As Africa’s newest state, South Sudan was meant to be an example of what cooperation between the international community and African political actors could achieve. According to the African experts interviewed in this sixth episode of the Peacebuilders podcast series, South Sudan’s devastating descent into civil conflict has instead transformed the young country into a laboratory for competing security solutions and a humanitarian catastrophe with no clear end.
“Maybe these high expectations were not met, and people felt maybe disappointed,” says Nicodemus Minde, a Social Science Research Council Next Generation fellow who has conducted extensive field research in South Sudan. “The romanticism around secession and a free country all dried up.”
The South Sudanese government, according to Jok Madut Jok, head of The Sudd Institute, “still has a lot of room to do good by the citizens. The government has the upper hand in the war. The government is the bigger party. And therefore, it should show leadership by saying that: The country’s at a crossroads. It’s now a matter of whether we will continue to exist as a country, or we’ll be obliterated.”
The international effort that was indispensable to the founding of South Sudan – led by the “troika” of the U.S., the UK, and Norway – broke down as, in Jok’s description, South Sudanese leaders sought to take immediate profits from the new state, which began existence with a budget surplus that soon turned into a deep deficit. “They became offended by this idea that they should not enrich themselves so quickly at the expense of their people,” Jok says. “And there was a sense of entitlement that, ‘We liberated it’, to which then the ordinary citizen says, ‘So that you do what with it? You liberate it so you can destroy it?'” The failures of the troika resulted in a situation where, Jok says, “the global North, the West, as it were, has actually lost its capacity to remain effective in the effort to bring peace to South Sudan.”
The turn to the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) brought problems of its own. Jok sees one issue as the troika’s continuing behind-the-scenes interventions, with the troika pressuring IGAD into implementing its preferred solutions. For Rashid Abdi of International Crisis Group, the growing role of regional actors – not just IGAD members but also Egypt – has led to a situation in which “many countries are beginning to take very individual calculations.” IGAD mediation is, he says, becoming “a last-ditch effort” even as the South Sudan government, guided by diplomat Francis Deng, mounts its own National Dialogue.
Ultimately, Jok argues, peace in South Sudan was shattered by the legacy of violence resulting from decades of conflict. The South Sudanese needed to believe that “the price they paid in the form of their loved ones can be compensated for by the positive presence of the state in their lives – which did not happen. And then when it didn’t happen, it has perpetuated violence to this day. There are many, many conflicts that are still ongoing now, sometimes low-key, sometimes erupting in more flagrant ways, but it is due to the fact that the narrative and the history of the liberation war has not been faced and confronted in a more collective way so that citizens have a way to express their grievances against the rebel leaders who have now become the rulers.”