relations.

When the dust has settled on this latest crisis, the question that remains will be one of the level of violence which is acceptable for a state to employ against its citizens under extreme circumstances. The current crisis in South Sudan is reshaping not only internal relationships between the organs of state and the people but also the parameters of relationships between the government and international actors in the region and beyond. These are highly lucrative relationships at all levels leaving much still to be fought over. This crisis has become a civil war in which the state is beginning to deal with its legitimacy and sovereignty issues within a deeply fragmented country and highly competitive regional political economy.