Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

After six years, why is South Sudan on the brink of collapse?

If Iraqi Kurdistan becomes independent, it will take the title of the world’s newest country from its African neighbour, but as history shows, things may very well take a turn for the worse

Hunger is so common that in a World Food Programme report this week, South Sudan was ranked as the least affordable place in the world for a plate of basic food, with a single meal costing the equivalent of a day and a half's wages. AP
Hunger is so common that in a World Food Programme report this week, South Sudan was ranked as the least affordable place in the world for a plate of basic food, with a single meal costing the equivalent of a day and a half's wages. AP

When the fifth anniversary of South Sudan's independence was marked in July 2016, president Salva Kir addressed a sombre message to the nation. This year, on the sixth anniversary, he repeated the message. There were no celebrations. “It is difficult for many people to afford even one meal per day,” he said.

South Sudan was the world's newest nation once. The birth of South Sudan in 2011 was greeted with celebrations on the streets of the new capital, Juba. But the celebrations were rapidly overshadowed by the hard decisions, and serious miscalculations, of running a new country. Since then, not a year has passed without some form of violence in South Sudan.

Until Iraqi Kurdistan, or Spain's Catalonia, or the southern states of Brazil declare secession, South Sudan is still the world's newest country. But six years after independence, South Sudan is in dire straits. Despite having significant oil reserves, it is collapsing as a unitary country, devolving into ethnic enclaves. How did this happen?

On the face of it, South Sudan should have been a success story. After decades waging a guerrilla war against Khartoum, South Sudan, aided by outside powers like the United States, persuaded Sudan to allow a referendum on secession. Almost 98 per cent voted to separate and Khartoum accepted the division.

For years, the South Sudanese had complained of discrimination by the majority Arab Muslim population of the north. With more Christian and animist beliefs – and more black Africans – the south felt different. Flush with oil, although landlocked, the new country believed it could govern itself better.


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Yet almost immediately, there were divisions on how to split up the oil wealth and power. Previously, the blame for anything that went wrong in the region could be placed on Khartoum (a charge which wasn't always unfair). But after independence, South Sudanese began to blame each other and a hard division opened up between the two largest tribes in the country, the Dinka, the largest, and the Nuer, the second largest.

This division went to the very top. The two men who ruled the country, Salva Kir, the president and a Dinka, and Riek Macher, the vice-president and a Nuer, had spent decades together in the Sudan's People Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political wing of the rebels that sought independence. Now, in power, they were constantly at odds with each other. In 2013, two years after independence, facing accusations of seeking to impose Dinka supremacy on all the myriad ethnic groups of South Sudan, Kir sacked Machar, sparking a civil war that has still not ended.

Four million people, a third of the population, are now displaced, either internally or seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Reports of rape and massacres are widespread. There was famine in parts of South Sudan this year. Hunger is so common that in a World Food Programme report this week, South Sudan was ranked as the least affordable place in the world for a plate of basic food, with a single meal costing the equivalent of a day and a half's wages.

The very factor that made South Sudan seek independence has almost led to its destruction. The identity politics that was at the heart of the SPLM's offering to the people of South Sudan has returned with a vengeance. For decades, the independence movement had been saying that the reason for the lack of development in the region was because the ethnic groups of the south were oppressed by the north. Why, then, should one ethnic group, the Nuer, after independence, not feel that the reason for their maginalisation was oppression by another ethnic group? The narrative that separation into smaller enclaves is the answer was already entrenched.

Escalating violence entrenched that belief. Where once the African South Sudanese feared the Arab Sudanese whose army patrolled the streets of the south, it is now the Dinka who are feared. The Dinka have been accused of ethnic cleansing and the committing of horrific crimes (as, indeed, have other ethnic groups). South Sudan's smaller ethnic groups have not waited to discover if the rumours about the Dinka are true – instead, they themselves have taken up arms. What started as a dispute over the division of power is now a hydra-headed conflict, with vicious and deep-rooted divisions. There are thought to be over 50 separate rebel groups fighting across the country.

That is not meant to suggest that discrimination, first by Arab Sudanese from Khartoum, and later by Dinka in Juba, was not real. It was. The South Sudanese had legitimate reasons to believe, in 2011, that they could make a real success of their new country.


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But the point was that the political dynamic had been established over decades, that of blaming an entire ethnic group. It was true that Khartoum was mismanaging the affairs of the south – but it was hardly providing exemplary leadership of the rest of the country. The same was true of the intra-South Sudanese conflict after independence. The political divisions between Kir and Machar did not need to descend into war, but it was all too easy for the country to split along ethnic lines.

Reconciliation after so much bloodshed will not be easy. Yet the war has persisted for another reason, related to resources. Both sides believe there is still a military solution, and there is a significant prize for the victorious army. The oil curse appears again. Because of the abundance of energy resources, whichever side wins would be guaranteed an economic bonanza. Unlike in more diversified economies, there is no reason to believe that the country can only prosper with the other side, so the incentives to fight on are strong.

A national dialogue has been trying for more than two years to bring about a peace agreement, but there appears to be a belief that either side can simply wait, and hold out for better terms. Machar, now in exile in South Africa, refused to take part in the national dialogue for the best part of a year. Just last week, he declined to take part again.

What may finally push the two sides is international impatience. America's new aid chief went to South Sudan in September for the first time, and bluntly warned that Washington was conducting “a serious re-examination of US policy”. That could mean a drop in aid: the United Nations has given Juba more than half a billion dollars just this year. If the United States pulls out, other countries, like the UK, could follow. That threat, it is hoped, will concentrate the minds of Kir and Machar. It is a cruel irony that a country that became independent flush with oil money is now dependent on handouts to stop a slide to starvation.

Updated: October 18, 2017 10:02 AM