Hope and strife: South Sudan 10 years after independence

Ahmed Maher reports from Juba, where South Sudan's leaders are working to reverse the fortunes of the world's youngest country after years of civil war

When South Sudan finally became independent after a 56-year struggle and a bitter secession from Sudan, it was a dream come true for many.

Roughly the size of the United Kingdom and Germany combined, the new country had its own passports, as well as football and basketball teams singing a national anthem under their own flag.

One of the most diverse nations in Africa, with more than 60 languages and dozens of ethnic groups, South Sudan was hailed as a way out of decades of strife.

US President Barack Obama said the 2011 referendum on dividing what was then Africa's largest country was a "new chapter in history".

The decisions of Sudan's leaders, he said, would determine whether its people moved "toward peace and prosperity, or slide backwards into bloodshed".

But 10 years after independence, visitors to the capital Juba will see a country suffering from underdevelopment and extreme poverty – the direct result of five years of civil war that stymied the transformation of the young country into a viable state.

Today, many farmers struggle to sell their crops of millet and maize not because of instability but because of the lack of basic infrastructure and a near-total absence of buyers with any money.

The National visited South Sudan to see how the world's youngest country has fared during a decade of independence and to investigate what the future holds for a nation brought to the brink by years of brutal conflict.

A decade of strife

Only two years after the hard-won secession from Sudan, the country fell into another deadly internecine conflict in 2013 that continued until 2018.

Fighting broke out amid a leadership struggle between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his Vice President Riek Machar, who represented the country's two largest tribes – the Dinka and the Nuer respectively – and competed for the country's vast resources.

The rebels who once fought against a regime that largely marginalised them now fought amongst themselves. The five-year war caused dire food shortages, all but destroyed the country's fledgling health sector and hit international investment badly – problems that continue to blight South Sudan today

Some people in the south whisper that they would have voted to remain united with Sudan if they had only known the difficult years that lay ahead, referring to Assawdaniya, which in Arabic means the unity of Sudan.

The South Sudanese civil war is believed to have resulted in close to 400,000 deaths, according to a report published in 2018 by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and financed by the US State Department.

Nearly 3.9 million people, mostly women and children, were forcibly displaced, many of them more than once. About 2.3 million people fled to neighbouring countries in search of safety.

The conflict, and drought, also plunged the country into famine in early 2017.

The UN's World Food Programme said it helped to feed about half the country's population last year, with about six million receiving food aid, and the proportion of the population living under the international poverty line rose from 51 per cent in 2009 to 82 per cent in 2016.

Today, the typical income of a civil servant is around $2 per day, according to the World Bank.

Widespread poverty is the main reason South Sudan ranks 187th out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index (HDI), and also helps to explain why the average life expectancy is only 57, compared with the global average of 72.

The World Bank says South Sudan experienced near-hyperinflation because of its civil war, which caused a 60-fold increase in the prices of basic goods in an already fragile economy where most work is self-employment in agriculture.

The country's currency has depreciated nearly one hundred-fold since independence, and a parallel market for US dollars has developed, with a gap of 100 per cent or more between the parallel and official exchange rates.

Since 2011, non-oil GDP has fallen by 37 per cent and household disposable income by 70 per cent.

The Coronavirus pandemic and recurrent lockdowns have brought imports of food and medical supplies from Kenya and Uganda to a standstill.

Hundreds of thousands of children in South Sudan are facing an uncertain future.

According to Unicef, more than 70 per cent of the country’s children are out of school.


A decade of hope

There were great expectations for South Sudan after it gained independence.

Its creation was the result of a landmark agreement in 2005 that ended Africa's longest-running civil war.

Made up of Sudan's 10 southernmost provinces, the new country was the first to be founded in Africa since Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1993.

A power-sharing agreement brought an end to the fighting in 2018, and in February last year, the rivals - Mr Mayardit and Mr Machar, struck a unity deal for a coalition government after several false starts and short-lived peace deals.

The country's leaders say they have learnt hard lessons, but with the country still largely divided along tribal lines, significant hurdles remain in the way of a lasting peace.

“Tribalism has been a challenge and that’s why the national dialogue has been initiated," said General Lul Ruai Koang, the spokesman for the South Sudanese Army.

"Our diversity shouldn’t be a source of division. I shouldn’t look at my tribe as the supreme tribe. Every tribe adds to our society," he told The National.

"We now have become peace-makers in the region as we have mediated between the north and different rebels groups and the Sudanese government.”

General Lul Ruai Koang of the South Sudanese Army in Juba. The National

South Sudan's leaders have, for now, laid to rest their ethnic rivalries and launched a nationwide campaign led by a unified army to disarm civilians and negotiate with the few splinter groups that could threaten the latest peace agreement.

The national unity government has ambitious plans to build a dam on the Nile to generate electricity and protect it from cascades of devastating floods every year, improve critical infrastructure, help children to access education and create a digital economy to fight corruption.

The country seems to be on the road to post-conflict recovery at last, with a government budget based almost entirely on oil revenues.

But South Sudan has other potential sources of wealth.

The country is believed to hold large mineral and metal deposits. It has vast tracts of viable farmland, forests, and the potential to generate clean hydroelectric power from the White Nile.

“This is a strategic plan of the country, the government has a plan to build a dam for the generation of electricity and power because you can’t have a country without industrialisation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Deng Dau Deng Malek told The National in Juba.

The country is highly vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters such as massive floods and invasion of desert locusts.

“Look at the country today, most of South Sudan is flooded as we speak. The Upper Nile State is under water. We weren’t given the opportunity as a country to think and plan. You look at the needs of the population, you look at the growing industries,” he said.

Archived photo of Southern Sudanese celebrate their first independence day in front of a newly constructed statue of the late John Garang, the former leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, in the capital city of Juba. Pete Muller/AP

Will peace last?

South Sudan’s leaders say they are determined to maintain peace in order to create a prosperous future.

But the country’s next general elections, expected in 2023, could expose the fault lines between the country's main tribes.

Independent monitors accuse the country's political elites of exploiting South Sudan's ethnic diversity to achieve personal gains.

The country's leaders have pledged to forge a political system based not on tribalism but on democracy, but it remains to be seen whether the divisions that have already plunged the country into civil war once will resurface.

The birth of South Sudan was greeted with "considerable optimism at the time," said Nicholas Haysom, the UN Special Representative for South Sudan and Head of the UN mission in the country.

“Undoubtedly, there has been some disappointment with what's been achieved in the intervening 10 years,” he told The National.

“The political elites and stakeholders in South Sudan have spent a considerable amount of time stitching together what is called here a revitalised peace agreement, which is an attempt to patch up a previous peace agreement in a way which is more likely to lead to a successful outcome," he said.

While South Sudan's leaders have been working hard to implement the agreement, he said, progress has been slow.

"But there is evidence that the pace is picking up somewhat," he added.

The management of South Sudan's vast untapped natural resources could also emerge as a point of contention once more.

The World Bank says there is no transparency on how the country manages oil revenues, production and exports, which are all “shrouded in secrecy” and resources have been poorly managed. The latest round of conflict has soaked up most of the available funds.

South Sudan ranked 179 out of 180 on the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, which has become the leading global indicator of public sector corruption.

Many South Sudanese suspect foul play in the government's handling of the economy.

One South Sudanese woman, who works for a Norwegian aid agency in the capital and did not want to be identified, said: “It’s mind-boggling that South Sudan has an ocean of oil reserves, a third of the reserves in sub-Saharan Africa, but remains one of the most impoverished and least developed countries in the world."

Updated: July 5th 2021, 7:21 AM