Returned diaspora still grappling with scale of challenges faced by postwar South Sudan
Oil-rich state lies near the bottom of almost every development index
As he drives around the streets of South Sudan’s ramshackle capital, Lual D’Awol performs the rap song that has made him famous – and not a little controversial – in his homeland.
Dawla Jadeed – which means New State in Arabic – captures much of the disillusionment that has crept in here since South Sudan declared independence in 2011. Lual’s lyrics deal with the pangs of statehood, and detail how corruption, tribalism and nepotism have stymied the fledgling nation’s progress and made life even more difficult for its citizens. “I’m just rapping about what I see with my own eyes,” he says. “I’m not a politician but I’m talking about the government. Things are not moving as swiftly as we would like.”
Born to diplomat parents, D’Awol (28) learned to rap while living in Baltimore in the US. He returned to South Sudan four years ago as his home country moved towards freedom. He remembers the January 2011 referendum in which South Sudanese voted to sever ties with Khartoum after decades of war and the days-long celebrations when South Sudan officially became the world’s newest country later that year.
D’Awol was one of the legions of diaspora South Sudanese who left the lives they had built overseas to return to their native land to play a part in its construction. Two years on from independence, they grapple with the scale of the challenges faced by postwar South Sudan, a nation whose fragility was underscored by violence this week that has claimed the lives of hundreds following what the government claimed was an attempted coup.
Driving around Juba with D’Awol in November, there were constant reminders of how far the country has come – and how far it has to go. Once a sleepy backwater, Juba is now experiencing a construction boom. Hotels, offices, supermarkets and even tower blocks have sprung up in parts of the city yet it still lacks a municipal water supply and sanitation system.
Glossy billboards and murals referring to the heady days of independence mask the reality of a country where life expectancy is under 50 years old and only a quarter of adults can read. Oil-rich South Sudan languishes near the bottom of almost every development index, with 50 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. Almost all of South Sudan’s food is imported, mostly from neighbouring Uganda, and hunger and malnutrition are ever present. Poor infrastructure means the government’s much vaunted ambitions to utilise the country’s rich soil for large scale agricultural production are not likely to be realised anytime soon.
A rebellion in Jonglei, South Sudan’s largest state, simmers away, displacing tens of thousands. The conflict with Khartoum, which became Africa’s longest civil war, might be over but its legacy is a young nation awash with guns and riven with ethnic and other fault lines. “The tribal or ethnic dimension means there are tripwires everywhere,” as one UN official puts it.
Reconciliation comes slowly, if at all. “It is a very complex issue due to the nature of the war here and how long the fighting lasted,” says Bishop of Juba Loku Pio, who has been involved in a church-sponsored reconciliation initiative. “Getting people to reconcile is difficult. The wounds are deep and the memories long.”
South Sudan is desperate for investment – “We are open for business” declares one government official rather defensively – but many potential investors arrive and then leave because the challenges of doing business here are so daunting. Austerity measures introduced last year, when a dispute with Khartoum over pipeline transit fees prompted South Sudan to halt oil production – its main source of revenue – have bitten hard. Many crucial infrastructure projects have been put on hold as a result.
Corruption is widespread: a report last year found an estimated $4 billion of government funds had been misappropriated since 2005, the year an autonomous government was formed in South Sudan following a peace deal with Khartoum.
Overseeing all of this is a ruling party – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement or SPLM – that is struggling to transform itself from a rebel movement into a political organisation. Internal wrangling within the SPLM, specifically a power struggle between South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar, both veteran rebel commanders, was the spark that prompted this week’s fighting.
Earlier this year, Kiirfired his cabinet and Machar, who had been critical of Kiir and has made no secret of his plan to challenge him in presidential elections due in two years time.
Before the recent violence threw everything into disarray, government officials were keen to defend its record. According to some economic forecasts, South Sudan’s GDP will grow by 35 per cent next year – but that is from a low base.
“When we came in here, we were starting from zero, everything had been destroyed during the war,” foreign minister Barnaba Benjamin told me in November. “We have built in two years what former colonies elsewhere in Africa took 40 years to build.”
Benjamin bristled when reminded that some have recently described South Sudan as a “failing” state. “That does not reflect the reality,” he said. “This country needs patience because of where it has come from. I think sometimes the international community is too impatient, given the challenges we face.”
Balazs Horvath, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) director in South Sudan, says that while there are “very bad indicators” – such as the fact less than half the country’s children attend school – there are also “very promising trends” in terms of how that might change. “This is an amazingly rapidly changing country,” he told me in November. “The problem is that while there is political will for development, there is little capacity for implementation.
“There is a genuine risk that after a honeymoon period the government will be asked by its people where is the promised country with prosperity for our children.”
Forging a common identity in a country of multiple ethnicities and tribes is another challenge. “People identify with their ethnic group more than they do as South Sudanese,” says Akuja de Garang, a Juba-born designer who founded an NGO aimed at preserving traditional artisan skills and encouraging new creative talent.
“We know very little of each other because of the war. People need to realise there is more that unites us than divides us.”
D’Awol the rapper agrees. He talks of his generation – more than 70 per cent of South Sudan’s population is under 30 – as one both changing and impatient for others to change. “We know our potential,” he says. “We believe in our country even if others have let it down.”
This report was supported with a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.