Conflict resolution in South Sudan - notes towards an institutional analysis

Conflict resolution in South Sudan – notes towards an institutional analysis

Given the dualistic nature of institutions and the nature of collective decision-making, a durable peace needs to accommodate changes in policy priorities over time that may reflect the outcomes of institutional processes and competing interests, rather than focus solely on individual protagonists.

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By Dr. Nick Waterman

South Sudan recently observed the fourth anniversary of its Independence. Whilst a cause for celebration after a bloody and protracted struggle to cede from Sudan, the anniversary has nonetheless been overshadowed by civil conflict during the last 18 months that has wrought the country asunder and all but negated the promise of a peace dividend. Over half a dozen peace accords have been broken. The United States’ National Security Adviser blamed the current political and military impasse on two protagonists who she stated were personally responsible namely the President of South Sudan and the former Vice-President, and their “cronies” (White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2015). Whilst the roles of individual actors are important, such a view may be overly simplistic, insofar as it does not take into account the institutional dynamics of decision-making vis-a-vis conflict-resolution. This brief account seeks to describe some of the dynamics that may have militated against an end to the current conflict in the country.

The institutional context and the impact of institutions on decision-making are dependent upon their historical origins and internal features, including formal structural characteristics and organisational culture. Prior to its Independence in 1956, Sudan was subject to colonial administration for over half a century under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. Southern Sudan, before ceding from Sudan as the Republic of South Sudan, arguably endured further colonial domination under the Sudanese regime. One of the legacies of colonial institutions is what Fowler (1991:54) terms “interdependent dualism” which is discussed below.

Dualistic nature of institutions

Fowler (1991) argues that two differing facets of institutions operate in post-colonial states. Firstly, there is a bureaucratic system, the status and interrelations of which are enshrined in Weberian-style institutions of formal hierarchies and written rules and regulations. Secondly, there is;

“…a resilient network of ethno-political and economic allegiances which function alongside, within and across the boundaries of formal institutions. It is this “living” system that directs how state institutions actually operate towards each other and towards the populace”, (Fowler, 1991:54).

Hence, decision-making may be subject to a dual process of public adherence to the rational-legal norms of formal organisations and private partisan interests. The two aspects of this “interdependent dualism” may be blurred and difficult to identify. In such circumstances it is hard to discern where either the formal system or the informal system begins and ends. Brynard  (2007:37) makes a similar point thus;

“Effective working relations typically result from bargaining, cajoling, accommodation, threats, gestures of respect, and related transactions. Straight lines that link square boxes mean little if the underlying reality is a jumble, whereas effective working relations can be established by transactions among agencies with no formal connections whatever.”

Decision-making often reflects changeable alignments and re-alignments of power and influence in decision-making.

The nature of collective decision-making

Inter-ministerial competition, changing alliances of disparate actors, a multiplicity of powerful external actors, and above all vested interests in particular geographical areas of instability including those centrally involved in the latest insurrection in South Sudan, indicate that collective decision-making is a critical aspect of resolution of the current conflict. These include at least four sets of actors i.e. the SPLA/SPLM led by the President.; the SPLA/SPLM – In Opposition (IO), led by the former Vice President; a small group of formerly high-ranking officials in the SPLA/SPLM, many of whom were part of Government and who were arrested as alleged conspirators at the start of the current conflict in late 2013; external participant countries comprising the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development-led conflict-resolution initiatives (now broadened to include additional African and non-African countries), which have been subject to allegations of bias. The continuing shadowy role of Sudan perhaps should also not be overlooked.

Decision-making generally essentially comprises political processes that reflect individual and collective contours of power (Anderson, 2003). Therefore it is;

“…not simply a managerial or administrative problem, it is a political process, it is concerned with who gets what, when, how, where, and from whom.” (Brynard, 2007:34).

Consequently, those actors who are able to muster the most effective resources may be able to exert a disproportionate influence in the furtherance of their own agendas. Brynard (2007:40) further states that:

“…what is implemented may thus be the result of a political calculus of interests and groups competing for scarce resources, the response of implementing officials, and the actions of political elites, all interacting within given institutional contexts.”

Competing interests for resources and influence are also likely to be exacerbated by a comprehensive system of decentralised public administration. The nature of decentralisation impacts on the nature of power-sharing with central government, the respective jurisdictions of tiers of government, and revenue, income-generation and expenditure responsibilities. Generally, the nature of decentralisation in South Sudan is that of devolution, where political power is devolved from central government to state assemblies at the state level, even though national policy remains the responsibility of the national government. South Sudan essentially remains a unitary state, although there have been calls by the SPLA/SPLM – IO for a federal republic. Local government is extended downwards at sub-state levels to counties, payams and bomas at village levels in rural areas, and city, municipal and town councils in urban areas. Rein and Rabonovitz (1978) argue that a power shift among different interest groups produces a corresponding shift in the implementation process. However, the power shift remains complex due to lack of clarity and agreed of perceptions on respective roles and responsibilities of different tiers of government.

It is in the institutional contexts that decision-making vis-a-vis conflict resolution occurs and is implemented, and in the process may be made and remade. It is important to take account of entrenched interests, and shifting political alliances and personal allegiances of a range of actors, including external actors. Given the dualistic nature of institutions and the nature of collective decision-making, a durable peace needs to accommodate changes in policy priorities over time that may reflect the outcomes of institutional processes and competing interests, rather than focus solely on individual protagonists.

Dr. Nick Waterman is an international development consultant and has worked in the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa including fragile and conflict-affected states.  He has periodically worked in South Sudan during the last decade.


  • Anderson, J E (2003) Public Policymaking, Fifth Edition, Boston, Houghton Miffin Company.
  • Brynard, P A, (2007) “Implementation for service delivery in South Africa – issues and lessons of experience”, African Journal of Public Administration and Management, 18, (1), pps 26 – 42.
  • Fowler, A (1991) “The role of NGOs in changing state-society relations: perspectives from Eastern and Southern Africa”, Development Policy Review, 9(3), pps 53-83.
  • Rein, M and Rabinowitz, F F (1978) “Implementation: a theoretical perspective”, in Burnham, W D and Weinberg, M W American Politics and Public Policy, Cambridge, MIT Press.
  • White House, Office of the Press Secretary (2015) Statement by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice on South Sudan Independence Day. Available at:

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