Four years ago today, the world’s youngest nation celebrated their new statehood with great fanfare. All eyes were on South Sudan, a new country created by war, but offering great promise for its people. Following decades of deadly, protracted conflict, which left more than 1.5 million dead, South Sudan was to emerge with a bright future. With vast agricultural potential, lucrative oil production and buoyed by hope and good will, South Sudan seemed to be poised to bring about meaningful and positive change to its population.
Four years later, many of these hopes have been dashed.
The country has been torn by civil war since December 2013, pitting President Salva Kiir against his former Vice-President Riek Machar, who he accused of fomenting a coup against him. Violence and deep divisions have all but halted any progress on development, and the economy is in tatters. Dialogue between Machar and Kiir has been tumultuous at best, and various attempts at a negotiated, power-sharing solution have failed to produce tangible political advances.
At last count, at least seven ceasefire agreements have been signed, each and every one of them broken within days, if not hours. No official death toll is being kept, but the International Crisis Group estimated in late 2014 that at lest 50,000 people have been killed since 2013. At least 1.5 million people have been internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
The international community, which helped broker South Sudan’s independence, has essentially made the possibility of South Sudan as a sovereign nation a reality. The plight of Christian southerners in Sudan, facing discrimination and injustice from the primarily Muslim northern region, had historically been a cause célèbre for American evangelists, and through the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the U.S. has played a central role.
(U.S. President George W. Bush was instrumental in enabling the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and South Sudan in 2005, and South Sudan’s independence was to be part of his legacy of “liberating” oppressed populations. Salva Kiir’s trademark cowboy hat was a gift from the former U.S. president in 2006; Kiir, who received a replacement Stetson from John Kerry since, has rarely been seen in public without the symbolic hat since then.) And while the U.S. has been a key partner for years, leverage and influence have waned over the last few years, with Obama much less personally involved than his predecessor. Foreign Policy reports that, when the war erupted in 2013, it took American officials three full days to reach their South Sudanese counterparts.
Four years into its existence as a sovereign nation, billions of dollars of development aid have been poured into South Sudan, supporting not just humanitarian operations but also largely funding the fledgling’s government budget. The United Nations’ presence on the ground, while at times contentious, has been absolutely essential to the ongoing survival of millions. The Security Council, for its part, has imposed sanctions on military leaders, but has stopped short of becoming politically involved or applying meaningful pressure on the warring parties. The complexity of the situation on the ground, with numerous, fragmented militias, and untold numbers of weapons, makes it difficult to see how a long-term political solution could emerge. Earlier this week, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous urged the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, which he described as being in an “absolutely appalling” situation.
Meanwhile, human rights abuses are being perpetrated by all sides of the conflict, with civilians bearing the brunt of the violence. Horrific stories of women and girls raped and killed, of children being abducted to become child soldiers, are common. Earlier this year, the UN Human Rights Commission agreed to dispatch a team of human rights monitors to South Sudan. While it is expected the mission will yield a substantial report on human rights abuses and war crimes in South Sudan, the real question is how and when will anyone responsible face justice?
South Sudanese leaders’ hunger for power is destroying their nation. Their inability to find a political solution, built on compromise, leaves South Sudanese people caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of violence and insecurity. The recent parliamentary decision to extend Kiir’s presidential mandate for three years, completely by-passing elections, suggests that democracy is also now taking a backseat. South Sudan, which was to be a success story and an example of ambitious nation-building, is celebrating a grim fourth birthday, with little to show for its hard-fought independence from the north.