Investment-related conflict in South Sudan: contested rights and the power of information

by David Deng

David Deng is Research Director for the South Sudan Law Society. These observations were originally presented at “Turning Point: What future for people and resources? A panel on the trends shaping rural lands and lives” on February 1, 2012 at The Royal Society of London.


The new report by Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) paints a vivid picture of a world in flux and the various struggles that are emerging over wealth, power, and natural resources. I’d like to pick up on a couple of these themes and flesh them out a bit with examples from South Sudan, where I’ve worked for the past few years on several projects relating to land rights. Most recently, my work has touched on the surge in land-based investment after the 2005 peace agreement, which brought to an end the 22-year civil war between north and south in Sudan.

Investment and conflict

The first issue that I’d like to touch on is the complex relationship between investment and conflict in resource-rich states. I think it is fairly clear to us all that poorly planned investments can contribute to conflict, particularly in fragile, post-conflict states; but what is perhaps a little less obvious is how conflict can actually serve to attract certain types of investment.

Let me explain. Struggles over land and natural resources were among the root causes of the civil war in South Sudan. Foreign investments during this period often contributed to the violence. Oil companies colluded with the government in Khartoum to forcibly displace local populations from oil producing areas, in order to make the land available for oil exploration. Armed groups in South Sudan used local monopolies of violence to control cross-border trade in precious woods.

And in the Nuba Mountains along the border between north and south, where today, we hear reports of mass killings and hundreds of thousands of people at risk of conflict induced-famine, the government expropriated community lands and gave them to foreign and domestic elites in order to establish large-scale mechanized farms. The disregard that Khartoum showed for their community lands caused many Nuba to join the liberation movement in the south. What followed was a long and costly civil war that eventually resulted in the secession of South Sudan.

But with its newfound independence, South Sudan finds itself in a harsh new world. It has a population of only 8 or 9 million, spread across a land area more than twice the size of the UK, considerable supplies of oil and minerals, fertile land and water; all this makes South Sudan an attractive prize in a resource-strapped world.

And there are plenty of investors out there that are more than willing to take a calculated risk when the possibility is there for a quick return. According to a recent study that I was involved with, in just four years, from the beginning of 2007 to the end of 2010, private interests sought or secured lease rights to more than 8 percent of the country’s total land area.

Here we have a country that is probably at the most unpredictable time in its entire history, faced with a very real possibility of a return to war, with a government that is just getting on its feet, and it still manages to attract considerable amounts of interest from foreign investors.

So not only can investment cause conflict, but conflict can also attract investment, as opportunistic companies come to take advantage of power vacuums, and in the case of South Sudan, a massive transfer of wealth to a bureaucratically weak government.

Contested nature of rights

My second point, and this really comes across in the RRI report, is an observation about the nature of rights. It has become increasingly apparent to me that meaningful rights can only be born through struggle. Rights are not inert principles granted through legislation or some constitutional promise; they are born from contests between specific people, at a specific place, and a specific time. These struggles give birth to norms that are tailored to address particular circumstances. Eventually these norms coalesce into clearly defined rights.

Let me illustrate with a couple examples. The right of self-determination for South Sudan was not a gift granted by a cornered opponent in Khartoum, or an act of generosity from global superpowers; it was a right demanded by virtue of a long and brutal civil war. As the late Dr. John Garang, leader of the liberation movement, explained: “The right of self-determination by its very nature must be determined by people for themselves.”

Or if we look at the struggles over land in South Sudan during the war. These struggles gave rise to a popular sentiment in favor of community land rights, captured in a wartime slogan, ‘land belongs to the community’, which people have used to great effect to resist unwanted government development projects and private investments in the postwar period. Community land ownership was later formalized in the Land Act of 2009, which put customary land tenure on equal footing with other forms of land ownership.

Despite the progressive laws, wartime economies die hard in a place like South Sudan, and in practice, communities continue to be marginalized in decision-making about community lands; nonetheless, the strides that they have made thus far are evidence of the support that exists for community land ownership among many groups in South Sudan.


My final point relates to this pushback from affected individuals and groups at the local level that is portrayed in RRI’s report. We’re still at an early stage of agricultural development in South Sudan and few projects are having tangible impacts yet, but we have already seen several examples of communities successfully opposing investments that were negotiated without their consent.

Allow me illustrate with another story. In the month’s preceding South Sudan’s independence, I was conducting research on land investments for a CA-based think tank called the Oakland Institute. I had heard of a big 10 thousand square kilometer project involving an American company in a place called Mukaya. The investment had first been uncovered by local papers in 2008, and by 2011 it had been picked up by several international media outlets. I decided to take a trip out there to talk with local leaders and find out more.

To my astonishment, however, despite the considerable media attention that the project had received, the people residing in the area had never heard of it. When I showed them a copy of the investment agreement they reacted with shock, asking if this meant that they would be forced off their ancestral homelands. I tried to tell them that it seemed to me like a rather implausible investment, but when I left I was a bit concerned about what I had done. Did I properly manage their concerns? What if they turn on the people who signed the deal?

Then, about a month later, a delegation of 12 community leaders came from Mukaya to meet with the president and the state governor who authorized the lease. After hearing their position, the president and the governor publicly assured the community that no investment would proceed without their consent.

It was a partial victory to be sure. Due to the lack of transparency associated with these things, no one knows the real status of the agreement. But what struck me was that all it took was information, and the community was able to quickly and efficiently mobilize themselves and force the government to give in to their demands.

So the free flow of information, I guess we could call it transparency, is of paramount importance in these resource-based struggles. When people’s rights are being ignored, the most effective solution is to provide them with information and fast; people are best positioned to protect their own rights, and that’s why any advocacy initiative that does not place the people who stand to be affected most at the center, is usually doomed to fail.


The three issues that I’ve touched on today—investment-related conflict, the contested nature of rights, and the power of information—are just a few of the issues that characterize this emerging global struggle over land and natural resources. RRI’s annual report ends with some questions about where all this will lead, but for me the key point is that the struggle exists. The mere fact that people are demonstrating the power to resist means that new rights are being born. These struggles are a sign of health, and at least from my little corner of the world in South Sudan, I am confident in the ability of people who have rights and know it, to have their voice heard.

One response to “Investment-related conflict in South Sudan: contested rights and the power of information

  1. David’s piece has also been run on the Haki Legal Empowerment Network, which has a very interesting blog section:

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