South Sudanese soldiers at an Independence Day celebration

South Sudanese soldiers at an Independence Day celebration

The world’s youngest nation was born on July 9, 2011. On this day, the Republic of South Sudan formally gained its independence from Sudan. Independence Day was greeted with effusive joy and optimism in the new country and across the world. South Sudanese residents (now citizens) streamed into the streets, shedding tears of happiness. The new flag was hoisted over the capital, Juba. A parade of heads of state and diplomats from across Africa and the world officially recognized and extended heartfelt congratulations to the new state. At an official ceremony, the new president, Salva Kiir, articulated the visceral joy that his fellow countrymen and -women were feeling. “We have waited 56 years for this,” President Kiir said in his speech. “It is a dream come true.”

“A Dream Come True”

South Sudan’s road to statehood was long and bloody. Longstanding tension between Arab-dominated, largely Muslim northern Sudan and the overwhelmingly black, Christian South boiled over into civil war in the 1980s that claimed two million lives. The fighting was finally brought to an uneasy interregnum peace by a 2005 agreement, negotiated under intense international pressure, that provided for an eventual referendum on independence. In January 2011, 98.8 percent of South Sudanese voted in that referendum to secede from the North.

Independence was heralded as a fresh start for the long-troubled region. Democratic exercise, rather than violent conflict, took South Sudan over the threshold of nationhood. As the president of the now-smaller Sudan himself remarked on Independence Day, “This moment came through peace.”

Even so, the nation of South Sudan, scarred by war and the legacy of colonialism, was born facing low human development and a crippling lack of infrastructure. As of October 2011, 73 percent of the population was illiterate. The country had only 60 miles of paved roads and 155 miles of railroad tracks. The World Bank estimated its infrastructure funding gap to be $879 million per year, or 15 percent of GDP.

Yet the excitement and embrace of the possibilities engendered by the country’s liberation story translated into a frenzied push for growth and development. At a December 2011 investment showcase in Washington, President Kiir laid out a bold dream of progress. “With your support, ideas, and funds,” he said, “we will begin to grow faster to build more roads and create real economic growth.”

Seeing independence as the opening of a new frontier, the international community exhibited intense interest in investing in South Sudan. Many around the world hoped that, as then-World Bank President Robert Zoelick phrased it, South Sudan could “transform a day of independence into a decade of development.”

By far the most promising of South Sudan’s resources was oil—it currently controls the third-largest reserves in Africa. 98 percent of government revenues were derived from the oil industry in 2011, making it an economic lifeline for the government. The oil was also a magnet for foreign investment. As the realized dream of independence transformed into a new dream of economic development, the country’s autochthonous wealth stood out as one of its greatest assets.

A Dream Turned Dark

Fast forward to the present, five years after independence. The nation’s victorious new beginning has given way to old patterns of violence. Optimism about the young nation’s development potential faded as the country descended into war and its economic foundation crumbled. South Sudan’s dream has become a nightmare.

In 2013, the fledgling nation was plunged into an on-again-off-again civil war between factions controlled by President Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. Kiir is a Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the country, while Vice President Machar is a Nuer, the second-largest group; the conflict thus plays into South Sudan’s seemingly intractable ethnic tension. The state also ranks as the fourth-most corrupt country on the planet. According to a non-governmental watchdog’s report, Kiir, Machar and many of their allies amassed huge fortunes as their state slid into chaos, turning the political class into a “violent kleptocracy.”

This ongoing turmoil has all but precluded the investment and growth that many hoped for after independence. Fighting has hurt investment, particularly in the oil sector, by reducing returns and increasing risk. Rather than focusing on road-building and bridge-building, deep-pocketed Western nations have shifted their attention to saving people from violence and famine—the United States alone has allocated $1.5 billion for humanitarian relief since the war broke out, even as it has cut back its economic relationship in other ways.

South Sudan’s oil wealth is not helping the beleaguered nation weather the storm. Fighting has caused rigs to shut down and forced the company that operates many of the country’s oil fields to evacuate large numbers of staff, further limiting production. South Sudan now extracts as little as 120,000 barrels per day, half of its previous high.

In large part due to the civil war, South Sudan has failed to make meaningful development progress since its independence. It continues to score low on measures of human development and has done little to close its severe infrastructure deficit. Per capita GDP is at an all-time low of $718. By most metrics, the dream of investment-driven development remains just as distant as it was in 2011.

Waking Up

South Sudan’s current plight is the product of myriad factors—governmental, economic, and cultural—the sum of past mistakes and present misfortune. No single factor was dispositive in putting its dream of prosperity out of reach, but, taken together, they constitute an autopsy of why that dream has all but died.

One possible answer lies in South Sudan’s lack of state capacity. Lant Pritchett, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, told the HPR that South Sudan fell into what he terms a “capability trap”: the ambition of the state’s regulatory scheme outpaced its ability to actually “implement the law.” The nation lacked the capacity to maintain a “plausibly stable regulatory [and] legal … environment,” Pritchett said, and therefore failed “to create an investment climate where people could come and take advantage of [the country’s] opportunities.” Only the “worst investors in the world,” Pritchett said, were willing to operate in such a “quasi-legal environment.” In other words, the young nation’s inability to enforce its laws impeded the very investment those laws anticipated. Robust state capacity building—arming the state with the ability to effectively operate and regulate—is a prerequisite for a successful investment climate, a concern not sufficiently addressed in South Sudan’s post-independence euphoria.

