Will Federalism Solve South Sudan’s Issues?

Will Federalism Solve South Sudan’s Issues?

Federalism in South Sudan has arisen as a major political issue over the past two months from Equatoria to Upper Nile as numerous politicians have proposed a federal system of government as a way forward in the current crisis in South Sudan. Of note, Riek Machar of the SPLM/A-In-Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) proposed dividing South Sudan up into 21 states (from the current 10) based on old British district boundaries. Simultaneously, governors and MPs, most prominently from Equatoria, announced their support for federalism. President Salva Kiir accused the Equatorians of being set up by Machar to support federalism; some analysts have turned this assessment upside down and accused Machar of emphasizing the issue of federalism in order to garner support in Greater Equatoria. Local media outlets have debated the issue of federalism, and undoubtedly Federalism in South Sudan is on the forefront of everyone’s mind. The debate over federalism has deep roots in South Sudanese political history, and means different things to different people in the country.

This article explores the motivations behind support or opposition for federalism within the current political structure of South Sudan, and argues that in order for federalism to work, economic considerations and powers need to be vigorously defined and divorced from sectarian (read: ethnic) interests. Federalism, vaguely defined, will do nothing for South Sudan but divide it into smaller underdeveloped units governed by “ethnic” politicians who vie for benefits from the central government. Federalism, strongly defined and with an emphasis on the UNION of the states in supporting each other (diverse economic opportunities in South Sudan’s regions provide the possibility of economic diversification in support of the country) would likely ease political tensions and provide a platform for development in South Sudan.

Mapping Support for Federalism:

Sudanese media reported a survey of Juba University students asking whether students supported federalism. Given that surveying the broader population presents a huge obstacle given the current political situation, let’s take this poll as a general indication of where youth from South Sudan’s administrative regions might stand on the issue.

SouthSudan_Federalismsurvey Of note: Federalism may have greater or less support in any of these regions than this survey indicated. The survey was reportedly conducted on December 15, 2013, as fighting broke out in Juba. This might have discouraged students, particularly Nuer students from Upper Nile, from speaking out in support of federalism. Nevertheless, let’s suppose that these statistics reflect the opinions of the broader population and see where that takes us.

Support for and Opposition to Federalism in South Sudan’s regions are largely driven by two sets of factors: One set is socio-political and the other economic.

Firstly, the socio-political factors to consider in South Sudan’s federalism debate:

Since political action in South Sudan has largely been mobilized along ethnic lines, the action space of certain actors probably prejudices certain areas towards or against federalism based on what the social and political leadership of the area supports. This situation is brought about partially through the choices of politicians seen as representing various ethnic interests (e.g., Lam Akol is portrayed by the media as representing broader Shilluk interests; Riek Machar for Nuer; and Salva Kiir for Dinka). The recent establishment of Greater Pibor Administrative Area in response to David Yau Yau’s rebellion sets a possible trend towards federalism along ethnic lines.

Map showing the newly established Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA)

Map showing the newly established Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA)

This is not to suggest any type of ethnic determinism whereby political actors think only according to their ethnic interests. The argument is that since politics have been mobilized along ethnic lines, it has shaped the way leaders portray their decision-making in ethnic terms, which has largely resulted in ethnic populations opposing politicians from other ethnic groups and apprehending political benefits as being distributed along ethnic lines.
Equatorian politicians have historically had a degree of political tension with leaders of the larger pastoralist ethnic groups, whom many Equatorians perceive as dominating politics in the country while disregarding Equatorian interests. Conversely, in the early years of Sudan (1950s-1960s), many Equatorian politicians were better educated and placed in higher positions in the regional administration, so the larger pastoralist groups tended to develop the view that Equatorians were dominant despite having a numerical disadvantage. Following the end of the civil war in 2005, Equatorians moving back from Uganda, Kenya, and the DRC to their home areas sometimes found Dinka or Nuer herders living on land that had belonged to Equatorians before the conflict, provoking another dimension of resentment.

Meanwhile, Greater Bahr el-Ghazal is the homeland of Salva Kiir and is the homeland of most Dinka. My theory therefore indicates that at least some of the support for a centralized government is motivated by ethnic interests. Again, all Dinka certainly do not support Salva Kiir or a strong central government. But the political and economic “gatekeepers” of the region perceive it as their interest to keep a centralized government that redistributes oil wealth to their region, and therefore lead the population in that direction.

