(Re)drawing South Sudan’s States – or, trying to create administrative certainty

Last year, two parties to South Sudan’s Civil War, SPLA-led government forces and SPLM-IO opposition ones, signed the “Revitalized Agreement on the Renewed Cessation of Hostilities” (or the R-ARCSS) and paved the way towards a two year-long peace process. A power-sharing, transitional government should have been formed by May 11th, when a pre-transitional period ends – but has now been delayed for another six months. Nonetheless, several R-ARCSS provisions need to be fulfilled before this transitional government is formed.

But only one has been accomplished so far. An IGAD-mediated Technical Boundary Committee (TBC) recently assessed the number of states existing within South Sudan on January 1st 1956 and submitted these findings last March 27th. The findings are supposed to settle the issue of how many states compose South Sudan, working from its 1956 independence day.

Why has this provision been fulfilled with such urgency – and others neglected (there is little sign of militias integrating their forces into a national army, for instance)? It may have something to do with South Sudan’s politicized history of boundary-drawing, according to Rift Valley Institute researchers Douglas Johnson, Aly Verjee, and Mathew Pritchard in their analysis “After the Khartoum Agreement” (available via the Institute’s website.)

The story starts with the British who, ruling Sudan under the Egyptian-Sudanese Condominium, frequently re-drew internal borders to better administer cross-tribal relations. These shifted between reciprocity and war as tribes moved across and within provinces, redefining notions of homeland, neighbour, and enemy over the years. Some tribes supported certain re-drawings, as it allocated them access to resources – whilst others contested them.

After independence in 1956, printed maps were imprecise and inconsistent. By 1990 states replaced provinces, making it difficult to consult locals about boundary redefinitions as rural southern Sudan became more inaccessible. When South Sudan claimed independence and later brokered peace with northern Sudan, the situation complicated:

“South Sudan’s internal boundaries in 2005, at the beginning of the Interim Period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement [CPA – ending fighting between Northern and Southern Sudan], were a combination of federal state boundaries created by Khartoum, and local administrative boundaries created by the SPLA in their liberated areas. Since 2005 … South Sudan has alternated between trying to merge these two systems and replacing them with an entirely new system.”

By 2013 civil war broke out; the first peace deal in 2015 mandated South Sudan be composed of 10 states with mostly power-sharing administrations. Soon afterwards the SPLA-led government hastily redrew them into 32 states as it grew insecure with the oppositions’ new grasp on power – fuelling conflict. In 2016 an IGAD-mediated commission was established in order to settle the issue, but failed

This time around, the TBC seems to have fulfilled its duties. But this does not unburden the ultimate task at hand – ensuring parties agree to its findings. The provision’s wording is itself contentious, maintaining that South Sudan will have a centralized state system whereas the SPLM-IO advocates 21 de-centralized states.

And, according to Johnson, Verjee, and Pritchard, although a “combination of maps” can be used to identify 1956 provincial boundaries, district boundaries are ill-defined. These maps lack topographical information and their scales do not provide enough detail to actually plot them out, making the TBC’s conclusions susceptible to contestation. Further, a date set in stone ignores tribes’ changing notions of homeland over the years.

Ideally the TBC’s work would complement national discussions on what South Sudanese federalism will look like during peace-time, according to Johnson, Verjee, and Pritchard, to make sure the R-ARCSS’ outcomes are not out of sync with communities’ sentiments. Otherwise, peace may remain an ill-defined object.


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