This paper provides an overview of land governance as it relates to problems of conflict and displacement in South Sudan. The goal is to help aid actors better understand the context in which they are operating and how they might limit the potential for unintended consequences from their interventions and maximise the contribution that they make to social cohesion and conflict transformation. The study focused on three subnational locations – Bor, Wau and Yambio – that have been the sites of aid interventions in the land sector both historically and in the current context. In all, researchers conducted 74 semi-structured interviews conducted with 118 research participants (76 male and 43 female) between August and September 2021.
Community Land Ownership
The notion that communities have the right to decide what happens on their ancestral lands is of central importance to any effort to secure durable solutions to problems of displacement in South Sudan. Community landownership is legally recognised in the 2009 Land Act and has considerable public support in many parts of the country. For its proponents, a strong position in favour of community land rights is necessary to protect community assets from misappropriation by political elites. Critics of community land ownership maintain that people have taken the idea too far and that it needs to be recalibrated to recognize the government’s right to acquire land for the purposes of development. Yet, others point to the way in which community land ownership, or more specifically, the overlap of customary and administrative boundaries, has driven more exclusionary notions of identity and exacerbated land conflicts in South Sudan.
Communities are by their very nature diverse, heterogeneous, and continuously shifting entities.
Identities change over time in response to both endogenous and exogenous factors. Geographic territories may host groups that have varying degrees of ‘otherness’ even as they are bound together by other factors, including ethnicity. To account for this diversity, aid actors should make sure that their engagements with communities emphasise the principles of inclusivity, equity, and downwards accountability. Community engagement activities should be conducted at all stages of the programme cycle and aid actors should engage with different sectors of society, not just community leaders. This will help them to be more aware of the impacts that they may be having on less visible sectors of society and to adjust their interventions accordingly.
Administrative Changes and Land Governance
Administrative changes that have taken place over the years have had far-reaching impacts on land governance in South Sudan. One such change involved the creation of municipalities in many urban areas in the years after independence. State governments in Jonglei, Western Bahr-el-Ghazal and Western Equatoria established municipalities in Bor and Wau in 2012 and in Yambio in 2015. In each case, the establishment of the municipalities involved the annexation of surrounding landholdings and the transfer of administrative functions from county administrations to the newly created municipalities.
In Bor, lingering resentment among host communities with the way in which the municipality was established back in 2012 continues to drive competition over land between the municipal and county administrations to this day. Presidential orders increasing the number of states from 10 to 32 in 2016/17 further complicated the matter by incentivising newly created counties to assert control over land administration within the municipality. With the reversion to 10 states in February 2020, the municipality has sought to reclaim its powers, but the delay in appointing the new state government left the local administrations without the oversight and supervision needed to resolve the matter.
This trend towards increased competition over land will likely continue for the foreseeable future. As revenue has dwindled at the national level, control over land governance has become an increasingly important means of generating income for state and local governments that are desperate for funds.
Aid actors operating in the land sector must be aware of the ways in which their interventions could reinforce or undermine the claims of the various actors in contested environments such as these to limit the risk that they contribute to underlying conflicts.