Security and legitimacy in the absence of the state

The purchase of abductees only becomes conceivable in a situation where the state is weak. Juridical accountability for Lou Nuer raiders is impossible because the government lacks the military capacity to intervene, and so raiders on all sides operate with impunity.

During the assault on Gumuruk in December 2022, the SSPDF withdrew, rather than defending the area against the White Army.[1] Underpaid and outmanned, the SSPDF is no match for armed youth. As a result, youth forces have emerged as the politically legitimate force in Jonglei. A February 2023 PAX Human Security Survey of the Dinka areas of the state, which should be those most favourably inclined towards the government, is striking (PAX, 2022). Over 60 per cent of the population thought that the most likely cause of conflict in the next year was poor national governance, while 80 per cent said that their community relies on local armed youth for security; only 19 per cent responded that they rely on the police, compared to 62 per cent in 2016 (p. 1).

While the SSPDF stationed in Jonglei is too weak to militarily intervene, the army has shown that, nationally, it is capable of decisively entering the field of battle; in Upper Nile in December 2022, Mi-24 attack helicopters decimated the Nuer White Army outside of Kodok (Small Arms Survey, 2023). The SSPDF did not intervene in Jonglei because of political, rather than military, weakness.

Kiir’s regime is supported by a fractious coalition. While important Murle commanders and politicians have backed Kiir’s elite coterie of Bahr el Ghazal Dinka, to intervene on the side of the GPAA would risk further alienating the Dinka of Jonglei, who retain key positions in government and the SSPDF. Such an intervention would also risk antagonizing the Lou Nuer—just as Kiir is attempting to lure them away from Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO), which is seen as weak and merely a vehicle for Machar’s personal advancement.

In this context, it is more politically expedient for the government to do nothing to address conflict in Jonglei. Government inaction is the cost of keeping Kiir’s coalition together.


[1] Division 8 is weak in part because many of the battle-hardened soldiers in Eagle Battalion—which formerly comprised Yau Yau’s Cobra Faction—were withdrawn to Juba at the request of GPAA commissioners, who wished to weaken Yau Yau’s forces.