Jakob Dall / Polaris

South Sudan: Complications of birthing a nation

Nearly three years old, South Sudan is mired in political infighting, mass violence and the threat of famine

An African state, newly carved from the southern territory of its mother country, embarked on a bold new future bolstered by the oil reserves it counted on to fuel its economy.

Its ethnically diverse population was united in creating a new independent state for itself after escaping religious, economic and ethnic tension with the north.

Yet by the time its third anniversary neared, the new state was crippled by infighting between ethnic factions, the leaders’ inability to reconcile with their former homeland, and famine and violence that claimed the lives of nearly a million civilians. Before the young country was even three years old, it was returned back to the place from which it seceded.

The lessons of Biafra, the southeastern state that broke away from Nigeria in 1967 only to return in 1970, are all too clear for South Sudan, itself not yet three years old, and convulsing in levels of violence that have some observers warning of genocide as well as famine.

At least 10,000 people have been killed and an estimated 1 million displaced from fighting that broke out last December after President Salva Kiir accused his deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup against his leadership. U.N. refugee camps have been overrun by South Sudanese desperate to escape ethnically targeted killing campaigns, while radio stations in the northern town of Bentiu were reportedly “even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another community.” 

A third round of peace talks will begin in neighboring Ethiopia next week, which Kiir and Machar are both expected to attend. 

“Before the promise of South Sudan’s future is soaked in more blood, President Kiir and the opposition must work immediately for a cessation of hostilities and to move towards an understanding about future governance of the country,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters during his visit to the capital, Juba, last week.

An estimated 1 million people have been displaced because of the fighting in South Sudan, and at least 10,000 have been killed.
Jakob Dall / Polaris

“If both sides do not take steps in order to reduce or end the violence, they literally put their entire country in danger. And they will completely destroy what they are fighting to inherit,” Kerry said.

As he called on both sides to do more to allow humanitarian aid to rush to assist the displaced South Sudanese, Kerry said Washington would also impose sanctions on “those who target innocent people, who wage a campaign of ethnic violence, or who disrupt the delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

This week the U.S. announced it had imposed sanctions on two individuals: Peter Gadet, an army commander loyal to Machar, and Maj. Gen. Marial Chanoung, head of Kiir’s presidential guard. The assets of both men have been frozen, and no U.S. citizens or companies are permitted to deal with them. Both are believed to be responsible for mass killings of civilians.

The measure is a stopgap of sorts. More peacekeepers are on their way. Forces currently number 8,500, and Kerry said more would be secured once there was a mandate from the U.N. Security Council.

At present, it’s unclear whether Machar can make it to Addis Ababa in time for the May 9 talks. He told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon he would “try his best.” 

But while diplomats and leaders discuss cease-fires, observers on the ground are pointing to more dangers besides the ongoing violence. Toby Lanzer, the U.N. official coordinating humanitarian aid in South Sudan, called for $230 million in international aid for tools and seeds critically needed to stave off famine that could affect millions of people. The violence is preventing farmers from farming crops before the end of May, when the season ends.

“If we miss that planting season, there will be a catastrophic decline in food security,” Lanzer told reporters. “What will strike that country, and it will hit about 7 million people, will be more grave than anything that continent has seen since the mid-1980s.”

Famine, and genocide too. “Victories and defeats now have more ominous consequences; for in South Sudan the victors see military victory as justifying civilian slaughter of the predominant ethnic group of the opposing forces,” wrote Eric Reeves from Smith College and John Prendergast of the Enough Project, in a recent op-ed.

“Without an international force capable of enforcing a separation of armed elements, or at least robustly protecting civilians, the fighting will intensify and become more relentlessly ethnic in character,” they wrote.

“I think as the days pass there are a lot of people concerned about the willingness of the leaders to come together,” said Akshaya Kumar, a policy analyst with the Enough Project. Even the two men meeting would represent a “significant breakthrough,” she said, but “just those two men talking is not enough; it’s necessary but not sufficient. Civil society is going to be key. Civilians need to be part of the process.”

Including voices from among South Sudan’s 60 different ethnic groups would help not only alleviate the security crisis, but also begin to address the failure that occurred when South Sudan first became independent nearly three years ago, said John Mbaku, from the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

“Some groups are feeling they were cut out of participating in the emerging economy. Whether it’s true or not, perceptions are very important,” Mbaku told Al Jazeera. “The failure of South Sudan has to do with the fact that the government hasn’t been able to provide mechanisms for people to organize their lives.”

The country’s lack of established cattle-grazing rights is one example of how the state has failed to create a rule of law. Since South Sudan’s independence, the necessity for farmers to graze their cattle in different areas according to the seasons has been a source of animosity that quickly devolved into ethnically charged disputes. “The government was supposed to provide those institutions, but it failed to do so,” Mbaku said.

Rather than focus on institution building, creating local-level education systems, establishing credible rule-of-law centers and resolving its border dispute with Sudan, South Sudan’s new leaders became embroiled in corruption over the country’s oil revenues, which account for more than 90 percent of the national budget.

But South Sudan’s failures are not uncommon in Africa, Mbaku said.

“After independence, many of these new African countries, their leaders did not sit down and try to provide themselves with institutions that would allow all the different groups to live together peacefully,” he said. “That should have been the first order of business.”

And even now, Mbaku doubts whether Machar and Kiir should be entrusted with trying to steer South Sudan away from the cliff edge.

“The idea of national dialogue is good, but the way forward would be for the those two guys to get out of the picture and have an interim government that doesn’t include either of them,” he said. “Let that interim government engage in national dialogue for the reconstruction of those institutions.”

Others agree. Kiir and Machar “have shown little commitment to negotiate political settlement and they have exhibited an inability to forge a common vision about the future, as well as to restrain their hardliners,” wrote Amir Idris, chair of the department of African studies at Fordham University.

But those decisions lie with the South Sudanese. Despite Washington’s sanctions and the U.N.’s push for peace talks, the changes can only come from the people, something Kerry reiterated during his meetings in Juba last week.

At the same time, the international community, so instrumental in creating South Sudan, should continue to play a strong role in bringing about a peaceful resolution, said Kumar of the Enough Project.

“This is definitely a critical moment for South Sudan,” she told Al Jazeera. “And although there’s a lot of complexity, it would be a tragedy if the international community abandoned this country and wrote it off as a failed state.”

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