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Given South Sudan’s state of disrepair, it can be difficult to fathom that the world’s newest country was once synonymous with hope. A decade ago today, tens of thousands of elated South Sudanese sang and danced in the capital of Juba to celebrate their country’s independence from Sudan, while a parade of foreign dignitaries from China, the United States, and the United Nations arrived to offer pledges of financial support. After years of efforts to end the Sudanese civil war—Africa’s longest-running conflict—optimism reigned. After all, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had defied skeptics by conceding the loss of a third of his territory and the source of his country’s massive oil wealth.
What a difference a decade makes. Today, South Sudan is failing. Its first years as an independent country were consumed by a devastating civil war, which has left up to 400,000 people dead and displaced another four million, a third of its population. A shaky 2018 peace deal has brought little relief. Millions suffer from chronic hunger and unchecked violence at the hands of local militias who stalk the countryside, and a new insurgency is simmering in the south. This bloody start presents a huge dilemma for the United States and other major Western donors, which have lambasted South Sudanese leaders for plundering the country’s oil wealth even as they remain on the hook for billions of dollars of lifesaving aid to the country.
But all is not lost. Although the risk of a return to all-out war is real, South Sudanese leaders and their external partners have an opportunity to reverse the mistakes of the past and establish the foundations of a more peaceful country. In order to turn the tide, they should focus on the main culprit of South Sudan’s botched birth: fractious internal politics. The country is too divided and too fragile to survive without a political pact securing a more consensual form of governance. Forging such an agreement is still possible, even if it means tossing aside South Sudan’s constitutional structure in the process.
The story of South Sudan’s dismal first decade echoes other failed nation-building exercises. The new nation’s political leaders and the foreigners who backed independence grossly simplified the country’s domestic politics, held a naive faith in technical solutions to resolve deep political fissures, and failed to imagine (let alone predict) worst-case scenarios. Egged on by foreign consultants and aid workers wielding technical road maps, South Sudan’s elite neglected to negotiate a political settlement that could lay the groundwork for sustainable peace.
In fact, independence wasn’t the original plan. For decades, the insurgent Sudan’s People Liberation Movement sought to topple the regime in Khartoum. It was backed by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda, all of which received generous military assistance from U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration. Washington welcomed any efforts to weaken the regime of Sudanese leader Bashir, which harbored Islamist militants who had attacked Americans. The George W. Bush administration subsequently strong-armed Bashir, who feared becoming a target of Washington’s “war on terror,” to accept a 2005 peace deal that promised South Sudan a secession vote within six years. Even then, however, few outsiders seriously considered the possibility of an independent South Sudan. It was the death of the rebel leader John Garang in a helicopter crash only six months after the peace deal that paved the way for his successor, Salva Kiir, to steer in that direction, backed by international allies who feared that the alternative was a return to north-south civil war.
Underneath these ethnic divisions lies the near-total absence of a state.
On the way toward independence, however, South Sudan’s elite and their outside partners failed to address the country’s flimsy political foundations. Instead, they handed the job of state building to a small army of aid agencies and a massive UN peacekeeping mission. Juba teemed with officials focused on development goals; little attention was paid to the country’s deep ethnopolitical divisions. Brushing aside the probability of power struggles, most diplomats and South Sudanese officials hoped that Kiir’s government would finance the country’s gargantuan development needs with oil revenues. South Sudanese, U.S., and UN plans for the state’s future ignored the risk of civil war, worrying instead about localized intercommunal violence and Sudanese-South Sudanese border spats. Few took notice as Kiir and his allies quickly ditched their promises for an inclusive constitution-making process, centralizing authority instead in the hands of the president.
More broadly, South Sudan’s elite power struggle turned out to be a collective blind spot. Although the dominant narrative of Sudan’s conflict pits the “African” south against the “Arabized” north, the southerners have also fought for decades among themselves. During long years of insurgency and war, many southern ethnic communities resisted Garang’s main rebel group. These wounds festered rather than healed and re-emerged as South Sudan collapsed. Underneath these divisions lies the near-total absence of a state. South Sudan is a territory roughly the size of France, awash in guns, and lacking proper roads, basic institutions, and a cohesive army.
Kiir knew that building a consensus among the elites and their constituencies was the key to South Sudan’s peace, and he accommodated longtime foes to maintain southern solidarity as independence approached. After the secession, however, he quickly reneged on his commitments for a broad-based government and concentrated power and oil revenue in his own hands. Unsurprisingly, bitter divisions resurfaced just two years later, when a power struggle split both the ruling party and the military, plunging the country into years of conflict fought largely on ethnopolitical lines.
