On July 9, South Sudan will attain its Independence after Africa’s longest-running civil war. Its legacy will include up to 200,000 soldiers worried about their future in the new country.
United Nations regional co-ordinator for South Sudan David Gressly has been quoted as suggesting that the army should be halved after Independence. He justifiably reasoned that the “mix of conflicting loyalties and former rebels could lead to insecurity.”
In a plea for military professionalism, he added: “You can have a more effective army that’s smaller than a larger army that is not as professional as it could be. They’d be better off with a better trained and a smaller army.”
This argument looks mainly at the challenges of building a professional army. But the real opportunity lies in finding new roles for the military to perform. South Sudan’s most pressing challenge is to grow the economy to meet the needs of its eight million people. The challenge is compounded by high expectations from a population that has not had much of a chance to acquire economic skills.
This massive challenge cannot be done without massive investment and mobilisation of the population to focus on the construction of energy, transportation, housing (such as schools and hospitals), irrigation and telecommunications systems. Much of this work will be done by civilian institutions.
However, there is a unique opportunity to turn a large part of the military into an Army Corps of Engineers and Technologists from the cadre of soldiers that would otherwise be demobilised. The corps will be part of the military but will focus its attention on infrastructure construction.
By creating such a wing of the military, South Sudan will realise its aim of creating a coherent armed structure while at the same time giving it a unifying objective. Such an objective would be consistent with the wishes of the separate ethnic groups that the soldiers were recruited from in the first place. Their fight for Independence was mainly a struggle to improve their welfare.
A number of concerns will need to be addressed when considering this option. The first is regional peace. South Sudan will join the East African Community and so such discussions need to be conducted within the EAC framework. Collective security objectives agreed among member states will offer South Sudan the comfort needed to shift its military budget to development objectives.
There is a precedent that can inform the conduct of South Sudan in this matter. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and reallocated part of the financial resources thus saved to internal security, health, education and culture. Today the country’s army comprises medical doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers and other productive members of society.
Costa Rica took this bold decision when it had one of the highest per capita debt ratios in the world and was just emerging from a civil war. It has since transformed itself into one of the best places in the world to live.
But South Sudan does not have to be that radical. It can learn from Senegal, which at Independence created a section of the military that was devoted to infrastructure construction, drawing upon its French heritage. Senegal, which has not had a military coup, also has probably the most active military participation in infrastructure project among African countries.
There are other African examples of military conversation. In 1997, for example, Rwanda created the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology on the premises of a military barracks. KIST helped to create a cadre of technologists that played a key role in the early days of the country’s reconstruction after the genocide.
As Gressly rightly says, there are numerous organisations willing to help the country build a professional army. Building technical skills to serve economic ends would be the best investment of such resources. A starting point would be to build an engineering-based military academy or college.
There are several ways in which the international community could assist South Sudan to effectively utilise its military. First, it could share with South Sudan experience of how the army can engage in civilian tasks while maintaining its professional standing.
Second, military co-operation with South Sudan could focus on enhancing the engineering and technical foundations of the military. Such training would also include imparting skills such as ecological management and wildlife protection.
Finally, public support is essential for the success of such efforts. Special attention will need to be paid to building public trust in the role of the military as a force in infrastructure development. A large part of the trust will come from demonstrating success.
This is the time for South Sudan to chart a new path by defining a new role for its military. This would be the most enduring peace dividend that can come out of the long struggle for self-determination and prosperity.
Prof Calestous Juma teaches at Harvard Kennedy School and is author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011) Twitter: @calestous