South Sudan’s Independence: Taking Stock One Year Later

Posted by Annette LaRocco

Editor’s Note: As part of the series Enough 101, this post is intended to provide a contextual background for understanding the complex issues that the Enough Project works on.

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, turned one yesterday. As the nation celebrates its first anniversary, it also faces a whole host of problems internally and in its relations with Sudan. After years of intentional neglect by Khartoum coupled with decades of civil war, South Sudan has some of the worst development indicators in the world. Infrastructure is severely limited and the political leadership, made up primarily of former rebels, continues to struggle with the imperatives of civilian rule and weak institutions.

Despite these challenges, South Sudanese recently interviewed by the Enough Project in Juba continue to view their independence from Sudan as a positive development, many noting that they are now finally “free” to determine their own destinies. The vast majority of South Sudanese with whom Enough spoke retained faith in their government and had hope for the future, pointing to infrastructure development in Juba as signs of the prosperity that awaits their young nation. Between this much anticipated prosperity and today lie numerous challenges for South Sudan and its people. This week’s post in the series Enough 101 offers an overview of the challenges the new country faces.

Negotiations

South Sudan has the gargantuan task of undertaking nation-building while simultaneously trying to deal with the unresolved issues of separation. Talks between Sudan and South Sudan have stalled and restarted several times. Much of South Sudan’s first year was spent trying to negotiate critical agreements with Khartoum regarding citizenship, oil and transitional financial arrangements, the definition of the border, and the final status of Abyei. Additionally, since last July, Sudan and South Sudan have come close on several occasions to a resumption of open hostilities characterized by persistent border clashes, Sudanese aerial bombardments within the South’s territory, and South Sudan’s controversial seizure of Heglig. Fortunately, the two countries have stepped back from war though the negotiating process remains tense and most issues are still unresolved.

Inter-communal violence

Weak security, a lack of accountability mechanisms, and ineffective civilian protection, alongside a heavily armed citizenry, has allowed inter-communal violence to spiral out of control in many rural areas of South Sudan. The cyclical violence of cattle raiding, displacement, and abduction of children between the Lou-Nuer and Murle ethnic groups in Jonglei state left hundreds dead and thousands displaced over the last year. The government’s disarmament campaign and proposed reconciliation process looks to have pacified the situation in the short-term, but the deep-seated roots of the violence and potential for renewed conflict remain.

Economic crisis and corruption

Presently, South Sudan’s oil can only reach the global market through a pipeline system that runs through Sudan and reaches the Red Sea at Port Sudan. The South’s decision to halt oil production following an impasse with Sudan over transit fees and the latter’s theft of southern oil has precipitated economic troubles in both countries. Oil revenues made up 98 percent of Juba’s budget, and since the shut down the country has experienced an inflation rate of 80 percent. The government is predicted to exhaust its supply of foreign currency some time during the month of July.

As a result of the stalled negotiations and the shutdown, vast oil resources that could be used to build schools, hospitals, water treatment facilities, and infrastructure cannot be tapped. Development appears to be at a “virtual standstill.” The International Rescue Committee’s head of aid programming in South Sudan, Susan Purdin, argued “From the standpoint of improving the quality of life for millions of South Sudanese people, the first 12 months of independence can be written off as a lost year.”

Beyond the economic crisis, corruption persists as a critical stumbling block that must be addressed in order for the government to fulfill its promises to the population, kickstart development, and provide much-needed social services. In June 2012 President Salva Kiir sent a controversial letter to 75 current and former government officials announcing that an estimated $4 billion had been stolen from government coffers and offering amnesty to any officials who return the money.

Food insecurity

Food insecurity has reached high levels along the border, particularly in states such as Upper Nile, Warrap, Unity, and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, as refugees flow across the border and strain South Sudan’s already limited resources. The U.N. estimated that half of South Sudan’s population, approximately 4.7 million people, is food insecure. This is due to a complex interaction of several factors including the continued tension along the border, the burden of a receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees from Sudan, displacement and destruction from inter-communal violence in Jonglei state, and inflation and economic problems related to the oil shutdown.

Human rights and the constitution

South Sudan’s first year has been marked by human rights abuses, particularly on the part of security forces, including unlawful detention, inhumane prison conditions, and extrajudicial killing. Weak and poorly institutionalized courts and criminal justice system exacerbate these violations. Further, dissent is frowned upon by the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, or SPLM, and basic freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press are regularly curtailed. Journalists have been singled out for harassment and intimidation. Human Rights Watch urged South Sudan to undertake “low-cost steps” to improve the overall human rights situation in the country. The organization noted, “South Sudan clearly faces serious political, economic, and security challenges, but there are many human rights reforms that require only political will, not resources.”

Moving forward, the constitutional review process is an opportunity for South Sudan to “strengthen [its] human rights framework.” The permanent constitution can be a tool to enshrine respect for human rights, law, and democratic governance into the fabric of South Sudanese society. Unfortunately, delays in permanent constitutional process may undermine the ability of the commission tasked with drafting the constitution to effectively consult South Sudan’s civil society, as is required under the law.

Refugee situation

Sudan’s relentless targeting of its own civilians has driven men, women, and children across the border to South Sudan. Humanitarian and development work has been hampered by the massive influx of refugees from Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. South Sudan’s already strained resources have been unable to cope with the needs of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees as well as ten of thousands of South Sudanese returnees moving back from the North.

Camps in Upper Nile state are receiving refugees from Blue Nile across the border. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, planned for 75,000 refugee arrivals to this area. Current counts have the number well above 105,000. Supplies are stretched to the limit and many people arrive in the camp after walking for days and weeks. They are exhausted, sick, and increasingly malnourished.

A similar situation exists in Unity State, which is hosting the majority of those fleeing violence in South Kordofan. In addition to the daily struggles of living as a refugee, Yida camp’s close proximity to the border with Sudan presents a complex protection problem. In fact, in the fall of 2011, Yida was bombed by the Sudanese air force, in violation of South Sudan’s sovereignty and international law.

Some camps have seen the influx surge to as many as 1,000 new arrivals a day, numbers which have severely stressed humanitarian agencies’ ability to provide adequate food, water, and protection. A recent UNHCR statement called the situation in South Sudan’s northern states as “among the most critical the agency now faces.” UNHCR’s original funding request and logistical planning were based on an estimate that the refugee population in South Sudan would not exceed 135,000 people. The number has swelled to over 162,500 and is growing. In early July, U.N. Special Representative in South Sudan and head of UNMISS Hilde Johnson put the total refugee caseload in South Sudan at 175,000 people with a projected increase to 235,000. “This is [a] burden on a new and independent country that we should not underestimate,” Johnson said.

What’s next?

Despite South Sudan’s troubled first year of independence and the daunting task of nation building that lies ahead, many South Sudanese are excited to commemorate their nation’s first anniversary. In preparation, the streets of Juba were swept clean, fresh coats of paint have brightened buildings, and trees were planted along the capital’s major thoroughfares to welcome dignitaries in town for the event. This speaks to the resilience of the South Sudanese people and their commitment to forging a new state even in the face of numerous challenges – not the least of which is an increasingly bellicose and intransigent neighbor to the north.

For more analysis of the impact of the first year of independence for South Sudan and the region as a whole, attend the Enough Project’s panel event, “War and Protest in Sudan: Implications for the Region a Year After South Sudan's Independence” on Monday, July 16 in Washington, D.C.