The Fragile Peace in South Sudan

by Izabela Chmielewska

Since its tumultuous independence in 2011, South Sudan has been a fragile state.  The region is marred by ethnic clashes, which have driven recurring violence for decades.  The most recent conflict started in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir dismissed his Vice President, Riek Machar, after a political fallout.  Their personal tensions quickly escalated into ethnically charged violence when Machar mobilized rebel forces and Kiir deployed the army in response, ravaging the country for the last five months.

Recent weeks have shown some hope for peace on the horizon.  On May 9th, the two rivals met for the first time since the conflict started, and signed a peace agreement that includes a ceasefire.  However, the deal is fragile.  Much more than a ceasefire is needed to bring lasting peace to the embattled country that faces multiple challenges.

The Ethnic Problem

Separating from Sudan three years ago did not solve the deeper internal factions among the South Sudanese.  They do not share a common national identity because the boundaries are largely artificial and encompass multiple ethnic groups.  Ethnic conflict is difficult to manage because of the geographic distribution of the two major groups – Dinka and Nuer.  The Nuer people (15%) live in the center of South Sudan, while the Dinka people (35%) surround them, with about 200 other ethnic minorities spread throughout the country.   There is no common cultural or national identity that supersedes the ethnic factions or a state-run mechanism to promote it, like education.

President Kiir is Dinka, and Riek Machar is Nuer.  Their constituencies are aligned along ethnic lines, so political and ethnic tensions re-emphasize each other, which complicates democratic governance.  Political leaders manipulatively use existing social cleavages for their political gain instead of building a strong national identity, which weakens the country.  Unless ethnic divisions can be surpassed by a unifying sense of South Sudanese nationalism, peace will remain strained. In order to do this, the country needs to develop a healthy political system that does not prey on ethnic divisions.

The Oil Economy Problem

 The geopolitics of oil in an unstable region also stands in the way of peace and prosperity.  Most wells are located in South Sudan, but the pipelines run north, to Sudan.  Unsurprisingly, the two nations have disagreed on how to divide the generated profits.  As a result, the production and trade of oil have been interrupted for over a year in 2012.  This incident had serious repercussions for both economies, especially South Sudan.  According to the World Bank, the government’s budget is heavily reliant on oil revenue (80% of GDP) and, as a result, the per capita GDP dropped from $1,505 in 2010 to only $790 in 2012 (and remains about half of Sudan’s).  During the crisis, the rebels overtook some key oil-producing towns, again disrupting the country’s sustenance.

The interruption of the oil production has immense economic and political costs.  Economic shocks open the door to internal political instability and public resentment because the people ultimately bear the financial burden.  This will remain a hot-button issue.  Both economies need to become less reliant on oil and develop other means of production beyond agriculture, which has its own challenges due to dire levels of human development.

The Human Development Problem

In order to mitigate internal volatility and ensure lasting peace, the South Sudanese people need their country to invest some of that oil money in education, health, good jobs, and social safety nets.  The human development indicators are extremely low.  About 70% of the population is under the age of 30, 50% isbelow the poverty line, over 80% work in agriculture, and only 27% of the population is literate.  This is a terrible record.  However, there is a chance for improvement since the population is so young.  A better education system would likely increase literacy and decrease the share of unpaid agrarian work, and thus poverty – one of the root causes of violence.  Improving overall human development would naturally encourage economic development and political stability.

The Humanitarian Problem

The impoverished people of South Sudan pay the greatest cost of the ethnic conflict, economic hardship, and political quarrels.  As a result of the violence, more than 800,000 people are internally displaced with little access to basic needs like water.  Thousands more have been targeted as victims of ethnic mass killings and rape, despite UN peacekeeping efforts.  Even traditional sanctuaries – churches and hospitals – have been ruthlessly attacked.  The atrocities were committed by both sides, which compromises the chances of ameliorating the humanitarian damage through fair human rights trials or restorative programs.  The institutional capacity to address these crimes is also a challenge.

The Weak Institutions Problem

The African Union (AU) has called for the establishment of an international commission to investigate the humanitarian crimes, but even with the UN’s help, the capacity to accomplish this is very limited.  The two sides will not hold each other accountable since they are both guilty of violating human rights, and it is unlikely that they would cooperate with an international institution, like the UN or the AU, to seek humanitarian justice, especially when the truce is so delicate.  Killing and raping civilians during war violate international law, but the international system does not have adequate tools to hold the perpetrators accountable for these atrocities.  There also may not be enough political will to seek formal international legal remedies because South Sudan is an extremely fragile state with nascent institutions.  Putting its leaders on trial would further diminish the legitimacy of government, which is paradoxically already tarnished because of the violent crisis.  The political stability of the country depends on strong institutions – South Sudan’s young democracy needs to be restructured and consolidated in order to ensure sustainable peace.

Above all, the people of South Sudan need basic things first – water, food, shelter, and security.  That is the primary and most important step towards justice and stability, and should be the focus of the South Sudanese government and the international community right now.  The current peace pact between Kiir and Machar is only a first step towards a better tomorrow for South Sudan.  Its impact is futile without immediate provision of basic needs to the affected people, and investment in human development in the long run.

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