The interpretation of self-determination as a vote for secession shaped the state that South Sudan has become since the 2011 referendum. Self-determination, this paper argues, is a democratic political process in which citizens determine their preferred form of statehood and nature of governance for their country.

In South Sudan, however, political actors—with international support—established conditions that reduced such complex democratic processes to narrow technical matters. Equating self-determination with secession consolidated political and military domination in a process designed to end such domination. This was done at the expense of a more inclusive, process-oriented and political interpretation of self-determination.