State building and land conflict in South Sudan

Justin, Peter Hakin


In recent decades, international organisations and donor governments have promoted state-building as a way to bring lasting peace to war-torn societies around the world. However, this approach has not yielded the hoped-for results. This thesis helps to understand why this is so via a case study of South Sudan, the youngest state in the world. In 2005, the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People's Liberation Army/ Movement (SPLA/M) signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). That agreement ended a civil war that had lasted for more than two decades, killed an estimated 2.5 million people and displaced more than half of the population of South Sudan. The CPA marked the start of a state-building project in South Sudan that aimed to contribute to peace, stability, and development and prevent the country from relapsing to violence. In 2011, South Sudan was established as an independent state. With support from international organisations and donor countries, from 2005 onwards, the South Sudanese government introduced reform programmes that focused on the promotion of institutions modelled on the European state. However, this state-building intervention became a trigger to local conflicts that escalated into widespread violence. Civil war broke out in late 2013, and the situation remains volatile.

This thesis aims to explore how state-building interventions became a cause of local conflicts in South Sudan, and how those conflicts are connected to wider outbreaks of violence. Rather than taking the CPA as its starting point, the thesis places the latest state-building effort in a longer historical continuum of colonial and postcolonial attempts at institution building in South Sudan. The analysis focuses on the crucial issues of land reform, decentralisation and the governance of displaced people, all of which have played important and problematic roles in the development of animosities in South Sudan.

Through a combination of literature research with intensive fieldwork in Central Equatoria State and Yei River County, this thesis arrives at the following findings. First, post-conflict settings like South Sudan are the hybrid outcome of history and local contexts, and state-building intervention that ignores this history and context can contribute to violence. Secondly, decentralising land governance in war-torn societies as a way of redressing past injustices on land can result in further tenure insecurity. Thirdly, civilians displaced by civil wars are not necessarily victims: they can become the agency of land occupation and change in land governance. The changes they introduce may persist and become institutionalised after the end of a civil war, which can prepare the ground for further conflict.  Drawing on these findings, this thesis concludes that, on the one hand, the top-down approaches to state-building interventions in post-conflict settings can cause instability, violence, displacements and human suffering. On the other hand, practical considerations at local levels can lead to the emergence of hybrid forms of governance resulting from interactions between a multiplicity of institutions and actors, and outcomes of this hybridity can be beneficial to local people.