The Political Dominance Of South Sudan’s Gunclass:

"A Python in the Mud for Peace and Stability...The only path forward to the promised nirvana of hope, democracy, and prosperity for the people of South Sudan is terminating the political dominance of the Gunclass..."

 By Dr. Majak D’Agoôt & Dr. Remember Miamingi

There is no end in sight to South Sudan’s manmade apocalypse so long as its ruling “gunclass” runs the show. These, ethno-regional, sectarian warlords have benefitted from the conflict through organized violence and plunder. On a number of occasions, they have organized pogroms against their own people on the grounds of ethnicity, political affiliation and social geography. The Gunclass has tapped dangerously into sediments of age-old ethnic cleavages as a means of maintaining power, literally, by the barrel of the gun.

The gunclass in South Sudan consists of cliques of ‘former liberators’ and former Khartoum-sponsored counterinsurgency warlords who fought on both sides of the civil war during the decades-long liberation movement for South Sudan. These individuals include the current President, Salva Kiir (a liberator), and his former deputy turned armed opposition leader, Riek Machar (once a liberator turned a COIN warlord).

The combination of corruption, violence and intense ethnic mobilization deployed by the gunclass on their own citizens has hijacked the nascent state and its future stability and prosperity. Irrespective of the side they are currently fighting on, the objectives of the gunclass remain the same – setting their country on a permanent trajectory of fragility and instability for their own personal gains.

In her recent book, former head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Hilde Johnson identified the transformation of the security sector as the main roadblock to statebuilding. Indeed, the absence of political will among the ruling Gunclass to reduce the number of soldiers and weapons in circulation or reform and professionalize the security sector is the wicked problem of peace and stability in South Sudan. In the words of Jeremy Astill-Brown, this is a military with a country and not a country with a military – and is, in fact, inching towards a country without a state.

Just this past July, the reckless high-stakes gambling of the Gunclass reached unprecedented levels when these addicted-to-risk warlords slammed their foot on the accelerator of violence at the exact moment when they should have applied on brakes. For five days, between 8 and 11 July, full-scale fighting returned to the capital city Juba and sent the newly returned first vice president and armed opposition leader, Riek Machar, back into the bush fleeing for his life. In his absence, the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, handpicked a member of the opposition, Taban Deng Gai, to replace him, and effectively split the opposition into two in what has been described as Pax Salvatica.

Now that the peace agreement has been rendered disabled, the government has sought to consolidate its power and has intensified brutal attacks against civilians, including sexual violence, criminality, and the closure of any public space for dissent, including the illegal detention of journalists under South Sudan’s own laws.

The U.S. Special Envoy to South Sudan, Donald Booth, recently testified in front of the U.S. Congress. He remarked: “We are of course concerned about adherence to the terms and the spirit of the peace agreement, but at the same time it is not for us to tell South Sudan who its leaders should be…. Now, given all that has happened, we do not believe it would be wise for Machar to return to his previous position in Juba. But this cannot become a justification for President Kiir to monopolize power and stifle dissenting political voices."

The intransigence and sense of impunity of Juba’s Gunclass has been emboldened by the lack of accountability for their actions. Despite recent visits to South Sudan and the region by top U.S. diplomats John Kerry and Samantha Power, efforts to restore the status quo ante or hold leaders to account have failed. While it is true that the U.S. and other great powers should not determine who South Sudan’s leaders should be, the U.S. and the UN do have an obligation to the people of South Sudan to ensure those that perpetrate horrific atrocities are not simply allowed to remain in power with the full support and consent of the international community. So far, the Gunclass has proven immune to diplomatic threats in the absence of concrete consequences for their actions.

The reality at the moment is that South Sudan has already relapsed into civil war. The deployment of a regional protection force under the UN peacekeeping mission should be premised on allowing for the political reengineering of the fractured deal under a new architecture of a caretaker administration agreed to by all stakeholders, including faith-based and civil society groups.

The caretaker government should be comprised of public personalities and technocrats who are rigorously vetted for honesty and integrity - and assisted by the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission tasked with overseeing implementation of the agreement. This path better suits South Sudan than outright trusteeship or temporary UN administration.The caretaker government should clearly exclude both Kiir and Machar, who have proven themselves incapable of transforming themselves into statesmen and civic leaders. Both men have also been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by multiple independent UN and African Union investigations. In the words of former Botswana president Festus Mugae who now head the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) in his recent BBC interview – Kiir and Machar are two men whose the sight of each other is provocative and can cause carnage. They are totally indifferent to the plight of the people they purport to lead, he added.

It is now abundantly clear that restoring the status quo ante will be real heavy lifting, and ultimately, will not work. The only path forward to the promised nirvana of hope, democracy, and prosperity for the people of South Sudan is terminating the political dominance of the Gunclass and its risky schemes in order to finally allow the people of South Sudan to emerge out from behind the barrel of the gun.


Dr. Majak D’Agoôt an economist by training served as a deputy minister for defence in the Government of South Sudan (2011 – 2013); and was deputy director general of Sudan’s intelligence service (2006 – 2011). He is a member of SPLM-Leaders (Former Political Detainees). He can be reached on

Dr. Remember Miamingi is an international lawyer based at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. He can be reached at

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