The recent conflict in South Sudan, in which thousands are reported to have been killed and over half a million civilians displaced, gives cause to reflect on peacebuilding and state building efforts in Africa. In South Sudan, the swing from the elation of self-determination to desperation at the possible return to civil war did not happen overnight. The latest fighting, which has reopened old wounds that neither independence nor international assistance has been able to heal, has its roots in historical and structural factors. However, it is also distinct from past internal conflicts, because South Sudan is now an autonomous state and master of its resources, and the leaders of its liberation movement are its custodians. This gives the conflict and tussle for power a new twist: the state is both prey and predator. The struggle for power between factions at the center depends on building and undermining state institutions simultaneously—a process international assistance has not been able to rein in. The international technical support for state building appears overwhelmed by the dynamics of state formation, which is inherently political and often violent. Meanwhile, peacebuilding interventions are increasingly overshadowed by the urgency to build the state.

As a new nation, South Sudan has had a challenging two and a half years prior to this latest outbreak. Within months of its independence, parts of the country experienced fighting led by renegade officers unhappy with their political lot, which mixed with recurring and enduring intercommunal conflicts over pastureland, water, and cattle. Soon after, an impasse between the government of South Sudan in Juba and that of Sudan in Khartoum, over the financial terms by which the former would export its oil through the latter, led the South to shut down oil production. With 98 percent of its national revenue coming from oil, the new state faced fourteen months of economic uncertainty. Under the ensuing austerity measures, government salaries were cut by 50 percent, and nascent government services had to be suspended. By the time an agreement was reached between the two governments, South Sudan had incurred billions of dollars in debts to regional commercial banks.

At the same time, reports of widespread corruption and gross violations of human rights became distressingly prevalent. Within weeks of oil production resuming, a political tussle within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) became apparent when president Salva Kiir removed vice president Riek Machar, dissolved the cabinet, and put the party secretary general under investigation. Five months later, the current crisis erupted.

Through all this, the international community—through United Nations peacekeeping missions and hundreds of international nongovernmental organizations—has continued to support conflict resolution, capacity building, humanitarian services, and a variety of other sector-specific developments. International state building assistance has aimed to establish a peaceful state that can build its citizens’ confidence and transform its security, justice, and economic institutions. This mission echoes the idea that democratic institutions and liberally constituted states can peacefully constrain their leaders, and those who undertake it see state institutions that deliver public services as a way to build the state’s legitimacy and relationship with society.

While seemingly holistic because of its narrow conception of the state, this approach is insufficient and does not adequately influence the dynamics of state formation. To start with, the state institutions, which are being built by an army of technical advisors from the region and farther afield, are still too young and too “foreign” to address the strain of decades of civil war and internal divisions. However, the tensions within the new state are not only attributable to its legacy of civil war or poor capacity; in their race for power, South Sudan’s political leaders have also been actively undermining the legitimacy of its very institutions. A constitutionally endorsed, powerful presidency, combined with a weak legislature, unrestrained security forces, and patronage have all been used to establish and secure power bases. Legal frameworks were repeatedly snubbed when the president removed elected officials, including two governors, two ministers, and, as mentioned above, an entire cabinet and a vice president, by decree. Accountability structures were disregarded when a presidential guard unit was recruited and trained outside the regular army structures and placed under the president’s direct control.1Mahmood Mamdani, “The Way Forward for South Sudan,” Al Jazeera online, January 6, 2014, (accessed January 28, 2014).

Meanwhile, the various security forces continue to be implicated in some of the worst human rights violations taking place, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, intimidation, and other inhumane treatment of civilians.2U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Report on South Sudan, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, (accessed January 30, 2014). Indeed, since independence, reports of intimidation, harassment, and attacks against journalists, civil societies, and human rights activists have been steadily on the rise. In December 2012, the murder of a journalist who was an outspoken critic of the government highlighted the limitations of liberal ideals in the new state. Corruption, conflict-related abuses, and violence have continued to test the delicate notion of state–society relations and state legitimacy.