International mediators struggled for years to convince Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Machar, Kiir’s main opponent, to bring the civil war to a close. A 2018 agreement signed under international pressure led to the formation of a unity government in 2020. Most of the deal’s provisions, however, remain unfulfilled as violence rages across the countryside and famine conditions loom in certain areas. Maintaining the cease-fire has required constant diplomacy from outsiders, including the “troika” of Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Few believe that general elections, including a presidential poll that could pit Kiir against Machar, can be held on time. Even if the country does manage to carry out the elections, the run-up to the vote may well turn violent, and the chances are slim that the losers will simply accept the results.
The South Sudanese are exasperated with their leaders’ self-dealing and bickering. Even the country’s polarized political class has finally acknowledged that the status quo is not working. Foreign officials, meanwhile, openly admit that they have lacked a strategy since the war shattered their earlier plans. Those who are still trying to help South Sudan need a plan to prevent the return to all-out conflict, mitigate the impact of violence and hunger on civilian populations, and pave a path toward a better future.
At the core of South Sudan’s rot is a centralized, winner-take-all political system. The country’s politics are consumed by a struggle for the presidency; the president can fire state governors at will and in practice has near-complete control over the country’s finances. In a country where politics largely break down on communal and ethnic lines, this has reinforced the sense among the South Sudanese that armed force is the only means to gain a share of power or protect themselves.
What the country needs instead is a politics of consensus—a goal that is fundamentally at odds with not only Kiir’s authoritarianism but also the majoritarian presidential model enshrined in the constitution. The South Sudanese should thus agree to some form of decentralization, devolving government power and resources locally. This would allow the government to build institutions and create space for economic growth from the bottom up. It would also decrease incentives for further rebellions by spreading out power and state resources more evenly. Given that South Sudan’s current government offers almost no services to its people, local administrations would better handle many core governance tasks.
South Sudan’s foreign partners also have a role to play. Should the upcoming elections result, as expected, in a showdown between the warring parties, African leaders backed by the United Nations, the United States, and South Sudan’s other major donors should quietly push South Sudanese leaders to broker a preelection pact that guarantees a share of power to the runners-up. The goal would be to prevent various constituencies from feeling locked out of power before there is a functioning state to protect or serve them.
More long-term change could come through the constitution, which the 2018 peace deal envisages redrafting. The review process is just kicking off and is currently limited to the political parties in the peace deal. That is a mistake: the discussion should be broadened to permit popular participation, giving South Sudanese from diverse constituencies a sense of ownership and an outlet for their demands. African and UN officials promoting the peace process should offer support for such a broadened constitutional review and back South Sudanese demands for inclusion.
What the country needs is a politics of consensus—a goal that is fundamentally at odds with the majoritarian presidential model.
Reform-minded elites are now converging around the need for a new federal constitution. This effort was encouraged by a Kiir-initiated national dialogue that concluded last year and revealed broad popular support for decentralization, as delegates called for 45 percent of the country’s revenues to go to local administrations. Federalism also holds the potential of tamping down violence in the country: holdout insurgents who rejected the 2018 peace deal have made it a cornerstone of their demands and could potentially be brought on board.
No one should be under any illusion that Kiir will meekly accept limits on his power. But even if he flouts these new rules, they could at least provide the structure for a broad-based political agenda when he ultimately leaves office. Such a foundation is critical for the country to move forward, now or later.
Finally, a broader settlement cannot emerge as long as oil revenues continue to disappear. Public finance is a mirage in South Sudan: its oil industry is notoriously opaque, and even many top government officials do not know how much money the treasury holds or how it is spent. Meanwhile, public officials and soldiers go months without pay. The country’s funds instead prop up a core security state and off-the-books patronage, which many South Sudanese now believe has simply turned into looting.
Before donors offer more support – the International Monetary Fund has disbursed nearly $230 million in financial assistance since November 2020—they should demand transparency in the management of public finances, starting with an accounting of South Sudan’s oil income. Kiir will surely resist efforts to ease his grip on the purse strings, but disregarding the wishes of international donors must come at a greater cost. He needs outside support not only to keep his people from starving but lately to keep his government afloat.
The political road ahead will not be short or easy. But with appropriate reforms it could become less violent, and hope could once again return to the world’s newest country.
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