Idependence is not always what it is. Recent additions to the family of nations, such as Kosovo and East Timor (Timor-Leste), are struggling to find their way. In 2017, the Catalan separatist movements split their homeland in two. Voters in the Scottish referendum voted in 2014. The uncomplicated glory days when the ‘third world’ liberation movements ousted colonial regimes seem long gone.
South Sudan, which celebrated its tenth anniversary on Friday, came late to the African Independence Party — the result of a complex 2005 deal to end Sudan’s decades-old civil war. Barack Obama, who sought the credit, raved. “Today is a reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible,” he declared.
But on most measures, that dawn turned out to be false. South Sudan is an experiment that flopped – “the light that failed”, to take over the title of Rudyard Kipling’s first novel, set partly in Sudan. In 2013, two years after independence, rival ethnic factions plunged the country into war, just as Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer warlord trained at Bradford University, had threatened to do when he attacked Juba in July of that year. spoke to me.
Machar wanted Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan and leader of the Dinka people, to resign. Kiir had other ideas. In the ensuing Five Years’ War, nearly 400,000 people died and millions were displaced. Now, amid escalating inter-communal violence and mounting political tensions, the UN is warning of a “return to full-scale conflict”.
Surprisingly, Kiir remains president and Machar his mutinous deputy. Sudanese civil society organizations want both men to stop, but fear the security forces could fill a vacuum. There are constant rumors of military coups. Elections have been postponed. A power-sharing agreement last year has yet to be fully implemented.
A major reason for South Sudan’s failure is misgovernment and lack of capacity in a country that lacked credible institutions and infrastructure before 2011, and perhaps still does. Another is corruption, on an epic scale. “Political elites are fighting for control of … resources while stealing the future of their people,” the UN Human Rights Council was told last year.
Hopes that South Sudan’s oil and mineral wealth would bring prosperity to all were thwarted by mismanagement and greed. More international involvement and investment is urgently needed. But the African Union and IGAD (the Intergovernmental Authority for Development) seem powerless, while Western governments are repulsed by Kiir’s favoritism. Great Britain is an example of this. British troops assisting the UN mission in Juba withdrew last year. Bilateral aid is stopped.
Aid organizations continue to make huge efforts to help the South Sudanese, whose need only seems to be growing. The UN inter-agency survey of June states that the level of food insecurity was the highest since independence. About 8.3 million people currently need humanitarian aid (about two-thirds of the total population), while 1.4 million children under the age of five are acutely malnourished.
The UN highlighted “conflict, displacement, flooding, loss of livelihood, Covid-19, an inability to reach healthcare and schools [and] attacks on communities” as key factors causing an endless descent into misery. But of $1.68 billion in international funding needed for his year, only $497 million has been raised.
South Sudan’s plight has been indirectly exacerbated by Sudan’s partial rehabilitation after the overthrow of the Islamist regime of Omar al-Bashir in 2019. IMF to adopt a more friendly attitude.
That move last month yielded a $2.4 billion loan and a $50 billion debt relief deal. And last year, Donald Trump removed Sudan from the list of sponsors of terrorism in Washington. In return, Khartoum opened diplomatic relations with Israel as part of the so-called Abraham Accords. The US and Israel, South Sudan’s most ardent backers in 2011, are now in bed with their old enemy to the north.
South Sudan does not have a monopoly on chronic instability between countries in the Horn of Africa. This shared problem, rooted in 19th-century European interventionism, is now, ironically, exacerbated by Western withdrawal. The imperialists of the new wave are exploiting the divide – China and the Gulf States, especially the UAE, and to a lesser extent Russia – to whom altruism is equally foreign.
Fresh start or not, Sudan itself is still facing upheaval on several fronts. Street protests greeted the IMF deal, sparked by an end to fuel subsidies. The economy is in crisis, with inflation nearing 400%. Increased friction between the civilian and military elements of the government, especially the murderous paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, is jeopardizing democratic transition.
There are problems in the west, in Darfur, where violence has resumed after a lull; on Sudan’s disputed southern flank, bordering South Sudan; and along the eastern border with Ethiopia. The resurgence there of a territorial dispute in the al-Fashqa area, which has its origins in British cartographic interference, is heightening tensions over the exodus of refugees from the war-torn state of Tigray in Ethiopia.
Instability now also affects Ethiopia, long valued by the West as a regional anchor. After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s army unnecessarily invaded Tigray, it was completely displaced. Fears grow that victorious Tigrayans could aim their weapons at the neighboring state of Amhara, or take revenge on Eritrea’s brutal dictator, Isaias Afwerki, Abiy’s partner-in-crime.
In a way, it’s even more dangerous for a long, bubbling row over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile to come to a head. Addis Ababa’s confirmation last week that filling of the dam has resumed sparked downstream fury in Sudan and Egypt, each of which is at risk of losing crucial water resources.
It is unclear whether this dispute, like so many others from South Kordofan to Somalia, can be resolved peacefully. In this broader, wilder context, South Sudan’s birth pangs are drowned out.