With improving state performance as its objective, capacity building is integral to international support in South Sudan. Constituting and bolstering institutional capacity is seen as a way to protect the state from sectional interests. However, this optimistic view tends to overlook how different groups within society relate to and experience the state-in-formation. South Sudan has a long and complicated history of intercommunal conflicts and sporadic rebellious activities. Even before the current conflict, thousands of civilians had been subjected to killings, beatings, lootings, and displacement. The legacies of civil war, an atmosphere of ethnic favoritism, political marginalization, and an abundance of small arms are said to be among the underlying conditions that fuel these instabilities.3Small Arms Survey, “Pendulum Swings: The Rise and Fall of Insurgent Militias in South Sudan,” HSBA (Human Security Baseline Assessment) Issue Brief No. 22, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, November 2013, (accessed January 30, 2014). Competition for control over and access to resources has been cited as one of the causes of these conflicts, with some of the worst violence occurring in regions with seasonal scarcity of water and grazing land.4Diana Fleix Da Costa, “Response to Inter-communal Violence in Jonglie State,” E-International Relations, June 2012, (accessed January 29, 2014). Some of the conflicts are also exacerbated by state policies. For example, a local government policy that makes ethnic identity the basis for creating local government units, in conjunction with a land policy that makes ethnic identity the basis for access to customary land, has resulted in bitter contests over local borders and clashes between residents and internally displaced communities.5N. Shanmugaratnam, “Resettlement, Resource Conflict, Livelihood Revival and Reintegration in South Sudan,” Noragric Report No. 58, Department of International Environment and Development Studies, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, December 2010, (accessed February 10, 2014).

As an external process, state building focuses on the building of security, democracy, basic services, and economic institutions. As an internal process, state formation often manifests itself as violence competition between groups and their agendas.6Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter Evans, Dietich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). The difference, then, is between “a conscious effort at creating an apparatus of control,” and “an historical process whose outcome is a largely unconscious and contradictory process of conflicts, negotiations, and compromises.”7Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa: Book One: State and Class, Eastern African Studies (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1992), 5. However, the two processes are not mutually exclusive. Purposeful attempts at establishing state institutions are often subverted by complex societal processes.8Berit Bliesemann de Guevara (ed.), Statebuilding and State-Formation: The Political Sociology of Intervention London: Routledge, 2012), 5. While building institutions and governance mechanisms remains important, in some cases, the very institutions aggravate the struggle for resource allocation, sweep communities’ grievances to the side, or contribute to the marginalization of such communities. A substantive engagement with these complex societal processes is essential in order to contribute to mitigating prospective conflict dynamics. Thus, for instance, it is important to grasp local perspectives of authority and attitudes toward state institutions. Failure to do so narrows the scope of engagement and limits understanding of how the external processes of state building and internal dynamics of state formation correspond.

In the post-9/11 environment, international assistance to both state building and peacebuilding has been significantly influenced by concerns about weak states as breeding grounds for terrorism, attention to human security, and the emphasis on states’ “responsibility to protect” their citizens. More broadly, priorities have increasingly shifted from conflict resolution to containment and stability. Phrases like “state building for peace,” “peacebuilding through state building,” “state building as peacebuilding,” and “peace as governance” also suggest the two activities are rolling into one. Some have argued that state building as a priority now outweighs peacebuilding.9Edward Newman, “A Human Security Peace-Building Agenda,” Third World Quarterly 32, no. 10 (2011), 1741; Lauren Hutton, “Internal and External Dilemmas of Peacebuilding in Africa,” Institute for Security Studies, paper 250, January 2014, (accessed January 29, 2014). However, while on paper consolidating peace and strengthening political systems appear to go together, in practice, the merging of the two is not tension-free.

One concern about this folding of peacebuilding into state building has been the way it pushes complex issues such as political grievances and resource scarcity farther down the priority list.10Meera Sabaratnam, “Re-thinking the Liberal Peace: Anti-colonial Thought and Post-war Intervention in Mozambique,” PhD thesis, Department of International Relations, London School of Economics, London, UK, December 2011. For instance, with regional stability as a major concern11U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, “South Sudan: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement on Life Support,” hearing and briefing before the 110th Congress, January 24, 2007., the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Sudan and the SPLM dealt with tensions within the South by promising to set up institutions that, upon their maturity, would address the local drivers of conflict. During the CPA period (2005-2011), one major challenge to peace was the need to neutralize or absorb the various armed groups in the South that were not party to the agreement.12John Young “The South Sudan Defense Forces in the Wake of the Juba Declaration,” The Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2006, Another area of concern is that top-down structural frameworks and institutional templates often result in localized grievances getting lost in translation on their way to the top or engagements at the grassroots level taking place with no direct engagement with national policies. As the aforementioned land and local border-related conflicts in South Sudan demonstrate, top-down policies can not only be insensitive to complexities at community level; they can also aggravate or undermine intercommunity peacebuilding initiatives.

