What’s Past is Prologue: Vignettes of South Sudan, the World’s Newest State


On a blisteringly hot Monday afternoon in mid-July, 24 foreign aid workers barricaded themselves inside the Terrain Hotel compound in central Juba, South Sudan’s capital. For four days, an abrupt surge in violence between government and rebel forces left at least 300 people dead. During the last day of the fighting, nearly 100 soldiers dressed in camouflage, many intoxicated and brandishing AK-47 rifles, shot open the compound’s doors and used tire irons to pry open entryways. The men looted valuables and pillaged the enclosure while seeking insurgents.

Upon discovering the aid workers, who by then had ensconced themselves in a cramped bathroom, the soldiers took turns dragging out and gang raping the women; one aid worker was allegedly assaulted by 15 different men for hours, according to an interview with the Associated Press. The few Americans in the group were subjected to torture and mock executions. A local journalist who had been working for a USAID-funded media development organization, John Gatluak, was forcibly brought before a semicircle of his colleagues and shot twice in the head for being a member of the Nuer tribe, an injustice illustrative of the country’s enduring history of ethnic hostility.

Urgent pleas for help directed toward the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) fell on deaf ears despite the Mission’s headquarters being located less than a mile from the site of the attack. This colossal negligence drew swift criticism from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who subsequently launched a formal investigation into the matter, and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who stated that the United States was “deeply concerned” that the peacekeepers were “incapable of or unwilling to respond to calls for help.” Countries throughout the world quickly followed suit in condemning the attack.

The 2016 Aid Worker Security Report declared South Sudan the most dangerous location in the world for foreign aid workers for the first time ever, surpassing other high-profile war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. In the latest Fragile States Index report, a collaboration between the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine, South Sudan was granted the unenviable spot as the world’s second most unstable state. Three of South Sudan’s neighbors—the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan—also rank within the top ten.

The heart of Africa has been plagued for some time by a succession of malignant diseases: ethnic strife, food shortages, porous borders, corruption, and inauspicious geography, to name just a few. The region, and especially South Sudan, are in special need of resuscitation.


As is the case across much of the African continent, South Sudan’s instability and endemic misery are deeply rooted in British colonial policy. Between 1899 and 1956, colonial Sudan, which encompassed the geographic area of modern-day Sudan as well as South Sudan, was ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt under what was formally known as the Anglo-Egyptian condominium. While Egypt was nominally involved in the project, in practice the British retained and exercised nearly complete control over governance of the two states.

To compensate for their inability to rule through brute force, the British simultaneously employed two overarching strategies: a “divide-and-rule” tactic that discouraged political, social, religious, and cultural integration between northern and southern Sudan, and an “indirect rule” strategy that allowed the colonizers to govern through targeted, decentralized elites, sowing discord between ethnic tribes so that they would be less likely to collaborate and rebel.

From the start, the British ultimately decided to spend the vast majority of their time investing in the north, or present-day Sudan. At any one time, 50–100 members of Britain’s Sudan Political Service—often graduates of renowned British universities like Oxford and Cambridge—operated out of the main office in Khartoum. Frequently using funds from Egypt, they invested in regional infrastructure projects, established robust legal institutions to promote the rule of law, and empowered a select cadre of locals to rule their constituencies on behalf of the colonizers. Considerable Arab influence throughout the north was embraced rather than rejected by the British, who assisted with the purchase and maintenance of religious structures such as mosques, and would often help finance pilgrimages for Muslims to the Holy Land.

By contrast, colonial strategy toward the south, or present-day South Sudan, differed greatly. The south was and continues to be much less unified, inhabited by scores of divergent ethnic tribes influenced by Christianity and animism, rather than Islam. The practice of “indirect rule” allowed the British to empower certain tribes of their choosing, which predictably resulted in widespread intertribal conflict. The two largest tribes in colonial and contemporary South Sudan, the Dinka and Nuer, developed opposing relationships with the British: many Dinka tribal units associated with the colonizers and welcomed their presence, while the Nuer tended to resist these colonial collaborations, as they associated them with their rivals and therefore perceived them as a massive threat to their security.

