In November, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the Security Council about the risk of mass killings in South Sudan. That’s a shocking turn of events. In 2005, after two decades of fighting between the government of Sudan and rebels in the south, many observers were hopeful when the two sides signed the peace agreement that would help create South Sudan, the world’s youngest country.
With independence, those rebel forces — the SPLA, or Sudan People’s Liberation Army — were transformed into the South Sudanese state army. The group’s political wing — the SPLM, or Sudan People’s Liberation Movement — formed the government.
However, the peace agreement did not suddenly make daily life safe. In December 2013, only two years after independence, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, accused his dismissed vice president, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup. Since then, the rival factions have been fighting a war, prompting Ban to warn of potential mass atrocities.
There were other security threats even before South Sudan started its own civil war.
After negotiations between the Ugandan government and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) failed in 2008, the LRA moved through South Sudan’s southwestern region. Civilians in the area organized their own protection from LRA attacks.
The protection groups were called the “arrow boys.” Some arrow boys indeed used bows and arrows, while others used guns. They were self-organized, deeply embedded within their communities and very effective at keeping their communities safe. But when the LRA threat abated, the arrow boys did not disband.
Now, a few members of the former arrow boys have begun attacking their own people. Saying that they are owed something for what they did as community protectors, they are demanding recognition from the government.
But vigilant volunteers became threats to the state
In August 2015, the SPLM in government and the SPLM in opposition struck a peace deal. While violence has continued, some parts of the deal are still in effect. That includes cantonment sites: areas where opposition soldiers can gather to lay down their weapons, often expecting a payoff.
But this has caused some trouble. Some southwesterners are envious, having stayed out of both the opposition and the government — and so being shut out of that payoff. In some cases, community groups have begun attacking their home areas, agitating for their own payoff.
That includes the fighting in Western Equatoria that has gone on for about a year, although it is often unclear who is fighting whom and what exactly their link to the SPLM-in-opposition might be. We do know that some of the members of these armed groups were once arrow boys.
Which factors might have contributed to this development with the arrow boys? Our research can help answer this questions.
Is information a good tool to build a state?
When South Sudan achieved independence, many international actors thought they knew what South Sudan needed: state building. You can find that in the U.N. peace mission mandate, the OECD principles for South Sudan, and publications of the United States Institute of Peace. The term means different things to different people, but most observers agree that, at a minimum, the state should hold a monopoly on violence. Only the state can legitimately use physical force, through an army, a police force or prisons.
Further, many in the international community, such as the United Nations, believe that to be involved in running democracy, citizens need to be able to learn about their world through the news media. In fact, U.N. peace missions routinely build and operate radio stations in conflict zones.
Following this theory, there were radio broadcasts about LRA movements to help citizens stay safe. These broadcasts continue, although the LRA has not seriously threatened the area since roughly 2012.
But these radio messages are backfiring. Here’s how.
How information and media erode the state monopoly on violence and hinder state building.
In the conventional vision of state building, knowledge about LRA threats ought to prompt listeners to take political action. They might lobby the government for more protection or vote against politicians who refuse to help. In this scenario, information helps build the state.
Instead, we found that the radio broadcasts about LRA movements spur fear in citizens, leading them to feel they’re still under imminent threat — even while acknowledging there had hardly been any LRA attacks for a long time.
Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman and colleague put a name to this: availability. People tend to believe something is likely to happen if we can easily recall an example of it. Being permanently reminded of the LRA made it easy for the civilian population to think of the fighters — even if they were nowhere nearby.
That fear pushed people to seek further protection from the arrow boys — and not from the army, which had left the community to its own devices. In areas that received radio broadcasts about the LRA, more citizens supported the arrow boys. But, of course, the arrow boys took away the monopoly of violence from the state.
Media and information actually undermined state building.
Here’s how we did our research
We surveyed 433 randomly selected individuals from 10 randomly selected villages in two counties in what was then South Sudan’s Western Equatoria state. We found that in areas with the best radio reception, people were more scared of the LRA, more strongly supported the arrow boys, and less strongly supported the army. In qualitative interviews, people with radio reception talked much more about the possibility of LRA attacks. They also said that they wanted the arrow boys to take over state duties, such as arresting people who were expected in court.
We’re not suggesting that radio broadcasts alone are responsible for empowering the arrow boys. Nor do we believe that ignorance builds better states, or that people should be denied access to the best possible information about their security. Rather, we suggest that there can be a link between radio, fear and support for fighters that undermines state building.
Information alone does not turn residents into citizens
Information alone does not help build democracy unless its audience can be assured that the government can and will take action when issues are raised. The people need to feel that the state will help them stay secure or allow them to hold their politicians to account. This doesn’t yet exist in countries that are in conflict or just coming out of it. Information might still empower — but in different ways than expected.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the non-governmental organizations Resolve and Invisible Children as the parties broadcasting messages about LRA movements.
Anouk S. Rigterink is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford.
Mareike Schomerus is a senior research fellow in politics and governance at the Overseas Development Institute.