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Taxation, Coercion and Civicness in South Sudan

Dr Matthew Benson


Recent scholarship underscores taxes are central to forging African governments that are more capable of delivering public services in ways that are accountable to citizens and representative of citizens’ demands. And yet, South Sudan illustrates that taxation without representation can also be embedded within a country’s politics. A kleptocratic elite has captured most of South Sudan’s petroleum finances despite the enormous need for basic public services to improve the lives of its 11 million citizens, the majority of whom live on less than $1 a day. And while Charles Tilly’s dictum that ‘war made the state and the state made war’ holds true in analyses of European state-formation, South Sudan’s conflicts suggest that war made rebels and those rebels turned the state into a vehicle for self-enrichment. Rather than democratic decline, the South Sudanese case underscores how antidemocratic governance patterns can remain firmly lodged within Africa if decolonisation, civil wars, or successful secession fail to disrupt colonial-era political economy patterns.

This paper analyses state budgets and direct tax practices in South Sudan to analyse how South Sudan departed from other countries in Africa and the world. This paper argues that because different states in South Sudan have relied upon export revenue, initially in the form of cotton and eventually oil, the country’s direct tax architecture has remained an extractive governance tool used to subordinate populations. Neither decades of civil wars nor independent statehood have disrupted this governance pattern and tax revenue has continually failed to provide demonstrable benefits or services for contemporary South Sudanese citizens. In contrast to individuals and communities with privileged access to oil rents at the centre of government in Juba, South Sudan’s rural territorial peripheries are consequently marginalized and excluded from state resources. Individual citizens rights in South Sudan’s territorial peripheries are similarly diminished, which limits South Sudan’s democratic prospects.


Rather than symbols of petty corruption, some direct taxes and fees are integral to the sustenance of the country’s coercive political marketplace. This paper argues that this finding is rooted in the colonial state’s embrace of a political economic repertoire the anthropologist Louisa Lombard frames as ‘forceful acquisition’. The British-led colonial state occupied the vast region that is now South Sudan through collaboration with a network of customary authorities recruited from the population in the territory. The colonial state ‘bought’ or ‘rented’ collaboration from customary authorities through the explicit promotion and expansion of these individuals’ social status rooted in their ability to coercively take taxes from others. The post-independence Khartoum-led government subsequently adopted the same governance pattern and extended it to the country’s civil service. Meanwhile, southern rebels fighting against the then unified formal government in Khartoum embraced similarly severe tactics. Most recently, South Sudan’s post-independence leadership has integrated the same approach to devastating effect.

This paper, which draws on a larger research project, is based on a review of Sudanese, South Sudanese, and British colonial archival material from 1899 until the present. Due to the limited material available during South Sudan’s civil wars due to conflict or environmental degradation, 200 oral histories from range of South Sudanese respondents supplement the archival review. Archival research took place from 2015 to 2019 and oral histories were conducted in 2019 and 2020. Direct taxes, as opposed to indirect taxes and licenses, are this article’s focus because of their comparatively unique capacity to contribute to bargaining between taxpayers and government. 

The Origin of South Sudan’s Taxation Systems

Instead of ‘starting from scratch’ when South Sudan became independent in 2011, the country’s direct tax system was built upon three sets of different tax collection practices. Each have embedded some coercive governance patterns and others that to a limited extent support civicness, which is a logic of public authority that contrasts with the political marketplace and identity politics. These commenced with extractive colonial rule taxation policies that endured into the early years of post-colonial independence, which was followed by similarly coercive rebel taxation practices that emerged shortly afterwards. The third foundational layer emerged with the transition from rebel rule to South Sudan’s independent statehood.

