The Case of Disarmament in South Sudan

Gatwech Ruot Nyoat

December, 2013

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


South Sudan is the newest country on the African Continent. It seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011 after decades of civil war. Following such a long period of war, the country is awash with small arms that have created a significant security issue. This has hindered the development and peaceful co-existence among the people of South Sudan.

This essay will address the challenges of post–war disarmament looking specifically at programs initiated by the government of the Republic of South Sudan to disarm civilians. The disarmament initiatives conducted so far have not been carried out on a voluntarily basis. Even though some local communities have surrendered their arms, it has been through coercion and out of fear of the consequences of not cooperating with the authority. However, these same communities were attacked by communities from other states, which were not disarmed. This has happened among the states and communities within the states of Unity, Warrap, Lakes and also Jonglei and the Upper Nile State. For this reason, there has been significant resistance by other communities to disarm. The government has taken forceful disarmament as the only option to make South Sudan a gun-free nation, which has resulted in rebellion and increased civilians’ death, rape and maltreatment from the armed forces.

It is within this situation that I argue for a comprehensive peaceful disarmament that is well-planned and coordinated by taking into consideration the factors that drive arms possession. In order to bring this insecurity to an end, the involvement of all stakeholders is crucial. The top priority of the government should be to ensure civilians’ safety before embarking on the disarmament process, as well as the provision of road networks to enable easy access to the areas where these arms come from. The civilian population, must be informed and engaged about the importance of the peaceful co-existence among them and what the government is doing to ensure ultimate safety.

The Civil War and Patterns of Arms Possession

Prior to South Sudan independence, the civil war in Sudan had devastated the whole country with most of the country transformed into a war zone. Everybody in the rural areas had access to arms, either from the Government of the Sudan, the Sudan’s People Liberation Army or the militias. The government supported proxy militias from Southern Sudan to weaken the position of the rebels by providing arms and ammunition so that ethnic groups would fight against each other. A very tangible example can be seen in the case of Darfur, where the Janjaweed were armed by the government to kill the Fur of African origin (Small Arms Survey HSBA: Business as usual; Issue No.9 September 2012, Geneva). This was the first technique used by the Khartoum government that led arms into the hands of citizens illegally to divert the attention of the crises going on in the country.  The Government of Sudan has supported various ethnic groups and militias to fight each other and also to fight the Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA) to weaken its position as a setback strategy during the liberation struggle. This way of supporting proxy militias against the Government of South Sudan by Sudan continues today.  On the other hand, the Government of Sudan has accused the Government of South Sudan of backing the SPLA-North (Sudan’s People liberation Army-North), which is struggling to overthrow the government in Khartoum. Both the Sudan and South Sudan denied the allegations, but the reality on the ground has proven that they are engaged in this proxy war.

The second way civilians acquired arms is through the porous border of South Sudan. Since neither the Government of Sudan nor the Sudan’s People Liberation Army had full control of the whole country, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) used South Sudan as their operational base to fight the government of Uganda. The presence of the LRA has left behind a number of weapons in civilian possession even after the LRA departed South Sudan. In addition, many South Sudanese are nomads.  They often travel to neighboring countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, where they obtain arms and ammunition. They use these arms to raid cattle, and to defend themselves against raids from neighboring countries. The flow of arms  in and out of South Sudan is not controlled even today.

The third challenge that has allowed many arms into the hands of  non-state actors such as militias and tribal fighters is the motives of leaders who used their tribal lineage for political interests. For example, senior SPLA generals such as the late George Athor and David Yau Yau, who defected after they were denied tickets in the 2010 general election by the ruling party, turned into rebels and supplied weapons and ammunitions to civilians to serve their political agenda. A significant number of these weapons originated from the Sudan Army Forces (SAF) stocks, even though Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA) supplied weapons systematically and on an individual basis to civilians. In addition, Khartoum sometimes dropped weapons to create instability in the new nation attempting to show that South Sudan is not capable of administering and providing good governance and protection of civilians as a sovereign nation (Small Arms Survey HSBA: My Neigbour ,my enemy: Inter-tribal Violence  in Jonglei: Issue no.22 ,p.1 ,October 2012  Geneva).  When these weapons reached civilian hands, inter-communal violence and counterattacks increased throughout the Jonglei State of South Sudan.

South Sudan Civilian Disarmament Programs

In spite of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that gave the Southern Sudan autonomy to rule and govern her affairs between the interim periods of 2005 to 2011, the government was threatened by insecurity. The pastoralist communities clashed over cattle and access to resources. The relationship among ethnic groups eroded and became politicized, which made it difficult to build trust. The many decades of civil war and proxy arming of all sides made these problems even worse. The government of South Sudan struggled to transform its army from a rebel movement into a professional army and at the same time were confronted with the challenge of providing public security, consolidating control over the nation, and delivering a peace dividend.

