Country profile: South Sudan


A song-and-dance group prepare to perform at a church in the Mingkaman camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), which has held as many as 100,000 people during the conflicts of the past few years. © Andrew McConnell / Panos Pictures

flag of South Sudan

The road from Juba airport (one of the few paved roads in the country) is a dilapidated parade marked by unfinished and decayed buildings, which sprung up in the heady days following hard-won independence from Sudan in 2011. Juba itself, once a small trading outpost on the Nile, is now a dusty urban sprawl, teeming with UN personnel, military and motorcades. The marked lack of infrastructure (more notable still outside the capital) speaks to a long history of neglect.

At Sudan’s independence in 1956, the British failed to deliver on promises of autonomous rule to the southern states, which were culturally, ethnically, linguistically and religiously distinct. This opened the door to inevitable conflict. A brief period of stability was heralded by the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement, which awarded the South the right to self-government. But this disintegrated in 1983 and hostilities resumed, leading to the formation of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), headed by the charismatic John Garang.

Guerrilla conflict raged until 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was brokered under immense international pressure, promising a referendum in which the people of the South could vote on secession. A few months after the CPA was signed, John Garang was killed in a helicopter accident, leaving his deputy, Salva Kiir, as successor and the peace deal in jeopardy. Western pressure, though, ensured the CPA stayed on track and in 2011 98.8 per cent of South Sudan’s people voted for independence.

Villagers in Unity State in the north watch a plane drop sacks of food aid.

Andrew McConnell / Panos Pictures.

But the CPA did not fully resolve two things: the north-south border delineation (including the disputed and oil-rich Abyei area) and the division of profits from the southern oilfields between the two nations. At independence, South Sudan gained control of three-quarters of the former country’s oilfields but was landlocked, meaning Sudan retained the processing and export facilities. Six months after independence, the government took the ultimately ruinous decision to shut down oil production, in protest against Sudan’s exorbitant transit fees.

At independence, the new country’s military accounted for more than 50 per cent of the national budget – expenditure that was necessary to maintain the loyalty of the complex configuration of ethnic militia that made up the SPLA. Without oil revenue over a period of 15 months, President Kiir was no longer able to manage political rivalries, including a leadership challenge from his vice-president, Riek Machar. The fall-out between Kiir and Machar – the most powerful members of their respective Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups – led to civil war erupting in December 2013.

Atrocities have routinely been carried out by both sides along ethnic lines. Stalled peace talks resulted in a tenuous peace agreement in August 2015 which proposed a power-sharing deal but took over nine months to begin implementation. Prospects of sustained peace were dashed, in July 2016, however, when heavy fighting broke out again in the streets of Juba.

In addition to the tens of thousands killed and 2.3 million displaced, the conflict has destroyed any meagre development gains made since independence. With falling global oil prices, pipeline tariffs, plus interest on debts to oil companies and with donor support redirected to humanitarian efforts, government revenue now stands at next to nothing.

The country is now on the edge of an economic and political cliff – with hyper-inflation and a bloated but soon-to-be unpaid military, further unrest is inevitable. Local reconciliation expert Bernard Suwa has commented: ‘Before the war, the community was strong but now the community is broken.’ South Sudan’s history is one of conflict and poverty but its future looks bleaker still.

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