A spate of colonial ordinances enacted during the 1920s further ruptured what little associations existed between northern and southern Sudan. In 1922 the Passports and Permits Ordinance required individuals who sought to travel to the opposite region to obtain a license. Three years later, in 1925, northerners who wanted to do business in the south needed to go through the arduous process of receiving permission. Finally, in 1928, a strict language policy “categorically rejected” the use of Arabic in the south; only English and a number of widely used tribal languages were to be officially accepted.

By the time the British departed and Sudan was granted autonomy on January 1, 1956, a massively fractured and underdeveloped south was left connected to an economically and politically dominant north. Rising tensions between the two regions, which had few similarities except in name, would later result in two violent and protracted civil wars that left upwards of 2.5 million people dead and millions more displaced.

The First Sudanese Civil War lasted nearly 17 years and began as a series of mutinies in the south due to fear of northern discrimination and marginalization. Fighting ceased in 1983 after the south was granted a degree of autonomy, but reignited after an 11-year hiatus when northern authorities in Khartoum reneged on their promise of limited sovereignty. Thus began the Second Sudanese Civil War, which lasted for 22 years and ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.


President Salva Kiir Mayardit has distended cheeks and deep, sunken eyes that appear chronically beset by fatigue, likely a result of a lifetime engaged in warfare. He speaks laconically, choosing his words carefully, and is immediately identifiable by his imposing, jet-black Stetson hat, thought to have been given to him as a gift by former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2006, five years before Kiir would become the president of the world’s newest state. He has appeared at nearly every public speaking engagement, including at the United Nations, sporting the chapeau, and is rumored to have a vast collection of others at his disposal.

President Kiir is no stranger to conflict. His foray into politics began during the 1960s when he joined the Anyanya, a southern separatist group that fought against the north during the height of the First Sudanese Civil War. After the 11-year ceasefire, he became close acquaintances with Dr. John Garang De Mabior, a well-traveled intellectual who obtained his education in the United States—first at Grinnell College, and later at Iowa State University, where he received a PhD in economics. Upon returning to South Sudan, his native land, Mabior commanded the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the military wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the prominent rebel group that was one of the two main belligerents in the Second Sudanese Civil War. Just weeks after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, in 2005, Mabior died in a plane crash returning to South Sudan from a meeting he had had with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Kiir replaced Mabior in 2005 and became president of southern Sudan. In 2011, he became the first president of newly autonomous South Sudan, after a historic referendum was held in which over 99.5 percent of voters declared their interest in becoming truly independent from the north. During the two-year honeymoon period before the outbreak of yet another civil war, South Sudan established itself as a veritable member of the international community, gaining membership status at the United Nations in July 2011 and the International Monetary Fund in 2012.

Despite its official autonomy, South Sudan’s break with its northern counterpart was not as clean as the world hoped it would be. President Kiir and the SPLM’s tenuous control over the state has been exacerbated by two enduring disputes with Sudan: the status of the 4,000 square mile Abyei region, which is rich with natural resources and sits squarely on the border between the two countries; and trade issues involving the safe transfer of oil, integral to the stability of both countries’ economies.

The question over the jurisdiction of Abyei was to be decided in a 2011 referendum, scheduled to coincide with the south’s referendum for independence. The Abyei referendum never took place because the area was preemptively annexed by Sudan’s armed forces, displacing over 110,000 Ngok Dinka native to the area. Following an agreement between Sudan and South Sudan that resulted in the demilitarization of the area, the United Nations Security Council authorized the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei to conduct monitoring missions and oversee the administering of humanitarian aid to the affected populations.

South Sudan has been both blessed and cursed with an abundance of lucrative natural resources, including gold, diamonds, silver, and copper—with the regulation and trade of oil being the most contentious. When both Sudans were unified, the south accounted for approximately 75 percent of oil production. As a show of defiance, South Sudan decided in January 2012 to cease the transfer of oil to the north through the only two existing pipelines due to rows over shipment fees. For nearly a year and a half, the cessation of trade wreaked havoc on South Sudan’s economy, with overall GDP dropping by nearly 50 percent. Revenues rebounded slowly after new agreements were successfully renegotiated, but the worst was yet to come.


