(Re)building South Sudan: Challenges Ahead

South Sudan’s path towards independence began in 1956 when Sudan liberated itself from Anglo-Egyptian rule. Following independence, South Sudanese rebels fought the Muslim majority in the North in a civil war that lasted until 1972. Conflict resumed in 1983, when President Jaafar Nimeiri imposed Sharia law in the South and revoked its political autonomy. In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, leading to the 2011 referendum that granted sovereignty to South Sudan.

However, the peace in South Sudan did not last long as violence emerged less than three years after the country became independent. Violence began in December 2013 when those loyal to former Vice-President Riek Machar took up arms against President Salva Kiir. The recent conflict has been fueled by the entrenched ethnic rift between the Nuer and the Dinka, as well as geopolitical interests in oil – the main source of revenue for the young South Sudanese state. Since the conflict broke out, “massacres, genocidal violence, widespread rape and other atrocities” have been committed by both sides.

As food and health crises emerge, achieving a sustained peace and building functional institutions from this fragile scenario seems to be one of the most pressing political challenges of this decade. However, reversing this process must begin with a deeper understanding of the challenges on the road ahead, and how the international community can constructively contribute to the situation without imposing their agendas into this new-born nation, striving to emancipate itself from neocolonial dynamics and define its own path to peace and prosperity. These are the challenges ahead on the road to rebuilding South Sudan.

The State

Despite originating from a democratic choice, the government of South Sudan grew from a former rebel faction—the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). This factor has had two negative and interrelated effects upon the politics of reconstruction.

This conflict has reinforced the need to question the overarching rationale upon which government, institutions, and foreign-led partnerships have been set up and the prioritization of the state over nation-building.

Firstly, as some would argue, the government suffers from the ‘liberation curse’ in which “rebel movements that win freedom are often very badly suited to the more mundane process of governing a state”. In a peaceful and democratic environment, such governments struggle to maintain a functional democracy based on transparency at the institutional level, providing the public with the goods it needs, and generating economic opportunities representing the expected ”peace dividends.”

Secondly, in conjunction with vast oil reserves, a circular pattern emerged of corruption and nepotism that ended up concentrating the wealth in the hands of the few. Both issues have eroded state/society relations and undermined political authority.

Civil society

These pressing challenges also stem from the lack of representation of civil society in the formal negotiations for independence. According to some commentators, only “those who hold similar views with the official parties, or do not strongly challenge them” had access to the negotiation table since they were able “not only to circumscribe civil societys role but also to co-opt some of its members.” However, the emerging conflict has led the government to recognize recently that “efforts to broker peace will need to be inclusive of traditional local authorities, the church and civil society.”

Social media has been used to deepen societal divisions during the conflict. As a recent study has shown, Facebook accounts are a major tool for reframing the conflict as an ethnic (rather than power-based) struggle through the fabrication of “facts.” Reversing the ongoing ethnic rivalry will also require concerted efforts to enable the younger population to have a voice in the peace and state-building agendas and take part in the (re)creation of identity/identities in South Sudan.


new law under consideration in the South Sudanese parliament is aimed at increasing the powers of the National Security Service (NSS) but it also endangers the already wide-spread abuse of human rights by government agents. As the NSS often targets foreign organizations, this new law contributes to the eroding of the relationship between aid donors and government. Furthermore, some dissent voicesargue that the NSS is already used to manipulate ethnic divisions as “99 per cent of the top echelon of the two Bureaus is being controlled by the Dinkas” (a major ethnic group in South Sudan). The critical role of the NSS in the ongoing crisis also became clear after the recent declarations of a former NSS member revealing that assassination of political targets and foreign citizens are common tools of the agency.

This crisis is also aggravated by regional political tensions. Uganda has both political and economic interests in the South Sudanese territory and is a traditional ally of the SPLM. This led recently to a military intervention by the Ugandan forces on behalf of the ruling President, thereby increasing the already existing tensions with the Sudanese government. Mistrust between Ethiopia and Eritrea has also been exacerbated and been exacerbated by events in South Sudan. Eritrea is seen by Ethiopia as the major destabilizer in the region and the ongoing crisis “could in turn lead to the marginal areas of South Sudan being used by Eritrea to infiltrate Ethiopian rebel groups and conduct destabilizing activities inside Ethiopia,” specialists argue. Overall, allied to the almost 2 million internally-displaced refugees, the 400,000 refugees that crossed the borders of Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia are likely to challenge regional stability and create a new real or perceived threat to the uneasy peace.


Oil plays a central role in the conflict and the broader politics of reconstructing South Sudan, accounting for 98% of the state’s revenue. According to the Financial Times, this dependence is also generating a challenge to economic development. The low quality of South Sudanese crude oil, high risk scenarios for foreign companies, reduced state investment, ongoing instability, and the drop in oil market prices ensure that South Sudan receives “the lowest oil price in the world, $20-$25 a barrel.” Beyond these factors, and due to chronic nepotism, oil revenues mostly go directly into the hands of political elites that, since the conflict broke out, saw production reduced by less than half. Furthermore, oil is the central target of rebels within South Sudan who use the government’s dependence upon it as a tool to “gain greater access to political office and hence to the economic spoils of oil”, Khalid Medani noted.

The economy is also hampered by the country’s dependence on subsistence agriculture. Last month, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that one-fifth of the population (about 2.5 million) “remain in either Crisis or Emergency level,” more than double the figure reported when the conflict started. At a national level, 6.5 million people are at risk of food insecurity. On the other hand, the ongoing conflict and lack of transport infrastructure are also making it harder for humanitarian agencies to deliver food supplies. Furthermore, not only are half of the more than 6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance children, but limited food provisions are often forcing the young to engage in violence as a way of securing scarce resources.

In this country, cattle represent not only food but also the currency upon which the social fabric is based. With more than 80% of the population relying on it (either for food, marriage, or education) the conflict has brought numerous diseases with it and altered the cattle’s regional migration patterns. These are undermining local power structures and increasing the levels of food insecurity and leading to forced migration as a result. Additionally, the depreciation of the South Sudanese pound and extensive dependence on imported goods hampers the economic sustainability of the country and threatens already fragile livelihoods.

What now?

After the 2011 referendum, South Sudan became the youngest sovereign state in the world. However, the path from independence to autonomy is not straightforward. Stabilization is hampered by ethnic and religious rivalries, over-dependence on oil revenues, conflict over resources, and mounting regional tensions. Amidst a crippling food crisis, the outbreak of a civil war, more than 1.8 million internally-displaced persons (including 750,000 children) and a growing number of refugees, achieving a sustained peace and building functional institutions in South Sudan is a massive challenge for both international and domestic actors.

The recent upsurge of violence and the ongoing domestic crisis also signal a clear need to reassess partnerships between donor and recipient countries in the context of state fragility and the foundations of the South Sudanese state. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of voters in South Sudan (99%) favored the creation of a new state, this case has increased international doubts about secession as an adequate political solution for reducing inequalities and curbing political tensions in the global South (mainly Africa).

This conflict has also reinforced the need to question the overarching rationale upon which government, institutions, and foreign-led partnerships have been set up and the prioritization of the state over nation-building. If a new strategy is to be proffered, it should be structured upon a sharedunderstanding among donors and recipients and a mutual reassessment of why previous partnerships were not able to generate the expected “peace dividend,” distribute the basic common goods (justice, health and security), generate a solid and functioning institutional framework for the state, and prevent the re-emergence of conflict. It is indeed a tough road ahead for rebuilding South Sudan.

[Photo: Flickr CC: Daniel X. ONeil]


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