South Sudan - militarization inhibits popular representation

South Sudan – militarization inhibits popular representation

With militarization inhibiting popular representation, there is a need to identify pillars of peace that that can be amplified to help transform communities away from cultures of revenge to cultures that embrace diversity and peace.  

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By Kisuke Ndiku

South Sudan remains a militarized place. As such, on the political scene, South Sudanese society has not yet embraced process-oriented popular political representation.[1] A cursory socio-political analysis of community perceptions about public leadership (at the administrative, parliamentary civil service and civic levels) demonstrates that communities expect leaders to provide command-oriented leadership borne of a military leadership model.

Further, the concept of popular representation is perceived to be less firm and less influential, as it lacks the kind of loyalties and engagement this type of leadership enjoys.  Formal public leadership is therefore considered and perceived to be somewhat secondary to other forms of leadership unless it is accompanied by military command and the cleavages of gun power (apart from the government army which is divided, there are over twenty identifiable non-state armed groups/militia).[2]

A number of factors explain the militarization of South Sudan. First, the ease of access to small arms and ammunition, on the one hand, and the availability of young men who are easy to mobilize.[3]  This is keenly supported by kinship groupings that make it possible for charismatic and influential personalities to mobilize and arm groups.[4] Indeed, most armed non-state actor groups in South Sudan are organized on the basis of such such loyalties.[5]

In South Sudan, as elsewhere, representing a people is perceived to offer privilege, power and a mandate to exercise certain types of authority in protecting those represented.[6] Representation is perceived as legitimate when it has some form of power to command arms and men. In South Sudan, different levels of command therefore exist, and each is linked to arms as part of the social architecture of representation. It is therefore easy to see that, in terms of the conception and expectations of what constitutes representation, “command” is crucial to possess. Where a popular representative lacks evidence of command, they are perceived to be “weak” leaders, meaning an army officer would be considered more powerful in a context such as South Sudan.

Even though the formal administrative settings – i.e. from Boma, Payam, County and State, including formal political representation by a constituency of elective locations – are associated with some form of gun power, they are not considered as significant compared to command positions related to community identities, such as the representation of clans on decisions about security and resource sharing. [7] It is the forms of command described above that inform the different forms and levels of militia. Militia tend to have a mixed cadre of command models, such as cattle camp for protecting people’s wealth (livestock), armed militia that tend to be territorial; and armed militia that tend to be political.[8]

It is important to point out that democracy and ballot-based voting are not concepts yet fully understood and appreciated. In South Sudan, voting was person-based in the last two elections, meaning they were not about representation by one candidate against another on the basis of principles, policy or ideology.  Democracy remains nascent and has yet to grow into a popular mass understanding for action.  There is also limited space for popular forums to promote an understanding of democracy, including limited room for all social cohorts to participate, as noted by the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy (SSHURSA 2013).

As a result, representation in South Sudan is not linked to issues of policy, political ideas or strategy, but rather to shorter term benefits to community identities, which play an important role in political expression. These influence how different cohorts of communities and constituencies express themselves in politics, representation and the pursuit of freedoms and rights.  It is evident that at the individual level people value fundamental and basic freedoms as enshrined in human rights conventions.  However, the expression of freedoms is thwarted by how society is organized and levels of awareness on the means of articulating, expressing, executing and protecting freedoms. A number of respectable agencies have made studies such as NDI, among others.[9]

For the time being, it seems that any form of local power base must be accompanied by some form of armed force, except the religious/spiritual (the frequent reference of the armed to spear masters and/or spiritual leaders verifies this). Armed groups have a set of common denominators, in that each group:

  • presents an “identity” either of a community group, or political theme;
  • has a chain of command to some power holder/s;
  • has access to small arms and ammunition, plus reliable supplies;
  • is ready to mobilize and act at the whim of the power and command holders/and sponsors.

It is important to note that the definition of “sponsors” in reference to militia or political groups has become more entrenched in the vocabulary of armed groups and politics.  This seems to be the purview of what defines the core of all local polities in South Sudan and it is underpinned by some identifiable set of factors.

First, one would expressly see in the landscape of South Sudanese political culture a tendency towards loyalties defined by community identities.  This has its roots in positive and resilient cultural practices, and should be encouraged to embrace the positive and disengage the negative practice found therein.

Second, the process of change based on informed masses at the community level is not effective.[10] The imperatives of change seem to suggest that information is legitimized and is made credible only when community members have forums that afford them space and scope to take part in active participative forums that address their issues. Communication by media is not as effective.

Third, there is a dearth of space for alternate political views, with an absence of informed and articulate process-oriented opposition.  To some extent, this is an intended or unintended consequence of quashing opposition politics, meaning that there is inadequate representation of affected communities. Another factor is that mainstream political processes are completely de-linked from local community realities due to a lack of mechanisms to facilitate the cultivation of participative forums and processes devoid of military command and militaristic tendencies.

Ensuring participative negotiation and inclusivity on the socio-politico-military agenda in any community group of South Sudan is the single most crucial factor in securing peace. The militia, as a social group, holds sway over their own commanders because of the socio-dynamism of culture. New commanders could take-up leadership of the same militia or splinter groups, thereby perpetuating conflict.

Peacebuilders need to identify pillars of peace that that can be amplified to transform communities from cultures of revenge to cultures that embrace diversity and peace.  That would lead to the cultivation of participative forums and processes devoid of militaristic armed command, leading to a transformational peace based on restorative justice, nonviolence and open democratic practices.

Kisuke Ndiku is based at PRECISE, a regional agency involved in organizational development, strategic management of change, leadership development and planning in Africa.

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1) ICG: Conflict Alert- Looming Military Offensives in South Sudan; Oct 2014

2) HSBA: Small Arms Survey – various reports in South Sudan

3) Tongun Loyuong: The Tragedy of Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan; South Sudan News Agency Aug 2013

4) ENOUGH: The Military Dynamics of South Sudan’s Civil War; July 2014 (see also other reports from The Enough Project, link

5) Human Security Report: Non-State Armed Conflict; 2012

6) Michael Bratton: Citizen Perceptions of Local Government Responsiveness in Sub-Saharan Africa, Working Paper # 119, Michigan State University, 2010

7) Journal of Law and Conflict Resolution: Review on Mary Kaldo’rs   “new wars” thesis; Vol 6(5), pp 84-88; Sept 2014

8) Ndiku K: Review of typology of armed non state actors, in Unity, Upper Nile and Jong’lei States; CARE, 2012

9) NDI:

10) NDI: Citizens Seek Role in South Sudan’s Constitution, USAID,  September 2013- see

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