In December 2013, threats from abroad took a backseat to more pressing internal issues. When President Kiir suddenly dismissed his entire cabinet, including many high-level military generals and Vice President Riek Machar, widespread and ethnically tinged uprisings took place throughout the country. Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, formally accused Machar, a Nuer, of conspiring against him to incite a coup d’état, while Machar dismissed those claims and insisted Kiir sacked the cabinet to consolidate a dictatorship. After his dismissal, Machar fled and subsequently formed the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), directly challenging Kiir’s authority.

The split of the SPLM, South Sudan’s only ruling party, caused a civil war that is still ongoing, the repercussions of which have reverberated throughout the country. Over 50,000 people have been killed since December 2013, and roughly 2.3 million have been displaced. Approximately 80 percent of South Sudanese live outside urban areas, the vast majority of whom make their living from subsistence farming. The warring factions and intermittent destruction of towns and villages have prevented the necessary cultivation of food. During mid-summer 2014, the UN Security Council released a statement addressing the country’s “catastrophic food insecurity,” deeming the situation the worst food crisis worldwide. UNICEF warned that upwards of a third of the population—or some four million people, including 50,000 children—could be dealing with chronic food insecurity.

President Kiir’s prioritization of security and reestablishing his sovereignty over other concerns such as education and health is reflected in annual state expenditures. The most recent figures, gathered by the CIA’s World Factbook, show that South Sudan spends over 10 percent of its entire GDP on defense expenses—the highest in the world. State funding toward health and education accounted for a meager 2.7 and 0.8 percent of GDP, respectively. It comes as no surprise, then, that less than a third of the population can read or write, and the risk of contracting infectious diseases remains alarmingly high. (By contrast, the United States spends just 4.35 percent of GDP on defense expenses, and 17.1 and 5.2 percent on health and education.)

In late August 2015, President Kiir and rival Machar signed a titular agreement that would, in theory, result in Machar’s return and the creation of a more inclusive transitional government. On May 29, 2016, Ellen Margreth Løj, the special representative of the secretary-general of UNMISS, gave a speech on International Peacekeepers’ Day extolling the virtues of the hard work and dedication shown by all 13,000 authorized peacekeepers in South Sudan.

“Since we last gathered to celebrate this day one year ago, we have seen this country turn an important corner in its young history,” declared Løj. “The signing of the peace agreement last August gave this country, its people, and the international community a new reason to hope—hope that the guns would finally be silenced, that the suffering of its people would end, and the scars of the country would begin to heal.”

The remarks would amount to nothing more than artless optimism. Shortly after Machar’s return to Juba, violent protests erupted in the capital, instigated by groups formerly aligned with both parties that had since splintered due to their rejection of the peace proposal. International monitors, including U.S. State Department officials, worry that both the SPLM and SPLM-IO are rapidly losing control of their forces, making effective state-building, the administering of humanitarian aid, and the protection of South Sudan’s 12 million people exponentially more difficult for everyone involved.

“Ultimately a UN peacekeeping mission isn’t the solution to the conflict in South Sudan,” says Lisa Sharland, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and non-resident fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. “In the absence of any political solution in South Sudan, UN peacekeeping remains the default mechanism to physically protect some of the tens of thousands of civilians seeking a reprieve from the current conflict.”

Without any other effective recourse, the international community has poured $1 billion annually into South Sudan, and has seen little improvement as a result. Even with the passing of UNSC Resolution 2252, which authorized an increased number of UN personnel, the organization has not been able to effectively protect aid workers and citizens of South Sudan. Human rights organizations have repeatedly accused President Kiir of begrudgingly accepting terms of the peace deal without truly committing to change in order to retain the substantial flow of international aid. More stringent proposals have been considered, such as a wide-ranging arms embargo to South Sudan, but have yet to be fully implemented.

To be sure, many hands have shaped South Sudan’s current predicament, with no one individual, party, or colonial power solely responsible. Perhaps the way forward lies in an old Sudanese proverb: “Someone who is pointing his finger to another person is not always aware that the four remaining fingers are pointing in his direction.”

Image: UNMISS Humanitarian Coordinator visits Bentiu IDP Camp with Dutch and British Ambassadors. (United Nations Photo, Flickr)

Luke A. Drabyn is the Managing Editor of Nations & States.

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