Secondly, the economic:

Unity and Upper Nile provide the majority of South Sudan’s income because they are the sites of oil extraction. Geologists believe that Jonglei might also have stores of petroleum or natural gas underneath its swampy areas. Petroleum exports have provided almost all of the revenue for the Republic of South Sudan, and most believe that it is the largest potential source of the new nation’s wealth. From a more nuanced perspective, it appears that Oil has primarily caused problems for South Sudan: much of the oil revenues have been pocketed by top officials, and much of what remained after corruption has gone to purchasing weapons to put down various rebellions in the country. Furthermore, as time goes on, petroleum becomes more and more costly to extract. South Sudan’s petroleum figures as a source of development mainly for offshore bank accounts, not for the local populations.

Equatoria is abundant in natural produce such as mangos and shea nuts. I once visited a brilliant little operation near Mundri that processed Shea butter into a number of different products for local consumption, including skin balms and soap. The Equatorias also have mineral deposits including potentially large gold deposits. Cross-border trade with Uganda and Kenya provide means of livelihood for those residing near the border.

Greater Bahr el-Ghazal is widely perceived as containing the poorest natural resource allotment of the three greater administrative areas. Kafia Kingi has mineral deposits, but it is currently an insecure enclave disputed between Sudan and South Sudan. Residents of the Bahr el-Ghazals, Warrap, and Lakes states primarily pursue agro-pastoralist activities, involving local farms coupled with dry- and wet-season cattle camps to which the young boys move the cattle herds. Pastoralism is broadly perceived as being economically unsustainable, and development agencies often see pastoralism as simply a clinging to traditional ways of life rather than embracing modernity through economic diversification. However, if decreases in bridewealth and better protective measures against drought and conflict were in place to free up large numbers of cattle for trade, cattle export could potentially provide a steady profit to pastoralists in this region as demand for meat in the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of the global South experience rising incomes.

Perceptions of Federalism in South Sudan

I would propose that at least some degree of the controversy over federalism as an option for South Sudan is driven by an understanding of the federal system as a division of South Sudan into Nuer and Shilluk areas producing oil and keeping the incomes, Greater Equatoria producing minerals and agricultural products and trading them across the border, and Greater Bahr el-Ghazal stuck in low-profit pastoralism with poor trade opportunities on its borders. Perhaps this is what some of the politicians perceive to be the case. This likely also influences Gov. Rizik Zackaria Hassan’s call for Wau to be the new national capital: in case a federal system comes about, this would at least ensure that some of the national wealth would flow into Bahr el Ghazal.

Potentials for Federalism in South Sudan

As noted in the introduction, federalism is by no means a new issue in South Sudan. Ever since the 1947 Juba Conference, Southern Sudanese have been advocating federalism. Federalism within Sudan as a whole was built into the structure of the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972 that ended the first civil war. Federalism has gone by many names, “decentralization” and “regional autonomy” among them. All of these emphasize the devolution of powers from a central government to more localized governments; Federalism itself is more systematic, comprehensive, and defined, if it is done properly. South Sudan has the skeleton of a federal system right now, with state governments under the power of the local government. The first problem is that power—economic, social, and political—is far too centralized in the current system. The second problem is that economic powers are very poorly defined in the current transitional constitution. Who pays the police? Who pays judicial officials? The lack of clarity and accountability in this area has led to wide-scale failure to pay public servants, soldiers, teachers and administrators. It is often reported that the funds had been cleared in Juba, but failed to reach the soldiers or police until they staged violent protests.
In order for federalism to work in South Sudan, it needs to be focused less on the DIS-integration of South Sudan through the devolution of powers, and more on the integration of South Sudan’s diverse social and ecological environments into a peaceful structure that supports trade and economic specialization. As Douglas Johnson has argued, previous failures of federal structures such as that envisioned in the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement failed to address economic powers and structures in the country. South Sudan probably needs to impose some protectivist measures to develop local industry: demand for local products will certainly rise as infrastructure improves and more of the rural population is brought into the broader market. However, the potential for local impoverishment looms if the current presence of NGOs and international actors in South Sudan is translated into simple extraction of profit from a growing market.

What are your thoughts?