As part of its disarmament program, the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS) started its first civilian campaign in mid-2006 in Jonglei State with the Lou Nuer Section. The approach was viewed by many as both ethnically focused and politically motivated, since it was not conducted simultaneously with other States and other communities in Jonglei State. This left communities vulnerable to attacks by those not disarmed. Through this forceful disarmament operation, about 3,000 weapons were collected (Skinner, 2012 p.11). This campaign was purely militaristic, poorly planned and had no security guarantees. For these reasons, many communities targeted for this exercise rebelled and a large number died in ensuing the battles. The campaign that was supposed to bring long term security turned out to be one of the bloodiest military actions. So the community resisted by fighting with army forces that were conducting disarmament and that resulted in more civilian and military deaths. Adding to the number of casualties was the anti-government movement’s use of the security challenge to mobilize the youth of different ethnic groups for their own causes making it difficult for government forces to differentiate between innocent civilians and rebels.

On May 22, 2008, Salva Kiir Mayardit, the President of South Sudan, issued an executive decree calling on comprehensive civilians’ disarmament for all ten states of South Sudan (GoSS, 2008a). The president tasked the state governors with the support of the SPLA to collect civilian weapons within six months. However, it was only implemented by a few states which indicated a lack of coordination and commitment. In 2011, the president again issued a decree for disarmament in three states (Unity, Lakes and Warrap), which was partially implemented also by those states through coercion.

Having all sorts of arms has created insecurity in the country and the government has not been able to control the reaction and ensuing violence. People in local communities feel the need to have weapons to protect themselves and the demand for weapons constantly remains for fear of insecurity. There has been voluntary disarmament, but some communities who gave up their arms became vulnerable to raiding and killing from other communities, and thus they armed themselves again. Re-armament happens in two ways, communities gain access to weapons collected from some irresponsible military personnel who sell arms and ammunitions. Another method of re-armament is through the lack of safe storage which leads to communities breaking into these unprotected stores or confronting security agents. This process of armament and disarmament has created more instability and hindered development in the country. Therefore, the disarmament initiatives of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan have had only marginal success—at best.

Weakening of cultural institutions and structures

The war has weakened cultural norms and ties, social structures, values, and respect of elders, which have been very instrumental in managing social problems and conflicts. These core values used to guide the behavior of communities and isolate anyone who deviated from it. In this aspect, existing societal structures have been shaken by the availability of weapons.

Traditional mechanisms of enforcing sanctions in the community have been eroded since the introduction of modern small arms and light weapons during war time. Most of the populations in South Sudan are either agro-pastoralists or pastoralists and their modes of livelihoods differ. This does not mean the whole population depends on nomadic way of life. Only the pastoralist communities make their livelihoods on cattle, which have now become limited in number because of war and disease. Violence from cattle raiding/rustling has been exacerbated by weapon accessibility and lack of infrastructure development. The youth from these communities use cattle for their livelihoods as well as bride price or dowries for marriage. These youth have no alternative employment and do not go to school. Their idleness has exaggerated the condition of gun violence. In addition, youth no longer listen to their chiefs or elderly people who traditionally provided leadership.

According to an old cultural adage, a person cannot be easily killed because if you kill a person even if it was by accident you have to reveal it. Failing to do so will bring a curse to the family and more deaths would occur. This cultural dynamic now has been eroded in such a way that people are being killed intentionally and cattle raided, and the very elders who are supposed to prevent this cycle of violence are encouraging the youth to pursue these means of violence for their livelihoods. In order to restore the cultural values of South Sudan’s society, there is a need to address the factors that contribute to holding arms. Most civilians are ready to give up arms but they fear for their security and properties. This has hindered their willingness to abide and thus demand full protection provided by the government.


In order to stamp out arms from civilian possession and illegal ownership, the Government of the Republic of South Sudan needs comprehensive strategies that incorporate the following:

  • Conduct intensive research on the populations with arms seeking to understand the reasons behind arm ownership and provide means for them to participate and define the disarmament process;
  • Grassroots mobilization and sensitization campaigns among communities against the culture of the gun and restoration of cultural norms and values which support peaceful co-existence;
  • Provide and increase effectiveness of security and governance structures and resources, all the way down to the lower level of local governance (Boma-the lower administrative unit);
  • To increase the effective control and security of all national borders and work with bordering countries to jointly cooperate in tracing illicit arms proliferation to or from neighboring countries;
  • Facilitate infrastructure development such as road networks, schools, health services and potable water to lessen the flash points such as rivers or streams where people meet and trigger conflict;
  • Create job opportunities for youth as alternative livelihoods to discourage the culture of gun violence;
  • Discourage forceful disarmament; disarmament must be in collaboration with communities through their commitment and ownership of the process. The disarmament should be conducted throughout the country simultaneously to avoid attacks from other states of the Republic of South Sudan as it was witnessed in the past.
  • Build a stockpile for safe storage of arms.


