What’s Up With South Sudan?

Dani Podgoretskaya

South Sudan happens to simultaneously be the newest and the least successful country in the world. When the African nation declared its independence on July 9, 2011, the future seemed bright; after a century of conflict and uncertainty, decades of bloody civil war, and years of economic turmoil, South Sudan was finally granted a right to govern itself as an independent state. Yet, instead of marking its ascendancy to statehood, this declaration was the beginning of Sudan’s descent into chaos.

And by no means is the above statement an exaggeration – the current situation in South Sudan is rather grave, to say the least. Poverty, drought, famine, high inflation, and a civil war are just some of the problems this young nation is currently facing. While we should thoroughly examine all of these grim issues, let’s first take a step back and see how we got here.


South Sudan is a landlocked country located in the North-East of Africa (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

From Doom to Gloom: A Brief History of South Sudan

Sudan, as a pre-2011 territorial entity, had always been a divided nation. When still united, Sudan was Africa’s largest country. With an Arab and Muslim North, and a predominantly African and Christian South, it hardly had any united national identity. This pronounced cultural, economic, and social separation between the two regions was what ultimately lead to South Sudan’s independence.

When the British colonised the region in 1898, they governed the North and the South differently, magnifying the already present divide. The North received most of the investments and aid, while the South was largely neglected.

In 1956, Sudan gained its independence from the British hegemony and the South immediately made its desire for self-governance clear. The tensions between the two regions quickly boiled over into a bloody civil war between the Khartoum forces from the North and Anya-Nya rebels from the South. From 1955 to 1972, over half a million people fell victims to the violence.

After nearly two decades of turmoil, the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement finally recognised South Sudan’s right to self-governance; an autonomous region was created with an administrative capital in Juba. At last, the two groups seemed to have figured out a strategy for peaceful coexistence.

But then the Sudanese discovered oil. The large oil fields in the South, right by the Northern border, became the apple of discord between the two regions. As you might recall, the Addis Ababa agreement provided the South with considerable autonomy. Such liberty did not play well with the North Sudan government who coincidentally became interested in reuniting their glorious nation after the fields were uncovered in 1978. In 1983, the North declared Sudan Islamic Sharia law, effectively stripping Juba of any autonomy.


The famous photo by Kevin Carter titled Starving Child and Vulture; was taken in Sudan in 1993 (Credit: 100 Photographs)

Unwilling to be subjected to the hegemony of the North, South Sudan united in the face of oppression. It was in 1983 that the second civil war erupted in the young nation. In the nearly 22 years of conflict, over two million people died. Four million were displaced. At least 16 000 were forced to become child soldiers. The war culminated in a peace agreement signed in 2005. Not only did the agreement renew the South’s autonomy, but it also paved a way to its independence in only six years.

In 2011, after half a century of conflict, South Sudan finally became a state, through a referendum. Things seemed to be looking up: a year earlier South Sudan held multiparty elections for the first time in 24 years, the elected candidate, Salva Kiir Mayardit, promised to fully commit to development and end tribal clashes.

Yet, Somehow It Got Worse: South Sudan Today

The South Sudanese civil war started in 2013 with a sequence of events which arguably overshadows any western political intrigues. While the fight for independence united the two rivalling ethnic groups in the region, after 2011, the Dinkas and the Nuers fell into conflict once again. To cleanse the government and consolidate his power, President Kiir devised a clever plan. The Dinka president accused his Nuer vice-president, Riek Machar, of plotting to overthrow him. Such accusations provided Kiir with enough grounds to dismiss Machar.


President Kiir, on the left, initiated the war dismissing his vice-president, Riek Machar, on the right (Credit: IBTimes UK)

Yet, Machar was able to organise rebel factions which soon seized control of multiple towns. As the Dinka government clashed with the Nuer rebels, South Sudan yet again descended into chaos. The fighting led to almost one-third of the population finding themselves displaced.

Worst of all, the fighting virtually wiped the key agricultural regions of any people. Unable to produce food, South Sudan now relies on imports. The plummeting exchange rate caused by political instability makes these imports expensive. According to the estimates by the United Nations, a single meal can cost almost twice the national daily income – provided that food is available, of course.


Millions of Sudanese, already suffering from the devastation of the war, were affected by the famine (Credit: Newz Post)

In February 2017, the situation was aggravated by a terrible famine. Lasting five months, the famine affected 5 million people. The UN Food Programme reported that 40% of Sudanese were in urgent need of food with 100 000 risking death by starvation every day. While the drought is over now, the economic and social consequences of it can still be felt today.

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has estimated the ongoing Civil War has so far left 382,000 people dead. Whilst the two rival factions signed a peace treaty in August 2018, it is hard to tell how long these accords will withstand the pressure created by both the economic hardship and the underlying ethnic hatred.

Sudan at a Crossroad: South Sudan’s Future

With such a stellar track record of everything going terribly wrong, South Sudan is unlikely to become a success story in the near future. Albeit a very pessimistic view, it is reasonable to conclude that the nation will be unable to leave behind its history of violence and the deeply ingrained ethical hatred. While the peace deal is still in place, so are all of the economic problems.

Although the humanitarian response to the South Sudanese crisis is the largest in the world at the moment, less than 50% of aid needed to make it effective have been collected according to the UN. It is highly unlikely that more aid is to come from the West. Meanwhile, money is desperately needed to deal with refugees, decrease the soaring crime rate, invest in education, and practically reinvent the agricultural sector.


Oil extraction can potentially be a path to South Sudan’s salvation (Credit: Global Witness)

A glimpse of hope comes from the very recent news that South Africa wants to invest 1 billion dollars in South Sudan’s oil industry. Yet, once again, analysts find it hard to believe that such an investment will take place. Even if the oil industry receives these funds, major improvements in the quality of life are unlikely to take place as South Sudan’s government remains corrupt and ineffective.

So, at least in the next decade, South Sudan is likely to maintain its position as both the youngest and the least successful state in the world.

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