In South Sudan, the international community has been subjected to criticism for the counterproductive consequences of its engagement. A report by Wolfram Lacher of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs recently pointed out that aid to the health and education sectors represented an indirect subsidy to the government. Effectively this has allowed those in power to concentrate the state resources on funding clientelist structures, while donor support for the creation of decentralized administrative structures has become instrumental to funding patronage networks.13Wolfram Lacher, “South Sudan: International State-Building and Its Limits,” SWP Research Paper, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 2012, (accessed January 30, 2014). Additionally, the report cautions against extensive external commitments, pointing to the fact that donors and the Government of South Sudan are at times pursuing different objectives on key issues. International support to state building and peacebuilding in fragile contexts like South Sudan primarily focuses on tangible, visible, and quantifiable outputs like building the forms and structures of state institutions. Standardized programs that focus on technical procedures are seen as more pragmatic and less problematic. Given the context, focusing on technical activities correspond to immediate needs. Moreover, transferring technical know-how appears less problematic than transferring values and changing attitudes. Overall, tangible outputs are less contentious and easier to measure than, say, substantive processes of inducing behavioural change.14Beatrice Pouligny, “State Society Relations and Intangible Dimensions of State Resilience and State Building: A Bottom-Up Perspective,” EUI Working Papers RSCAS 2010/22, Romber Schuman Center for Advanced Studies. 2010,;jsessionid=EB6C63D05AF69D119426FE4D6E4CAC8B?sequence=1 (accessed January 30, 2014).

In recent years, donors and international development organizations wary of counterproductive, unintended consequences have started to rely increasingly on political economy analyses and other context-specific studies to capture the complexities of fragile and post-conflict settings before they start major programs.15Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “International Engagement in Fragile States: Can’t We Do Better?” OECD Publishing, 2011, (accessed January 31, 2014). However, the assimilation of the knowledge obtained from these analyses into policies or programs remains slow. For the most part, context analyses are narrowly used to justify intervention plans or are aimed at averting risk in project implementation. Furthermore, while it is now well accepted that state building and peacebuilding engagement in fragile states needs to be seen as a long-term process16Ibid. this commitment is often frustrated in practice by organizations’ internal bureaucratic complexities and administrative demands. Conflicting budget cycles, “value-for-money” concerns, and other internal protocols are some factors that limit the flexibility and quick response of the international community to rapidly evolving conflict dynamics.

This article barely scratches the surface of the complex, multidimensional dynamics that continue to unfold in South Sudan. The current crisis is part of this complexity, which has its roots in historical and structural factors. What is different about the latest clash is that the center of power is no longer in Khartoum, but in Juba. The struggle is no longer for emancipation, but for control of the state. This reality cannot be understated, especially when citizens who endured the previous civil war continue to be the victims of sustained insecurity under their new government. One month after a ceasefire agreement was signed,17Ceasefire agreement was signed on January 23, 2014. in some parts of the country—primarily in the oil-producing Greater Upper Nile—the fighting between the factions had not stopped. Several rounds of negotiations have taken place since February. As the parties come together, the ideals of state building and peacebuilding are once again up for negotiation. This process needs to be monitored closely because tradeoffs made there will likely have a long-term impact on the future of the new nation.

From the perspective of broader state building and peacebuilding operations in Africa, the South Sudan experience points to possible areas of further inquiry. The reconciliation of international support for state building with the context-specific process of state formation remains hindered by practical and analytical gaps. While support for state building largely remains narrowly focused and top-heavy, fierce political competition and shifting power alliances continue to characterize state formation. Secondly, as a process, the convergence of state building and peacebuilding initiatives relies on the prioritization of certain aspects. There needs to be a better understanding of what the tradeoffs are and what will be their long-term impact, from the perspective of communities that are subjects of such interventions. Finally, international support for state building and peacebuilding in South Sudan, as elsewhere, is filtered through multiple international bodies with distinct institutional configurations and operational norms. Future inquiries about state building and peacebuilding in fragile states should pay attention to how different organizational procedures and norms influence internal dynamics.

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