By Awuor Alai

July 9th 2021 was an important day in the calendar of South Sudan; the tenth independence day for the world’s youngest nation. A day celebrated with pomp and colour. Citizens clad in shirts bearing the colours of the country’s flag and celebrations in most parts of the capital Juba.

South Sudan – a country known for abundant oil reserves, sprawling savannahs, vast wetlands and home to the world’s second-largest land mammal migration – Is a blurred and intricate mix of wealth and poverty, success stories and terrifying accounts of human rights violations.  A whole lot of paradoxes, that frankly, we could do without.

South Sudan, an Eastern African country with a population of 11.3 million people, shares borders with six countries; Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Juba in Central Equatoria state, with a population of half a million (as of 2017) is the capital city of South Sudan. It lies to the south of the country with a vantage position on the White Nile and is currently the most populous before Bor and Yei.

Political unrest

The years leading to South Sudan’s independence in 2011 were riddled with armed conflict that sent hundreds of thousands across the border as refugees in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. The attainment of self-rule after decades of conflict with Sudan promised peace to the citizens. Many of whom returned home from refugee camps in the neighbouring countries to help build their new nation.

That promise was however short-lived as the country plunged into a new era of conflict between forces allied to the president, Salva Kiir, and his former Vice President Riek Machar. The conflict which began in 2013 is reported to have killed about 400,000 people. The atrocities witnessed in the civil wars that preceded independence from Sudan revisited the nation – just that this time it was being perpetrated by their own, in a selfish struggle for power. Not even women and children were spared.

Granted, most formative stages of any nation are often rife with unrest and internal conflicts but political goodwill usually transcends and some form of equilibrium is attained in the end. One is undoubtedly prompted to ask, “Is there any hope for South Sudan in this regard?” Has she recorded 100 per cent failure when it comes to transitioning into a peaceful nation ten years after disengaging from Sudan?

The call for an alternative political formula has been unanimous; one that can finally bring to an end deeply entrenched divisions along ethnic lines to culminate in reconciliation, healing and national cohesiveness and unity. A call to action is one thing; getting to the action is a whole other conundrum. South Sudan has been unable to successfully execute the action stage. Presently, the political formula is disproportionately pivoted on central government with a short leash on security arms. This has to be dissolved and diluted for the political elite to embrace pluralism as a way of instigating long-lasting stability.

To understand the dilemma that is South Sudan and unfurl down to the core of the issue one has to adopt a multifaceted approach and ponder on not just ethnic challenges (which are most apparent) but also the legal, historic, political and indeed cultural hurdles that have yet to be addressed. One also has to consider the role of the international community thus far, pitted against the national systems and how the two have co-existed over the years. Countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya have contributed greatly towards building South Sudan that we see today.

The cost of conflict

A report by UNESCO in 2018 (Global initiative on out of school children – South Sudan country study) indicated that 2.2 million children were out of school as a result of instability and conflict. This number was projected as likely to rise unless timely and working interventions were put in place. The unemployment rate (defined here as the share of the labour force that is without work but available for and seeking employment – Macrotrends) in South Sudan last year was at an all-time high of 12.66%, a figure that was 0.65% higher than 2019.

The Economic Complexity Index described South Sudan as having the most complex economy in the world as of 2019. Top on the list of exports for the country are Crude petroleum at USD 1.62B, Gold at USD 47.6M, forage crops at USD 28.8M, sawn wood at USD 6.73M and rough wood at $3.01M, in that order. The country largely exports to the UAE, China, Spain, India and the United States. Top imports are cars, delivery trucks, medicaments, edibles, knit coats for men, these coming in mostly from her neighbour Kenya, the UAE, China, Netherlands and Switzerland.

The nascent recovery of the South Sudan economy hit a major snag in 2020 when the country was hit hard by flood, the locust invasion and of course the COVID 19 pandemic. The sectors hardest hit were the oil sector, agricultural sector and the service sector. These three sectors account for 70%, 15%, and 6.1% of the country’s GDP respectively. Projections by the African Development Bank (AfDB) indicate that the GDP is expected to grow by at least 0.1% this year and 2.5% next year. Competing with East Africa’s giant Kenya (66th largest economy in the world), South Sudan needs to overcome a myriad of challenges to stay relevant in the East African economic block.

 The demographic profile of South Sudan is emblematic of the underlying issues ailing this young nation. Almost 80% of the population still lives in rural areas with little to no access to healthcare, a proper transport network and a steady supply of basic needs. This coupled with cultural beliefs which remain prevalent in the lives of nationals has resulted in the country having one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates. Less than one-third of the populace is literate with women featuring least. The age structure is such that 0-54 years age group is 93.53% while ages 55 and over, stand at 6.46%. these numbers are indicative of a very large youth population.

One of the requirements of the revitalised peace agreement was that 35% of all government positions should be filled up by women. This was however not met with recent appointments revealing that out of the 17ministers appointed to cabinet, only 4 were female. Of the 10 county commissioners, only 2 are women and all state advisors are currently male. Women in South Sudan have become more and more vocal, demanding representation and inclusivity in governance.

