South Sudan’s anticipated fragility is well captured by the work of Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, which suggests that 40% of post conflict countries experience renewed conflict within a decade of establishing peace. Beyond those staggering odds, South Sudan embodies a number, if not all, of the characteristics thought to contribute to internal strife. It is landlocked, resource-rich, and impoverished, with a weak state and ethnic tension to boot. By any theory, South Sudan was a likely candidate for conflict within its new state. The presence of arms, recent history of violence, and lack of livelihood and education opportunities would only make it easier for the country to slip into war.
Despite these inevitable challenges, the referendum went ahead and independence was pursued. Yet it became clear that even if it were to survive its birth, South Sudan would experience a long struggle to catch up to its neighbouring brothers and sisters. A South Sudanese friend once said to me, “If Africa is 50 years behind the rest of the world; South Sudan is 50 years behind the rest of Africa.”
While surviving some early challenges, South Sudan’s fragility quickly became apparent. In 2012, the Fragile States Index initially ranked South Sudan as the 4th most failed state in the world. With South Sudan lapsing into widespread conflict last December, the Index has moved it to number one, breaking Somalia’s six-year streak as the world’s most fragile state. Within months, the conflict has displaced over a million people (roughly 10% of the population), exposing women to terrible acts of sexual violence and threatening famine across parts of the country.
Beyond the 2010 Presidential elections (which maintained Omar al-Bashir as President of Sudan, and elected Salva Kiir as president of the Government of South Sudan) and the 2011 referendum, South Sudan has little experience with democratic processes and culture. Perhaps the most undemocratic of all South Sudanese institutions is the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which continues to require intensive reform. After the CPA was signed, the SPLA (previously a rebel army itself) attempted to assimilate other ethnic militias into its fold, creating a largely unprofessional army with skewed ethnic make-up and strong alliances to individual commanders rather than the state, all factors which contributed to the initial fighting on December 15, 2013. This same lack of reform and professionalism is certainly also a reason why, in a war against anti-government forces, the SPLA has repeatedly carried out human rights violations against civilians, as have rebel forces.
Another issue that has come to the fore in light of the current conflict has been the need for national reconciliation. Looking back, disregard for this issue was a key oversight. While the international community was helping to build a new state and government, and striving to provide basic services post-war, it neglected the human dimension and the long memory of crimes committed during the Sudan civil war. The reality is that the civil war was far more complicated than simply South fighting North, and that throughout the war and the CPA period southerners at different times carried out attacks on one another. These conflict dynamics are further complicated by a culture of cattle and dowries, inciting violent cattle raids and retaliation between tribes. Without reconciliation, South Sudan would struggle to establish a new national identity outside of Juba, with tribal identities easily co-opted by political figures and manipulated for their own aims.
The current conflict in South Sudan can cause us to wonder whether independence was really best for the people of southern Sudan. I think to the early days of the CPA when the mantra was "make unity attractive" and wonder whether life would be different for the South Sudanese had that aim succeeded. But the reality is that a people sharing a common identity demanded their right to sovereignty, to self govern, and that this demand was further justified as a provision of the CPA. To challenge that right would bring the credibility of our fundamental democratic values into question and as such, serves us little good. Instead, there is something to be learned from the experience of South Sudan about statebuilding post-conflict, with key lessons being the need to focus on institutional capacity building, security sector reform, and reconciliation in supporting stabilization, and moving towards democratization.