On July 9, South Sudan marked ten years of independence but with little to celebrate. After a decade of self-rule, South Sudan faces extreme poverty, corruption, insecurity, a lack of development, and is rated among the world’s unhappiest countries. It did not have to be this way. At independence in 2011, South Sudan faced a myriad of challenges, including deep poverty and insecurity — but it also possessed abundant natural resources, including vast swathes of arable land and oil reserves estimated at 5 billion barrels. These assets, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked at the 2011 independence ceremony, could transform South Sudan into a “prosperous, productive nation capable of meeting the needs of its people.” However, 10 years later, most South Sudanese have seen little improvement in their lives, and renewed conflict has left as many as 400,000 people dead and 4 million displaced. So what went wrong?
A decade of misrule
Upon gaining independence from Sudan, South Sudan’s leaders promised peace and democracy to a weary population after decades of conflict and autocratic rule from Khartoum. Instead, despite adopting a three-year plan focused on developing democratic institutions, by 2014 South Sudan had regressed significantly on measures of governance, and today ranks near the bottom of Freedom House’s Global Freedom Index.
Despite significant donor support and oil revenues after independence, no major development projects have been initiated by South Sudan’s government since 2011. Basic amenities like water and electricity are rare, even in cities — Juba, the capital, still relies on privately-owned diesel generators and has only one tarmac road leading out of the city. Corruption is endemic, draining the state of funds that could be used to improve the lives of ordinary South Sudanese. A 2020 UN report found that government officials “are implicated in the pillaging of public funds as well as money laundering, bribery, and tax evasion.” Corruption and mismanagement have devastated South Sudan’s economy, with real incomes falling by half between 2013 and 2017 and annual inflation standing at more than 300%.
Conflict, ethnic strife and human rights abuses
As early euphoria from independence faded, South Sudan’s first government, composed of former political rivals, began to fracture with President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar vying for dominance. In July 2013, Kiir sacked the entire cabinet and fired Machar, sparking fighting in the capital between rival army factions. Five months later, civil war broke out.
In September 2018, after six years of war, Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement to end the conflict, paving the way for a unity government inaugurated in 2020 with Machar once again as vice president. While fragile peace has been restored at the national level, insecurity in South Sudan remains acute amid intensifying ethnic violence at the local level. The UN reports that “brutal attacks involving cattle raiding” have led to “alarming rates of displacement” along ethnic lines in many states. Deliberate starvation, the recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence remain pervasive.
South Sudan’s future
On almost every measure since 2011, South Sudanese scholar Luka Biong Deng Kuol wrote, “the inevitable conclusion is that South Sudan’s post-independence leaders failed to live up to their commitments and the expectations of South Sudanese citizens.” The 2018 peace accord, which the government has still not fully implemented, is just the latest confirmation of this reality. A UN report warned in April that “large-scale conflict” could return if the peace agreement is not implemented at a faster pace. Renewed conflict would be devastating for South Sudan, which is currently experiencing an economic recovery after four years of contraction.
But the status quo of “no peace, no war” is not satisfactory either. Of South Sudan’s 11.2 million people, nearly 2.3 million are refugees, 1.6 million are internally displaced, and 8.3 million — three quarters — are in need of humanitarian assistance. Systemic changes will be necessary if South Sudan is to restore even a small degree of peace and stability for its population — let alone take on the gargantuan challenge of building a new nation-state from scratch.
The South Sudanese people deserve leaders who will pursue peace, unity, and inclusive development rather than division, violence, and personal gain. The constitution-making process, which is set to conclude in May 2022 with a final draft, has the potential to be a powerful conduit for the desires and aspirations of the citizens of South Sudan — if it is not co-opted by the corrupt ruling elite. The international community — which failed in the past as South Sudan lurched towards autocracy and civil war — must be engaged and assertive throughout the process to ensure a legitimate, people-centered outcome. Without external pressure for change, South Sudan’s next decade of independence may turn out like its last.