The beleaguered nation’s economic plight also exhibits the dangers of extreme reliance on a single resource, even in the early stages of national development. The production disruption caused by the conflict is only one aspect of this hazard. A precipitous drop in the global price of oil has contributed to a skyrocketing deficit and drastically reduced the country’s economic output. Moreover, the country’s oil fields have been a flashpoint in the military conflict, host to violent clashes between government and rebel forces vying for control. The assumption was that oil wealth would provide a cushion or even a springboard for the infant nation. Tragically, the resource that purported to be South Sudan’s economic salvation has instead become a primary cause of the nation’s fiscal and military woes.

But an examination of South Sudan’s institutional and economic climate is not sufficient to explain the collapse of its development prospects. The eruption of civil conflict has been central to the country’s decline, and so understanding the drivers of said conflict are key to any diagnosis.

In retrospect, the necessity of security sector reform is apparent. South Sudan’s current conflict is fueled by its military’s awkward transition from revolutionary force to governing body. As Matt Wells, a peacekeeping expert at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, told the HPR, “the creation of South Sudan was through … the linking of a political party and an armed actor.” According to him, “they’ve never really broken out of that … armed actors are really at every level of the state.” After independence the military remained large—more than 210,000 personnel as of 2014—but fragmented along ethnic lines. Addressing this challenge would require an aggressive focus on disarmament and reintegration of former soldiers—what Wells calls “right-sizing” the force. Yet South Sudan’s progress toward its demobilization targets was halting even before independence. The result? “In South Sudan,” Wells says, “a military has a country.”

Perhaps the most insurmountable obstacle that South Sudan faced—and continues to face—is a lack of coherent national identity. For decades, the region’s cohesion was largely a product of opposition to the North. An interview-based report released by the U.S. Institute for Peace soon after independence revealed fear of resurgent ethnic division following independence; the breakout of the ethnically charged civil war has given life to those fears. Overcoming the existential challenge of identity-building would have required the nation to govern inclusively and peacefully, a goal that the political conflict has all but precluded. Perhaps South Sudan could have supplanted revolutionary struggle with a unifying national push for infrastructure and investment, for economic revival to match its political revival. The post-independence investment frenzy suggests this was possible. Yet the civil war has rendered this, too a far-off dream.

Cold Light of Day

There is increasing recognition of the hard realities of South Sudan’s predicament. Jim Donegan, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Juba, told the HPR, “Nothing can really happen that is sustainable until there is peace in the country and the security situation changes … for the better.” He added, “People were ready to come in here and truly develop the economy. That’s what has to happen. And that will only happen when the security situation is such that people feel safe to come here.”

International peace-building efforts are on the rise. In September, the United States won approval to vastly expand the number of UN peacekeepers in South Sudan to 16,000, a move that signals growing pressure for peace. A “troika” of three invested countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway— continues to attempt to broker a lasting truce between the clashing parties. The troika “work[s] with the government and the opposition … to provide as much guidance as we can,” Donegan said, “sitting around the table trying to resolve some of these issues.”

Yet the ultimate effectiveness of international peace-building remains uncertain. The internationally mediated ceasefire that brought the military conflict to an uneasy halt in August 2015 did not hold; future peace deals may not either. Peacekeepers’ ability to actually keep the peace on the ground is limited by stringent restrictions on use of force and by the South Sudanese government’s obstructionism. Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, seemed to herself acknowledge the limitations of top-down peace after winning expansion of the UN mission: “A peacekeeping mission alone cannot solve” the intense “ethnic, tribal, political conflicts that are plaguing th[e] country,” she said.

Growing pressure to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan also illustrates the potential weakness of the international response to this conflict. Given that both sides are still buying weapons, an arms embargo is widely seen as a measure necessary to limit violence against civilians and deescalate the conflict. Yet the policy is not yet in effect and appears in a UN resolution only as an authorized response to future obstructionism. Strangely ambivalent, the United States and its allies appear to recognize the necessity of stopping the flow of weapons into South Sudan, but do not seem ready to act on that necessity.

Examined in the cold, hard light of day, the future of South Sudan remains uncertain at best. The problems that killed the country’s dream of political and economic rebirth reality do not have easy solutions. The international community’s response—increasingly aggressive yet still indecisive—is not a panacea. Ultimately, it is “skeptical that anything particularly useful can be done by the international community,” Professor Pritchett said. Often, “internationally brokered peace treaties really are just seen by both sides as a way of postponing the conflict while you rearm and set yourself up for a later conflict.” In other words, “it’s a vicious circle.”

Even Deputy Chief of Mission Donegan seems to acknowledge, at least implicitly, the steep challenges that South Sudan faces: “We’re taking things one step at a time.”

Image Source: Wikimedia/Steve Evans

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