Two interconnected contemporary tax systems emerge from this layered past, which support different governance outcomes. One is ‘government’ taxes, which are largely monetary and levied by the civil service on individuals and businesses and taxes collected by customary authorities such as chiefs. Government taxes maintain a ‘salariat’ class of civil servants, who predate upon taxpayers largely to supplement their irregular wages and lack the fiscal resources to deliver public services. In contrast, taxes levied by customary authorities, such as chiefs, provide a modicum of representation for most South Sudanese, which has been integral for communities to weather decades of conflict and successive, frequently violent, state-building attempts by different governments. These ‘community’ taxes are monetary but can also include food items and livestock.

Rather than a ‘command and control’ model of taxation from Juba to the peripheries, which is how the revenue system might appear from the capital, South Sudan’s tax system is far more fragmented. This patchwork taxation system is shaped by different governments’ attempts to wield taxes for a range of monetary and governance purposes, including as a tool for social control and the initiatives of rebel movements both to secure loyalty and partially to finance their own activities. The taxes contemporary customary authorities collect are exceptions to this pattern, as these now support perhaps the only example of taxation and representation in the country. The following three timeframes have shaped both coercive and civic tax practices in South Sudan:


1. Taxation, Submission, & Forceful Acquisition, 1899-1963

The first period commenced with the colonial arrangement known as the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, which lasted from 1899 to 1956 and continued into independence until the first civil war began in 1963. Under British-led occupation, taxes were collected as a sign of fealty, submission, or loyalty to the British-led colonial state. Rather than pay for government, which was financed through export revenue, direct taxes were a tool for the state to ‘buy’ or ‘rent’ loyalty from government-selected customary authorities.


Taxes were a key component of the anthropologist Louisa Lombard’s notion of ‘forceful acquisition’ and provides the basis for Alex de Waal’s notion of transaction-based political dynamics in the country. Customary authorities benefited from tax collection in both material and social terms since they kept an unspecified proportion of tax revenue for their own aims and enhanced their social status through their central role on courts. Meanwhile, the colonial state used taxes to establish government-backed chieftaincies, which were loosely territorialised in ways that remain salient today. Taxes were also used to monitor the relative loyalty and fealty of chiefs depending on how much revenue they reported back.


This choice departed from colonial tax policies in other British-led colonies, such as the Gold Coast, now Ghana. In the Gold Coast direct taxes were so difficult to impose that the colonial state did not levy them until 1943, even though the territory had been under British occupation since 1821. Likewise, in colonial Sierra Leone, the British colonial state paid chiefs ‘extravagant amounts of money for following government directives’. 


Direct taxes did not fully finance local government administrations and customary authorities had limited incentives to develop public services for their populaces when they personally benefitted from the tax regime. Instead, taxes were an effective tool for the colonial state to consolidate its authority over the vast territory that was difficult to physically access and took 30-years to violently ‘pacify’ through militarised colonial patrols. Local governments subsequently depended on fiscal transfers from the capitol, which is a governance pattern that continues into the present.

2. Taxation, Conflict, & Rebel Finance, 1963- 2005

The second timeframe took shape shortly after then unified Sudan acquired its independence from the British in 1956 and approximately five decades of civil war commenced in 1963. During the first civil war against Khartoum-led rule, from 1963 to 1972, Anya-Nya rebels predatorily collected taxes to supplement their guerrilla war effort. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) adopted similar rebel taxation patterns during the wars for independence that it primarily led from 1983 to 2005, while also working through customary authorities to collect taxes.


Rebel taxes did not meaningfully finance local government civil administrations. Instead, in another overarching governance pattern that continues into contemporary South Sudan, from the Anya-Nya years into the fragmented SPLM/A administration into the region’s 2011 independence, taxes supplemented external finances from regional and international powers. External finances included military support; additionally, while aid did not directly finance different kinds of rebel or state administrations the ability to manipulate aid contributed to the resources available to the SPLM/A.


While seemingly insignificant to the official national budget, taxes supplemented decades of civil wars that contributed to independence. Nor are they a distant memory that is no longer salient to today’s politics. When South Sudan’s current leadership declares that people will simply ‘return to the bush’ if there are no economic opportunities available, this is a tacit reference to the enduring salience of the predatory taxation patterns that rebel movements devised during the country’s civil wars of the 20th century. Taxes were directly linked to Lombard’s notion of forceful acquisition as a political repertoire because the social status of these rebels was linked to their ability to take from southern populations in the region.