Diminishing press freedoms

 The environment in South Sudan for the press has largely been described as hostile with journalists facing persecution whenever they publish unbiased reports of injustice. On a positive note, however, the country joined the rest of the world in marking World Press Freedom Day with UNESCO Education Specialist Mr Tap Raj Pant urging government and other stakeholders to renew their commitment to freedom of expression and making sure that information remained a public good. For all intents and purposes, the general election initially slotted for 2022 is likely not to take place. This is due to the need for more time to prepare, slow implementation of the new agreement and the need for a census of the current population. The country has three political parties represented in the Transitional National Legislative Assembly, 7 not represented and 4 defunct parties. There persist an uneasy peace between the primary belligerents in the country. Perhaps the biggest error on the part of leadership both within and without has been to tremendously underestimate the ethnic cleavages that exist in the country.

Successes ten years on

While it is easier to point out the pitfalls that have plagued this ten-year-old African country’s lifespan, some strides have certainly been made in the right direction. A resounding win for instance was the signing of the truce between the warring factions in September of 2018. This later resulted in the unity government being formulated in February of 2020.

The truce of 2018 was especially important because in 2019 there were markedly fewer reports of conflict and communities that had fled began returning to their native homes. At the heart of the conflict in South Sudan is the never-ending chest-thumping contest between the Dinka and the Nuer communities. The latter supported the Sudanese government during the civil war and have since been labelled as traitors by the former. These two rival pastoralist communities have also traditionally competed over land and water for their livestock and while these clashes were condemnable, they never reached the heights of causing a national calamity. It is the 2013 dismissal of Riek Machar, the former vice president and who is a Nuer, by Salva Kiir, the president, who is a Dinka that catalyzed the situation and caused the clashes to bring the country to its knees. The unity government would be a great solution for the mistrust and enmity that exists between these two communities if only the implementation would be done swiftly and per the stipulations in the peace agreement.

The permeating conflict had led to the unfortunate closure of oil fields, rendering a huge proportion of the population jobless and plunging the country into further economic ruin but with peace slowly returning between 2018 and 2019, these were reopened bringing back the hope of national recovery stimulated by the oil sector. A recent report by the world bank group shows that the fiscal deficit in the country is expected to reduce to 2.7 per cent of the GDP, reflecting higher figures than what was projected both for oil and non-oil revenue. With more investments in the oil sector, the economy of South Sudan is expected to bounce back faster than what earlier predictions had estimated. It goes without saying that all this is conditional on peace, economic and public finance management reform, better budgeting and resource allocation as well as investments in other key sectors such as agriculture and health.

It must not be overlooked just how much a renewed spirit of dialogue has been pivotal in the effort to try and rebuild South Sudan. In his speech on Independence Day, His Excellency President Salva Kiir pointed out that it was this resort to dialogue between parties that had bridged the trust gap that had existed before the revitalised peace agreement was signed. “I assure you that I will not return you back to war again. Let us work together to recover the last decade and put our country back on the path of development in this new decade,” read his speech in part.

The changes and positive reforms may not be too stark especially in comparison to the failings of the country but it is these small improvements that must be hailed. Incrementally, over time, they will make all the difference.

Failures ten years on

Following independence in 2011, the years 2013 and 2016 were unfortunately marred with violence and fresh bursts of conflict in South Sudan. Any achievements or developments that had been made were, therefore, thrust back into their pre-independence state plunging the young country into an even more precarious humanitarian situation.

If South Sudan was a patient, they would certainly not be out of the high dependency unit just yet. The economy has remained more or less in a plateaued state and poverty has become endemic in most communities what with recurring conflict and the uncertainties and turmoil brought on by displacement. The UNHCR reports that the cumulative number of displaced persons in South Sudan currently stands at 4.3 million. This figure includes IDPs, asylum seekers and refugees.

The country has been in the recent past reporting subnational violence eruptions. This continued history of violence keeps nipping in the bud any development that different regions of the country may have made. With a less than stellar healthcare system and ever rocketing food insecurity levels (with an estimated 1.4 million children under the age of 5 years expected to be severely malnourished in 2021), South Sudan is staring a bigger crisis square in the face. Throw in the COVID 19 pandemic into the mix and the country is literally being driven to the brink.

Insecurity, problems of housing, land tussles especially for returning refugees, an ailing agricultural sector and  (at best) a shaky economy are all fuelling factors for the problems in the country. Basic needs have become too costly for most households to afford and the purchasing power of the nation has taken a real beating with recent reports, by World Bank, classifying 82% of the population as poor. At the time of independence, this number stood at 51%.

The road to recovery for South Sudan remains rocky. There is a long list of issues that have to be addressed if any change is to be visible in the current population. Security is a key concern for all parties involved. With continuously improving security, businesses will thrive and various sectors such as agriculture and health are bound to become more robust. Oil revenue must be managed a lot better than it currently is because this is an economic pillar for the country. Job creation for the huge youth population and calculated investments both by the government and development partners can help birth a more diverse economy for the country. All is not lost but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Photo credits: CGTN Africa