The challenges of civilian arms possession continues to be a great threat to development and peaceful co-existence among the population living in the Republic of South Sudan. The initiatives taken so far have contributed to minimal reduction of the arms possession and in other ways triggered the level of inter-communal violence and continued rebellion against the government by various communities. It is the responsibility of the government to provide the security for all people within its territory to make sure that people do not live in fear and their properties and lives are protected both from internal as well as external threats. The civilian disarmament program that was conducted did not comprehend the parameters that led to arms possession. There was no time to collect relevant information and facts. The government used the coercive measures to collect arms without proper consultation with community to identify opportunities for peaceful process. In places where cooperation of community and involvement were ensured there was less violent incidents and arms were collected successfully. But the question that remained unanswered is: Why do civilians want to hold arms? Is it because they want arms at their disposal? No, it is because of many factors that are embedded by many years of civil war and the need for survival, protection and livelihood.  These must be addressed with creativity in the disarmament approach.

 In my opinion the right way to provide the security needed without encouraging lawlessness is first for the government of the Republic of South Sudan to build road networks across ten states. At the level of state government in turn they need to build roads across into counties and bomas (the lower administrative units). This will enhance the accessibility to provide security and deployment of police and law enforcement agencies near the communities. It will allow the government to better learn the nature of conflict and where these arms come from and who supplies them. The government institutions such as a police post and or other local law enforcement agency being nearby or accessible to a community will enable relationship building between communities and the security agencies. In that way, trust can be built and the presence of government will create the sense of security and less need to carry guns by the civilians to protect themselves. The availability of the nearby police stations and the law enforcement agencies will lessen the inter-ethnic violence.

Second, the provision of security within the borders of the states, counties, bomas (lower administrative units) and within the neighboring countries should be priority. In this venture there should be communication equipment which fosters fast communication and exchanges of information among the units on the borders.

Third, a public campaign against gun violence should continue through mass media, social events, cultural institutions and religious institutions. This means facilitating forums where different segments of the communities discuss their security concerns and how to tackle them. It is known that everybody is weary of gun culture and the only problem is when giving up your gun, without ensuring that your life and properties are safe is the concern that makes people hesitate.

Fourth, provision of services such as health, education and agriculture will facilitate the shift in the behavioral pattern of the community. For example, if schools are available these youth who are problem makers will go to schools and spend most of their time there. If farms are available, people will go to make money instead of pursuing raiding where life or death is uncertain. This long term engagement of all actors through such social and economic processes will enable a positive change in attitudes towards the gun culture and the availability of services will create paradigm shift in communities with arms to work on their livelihoods and development.

Fifth, after the government understands the sources of arms possession among civilians, and has provided educational and job opportunities and built trust with the local communities, then, disarmament should follow.  In this way civilian security will be guaranteed and there will be no fear or threat either from outside or inside the country. This, then, will be a favorable time for peaceful and voluntary disarmament. This is the process that the Government of the Republic of South Sudan needs to go through in devising comprehensive solutions that involve all stakeholders at all levels to ensure peace, security and development for the nation.

In the light of the disarmament process with multifaceted dimensions, there is need for inclusiveness in the discussion on how to stamp out the arms proliferation in South Sudan. Having said that, the government should create forums to gather broader perspectives on why people refuse to give up arms. In order to go on with disarmament, infrastructure and development should be given priority because it will facilitate the mobilization of the public and accessibility of government institutions and law enforcement agencies to places where guns are being snatched. Since the issue of arms is not only South Sudan’s problem but also a wider problem that its neighbors face, it is crucial to ensure collaboration of neighboring border nations on border security to reduce influxes of arms in and out of the country. This should include coordinated planning amongst all stakeholders including the communities. The process should start step by step until a lasting solution is found at which everybody will feel secure and safe not to require weapons anymore. At the moment, the Government of the Republic of South Sudan needs to ensure security and protection for all ten states and that movement of arms in and out of the country must be fully controlled. The disarmament process should be voluntary and not forced and at the same time must to be simultaneous throughout the country to make sure that the arms collected do not go back into wrong hands. The government should build proper storages in places where disarmament will be conducted and unserviceable weapons collected have to be destroyed in the presence of general public to build confidence amongst them. In this way the process will be peaceful and will ensure trustworthy relationship between government and its people.


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