3. Taxation as Fragmented Predation & Limited Representation, 2005-Present

The current political, economic, and social moment emerged with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the SPLM/A. Accurate figures on the amount of oil revenue the Government of South Sudan derives from oil are not publicly available and the full scale of the revenues the country generates from oil are similarly difficult to ascertain. Even with these gaps, oil is widely believed to underpin most of the South Sudanese government’s finances. For example, South Sudan’s most recent public revenue figures for FY2019/2020 budget state that the country generated just one quarter of its total revenue from non-oil revenue sources.

A major outcome of this development is that subnational governments remain dependent on Juba both for the political legitimacy of nominally elected political representatives and for fiscal handouts. Rather than contribute to much needed public services, government-administered taxes primarily support South Sudan’s ‘payroll peace’ in which formal taxes that civil servants collect supplement their salaries. The national civil service is consequently trapped in a holding pattern, whereby the taxes they raise, both informally and formally, barely cover or supplement shortcomings in pay, let alone finance expensive clinics or investments in public infrastructure. Meanwhile, interviews revealed that in some instances military personnel are literally fed by taxes local publics pay; the latter justifiably fear violent repercussions if they fail to comply.


Respondents noted that while there was some initial reprieve or patience among taxpayers, which was partly enabled by the provision of aid, these sentiments are wearing thin. Akin to how the SPLM/A leveraged aid during the wars that led to independence, aid initially provided public evidence that post-2011 independence provided aid-sponsored medical clinics, roads, and schools. However, interviewed taxpayers now openly question where their tax revenue is going when public services are essentially contracted out to the international aid system.


Throughout these waves of conflicts and the subsequent transition from rebel rule to internationally recognised statehood, customary authorities devised innovative ways to survive decades of political instability, politically motivated violence, and in some instances, environmental degradation. Civil war and neglectful post-2011 governance patterns have shifted the institution of chieftaincy from one that was solely founded in forceful acquisition towards one that is rooted in their ability to both obtain taxes and transparently spend them on public services that are representative of taxpayer demands. This transformation is notable given the broader context in which the South Sudanese state fails to deliver public services and elected officials use government positions to self-enrich.


Across research sites, for example, customary authorities collected taxes that communities used to respond to citizens’ demands to redress inequities. This includes redistributing food within the community to ensure food insecure families are aided. Other examples include motivating labour to construct local infrastructure in the form of roads and at a much smaller scale to assist communities with social functions such as funerals and weddings. The taxes that customary authorities collect consequently represent a potentially transformative source of civicness. Customary authorities’ taxes are consensual and largely voluntary and in so doing so generate and sustain ‘integrity, trust, civility, inclusion and dialogue, and non-violence’, which are tenants of the concept.



This historically embedded analysis shines a brighter light on the bottom-up nature of South Sudan’s political marketplace, which is in part shaped by state capture and potentially counteracted by the expanded representation community taxes provide. Instead of ‘starting from scratch’ as the South Sudan related cliché goes, akin to other governments that have occupied the region prior to 2011, including the British-led colonial state, the economy of the independent South Sudanese state is once again dominated by rents. Just as during British and subsequent Sudanese rule, these revenues are not meaningfully distributed to devolved or decentralised subnational regions. Contrary to how the political marketplace might appear to analysts at the centre of government in Juba, the picture that emerges across this project’s research sites does not adhere to a command-and-control model from Juba to the peripheries. The system is closer to fragmented predation rather than what the scholar Mahmood Mamdani characterises as ‘decentralised despotism’. Despite the hope South Sudan’s 2011 independence justifiably embodied, the coercive political economy embraced by the Sudanese and British-led colonial state that previously occupied the region has endured and undermined contemporary South Sudan’s democratic prospects.

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