South Sudan’s ‘wasted’ decade: ‘We have been at war for far too long’

Ten years after independence, the country is racked by political infighting and risk of famine

Rose Jamba, a 52-year-old maize farmer, has lost count of the "many" family members killed since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan a decade ago. In May, she fled violence in her village in the southern state of Central Equatoria to settle in a holding camp in Yei, some 30km from home.

“The fighting” is what made her leave, she says, her voice trailing off, recalling clashes between soldiers from the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces – the army of Africa’s youngest country – and rebels loyal to the National Salvation Front of commander Thomas Cirillo, a former army general who broke away four years ago and declared his own Equatorian insurgency.

“There was shooting from both sides. They fought, then some looted,” says Jamba. Local authorities estimate that more than 7,000 people displaced by the fighting in Central Equatoria have sheltered in Yei this year. “I have seen this many times since I was a teenager – fighting, looting, raping,” Jamba says. “I am not happy. What’s the point of having an independent country if we have no food, we are poorer and have no peace?”

Her words resonate across South Sudan, which in July marked its 10th anniversary amid little hope of securing a political agreement to pacify the country. Clashes continue between splinter groups, government factions and rebels, leading to policy paralysis and vanishing hopes for a peaceful approach to the country’s first general election scheduled to take place in 2023.


South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011, but rapidly descended into fighting two years later when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his first vice-president, Riek Machar, clashed. The brutal violence left 400,000 people dead and derailed the nascent state-building process.

Groups largely cleaving along ethnic lines – pitting Kiir from the Dinka group against Machar from the Nuer – fought for control of the new country, fuelling Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Local analysts say the violence over the past 10 years has fundamentally been a fight for patronage, where powerful groups are competing over resources from oil to grazing land, which has left some two-thirds of the almost 12 million population in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

‘Wasted decade’

The South Sudan Council of Churches has labelled the past 10 years "a wasted decade". Even Kiir, with his trademark cowboy hat, called on the South Sudanese "to recover the lost decade". And Nicholas Haysom, head of the UN mission to the country, spoke in July of "unprecedented levels" of internal conflict, like the one which displaced Jamba.

In recent months, "the security situation has worsened", says Paul Yugusuk, the Episcopal Archbishop of Central Equatoria. "As a result, a lot of atrocities have been committed. Our people have been killed, have been abused, as well as displaced . . . We had a very bad start as a country."

The 2013 and 2016 bouts of civil war formally ended in 2018 with a peace deal that is still to be fully implemented. In 2020, after much quarrelling, Machar entered a fresh unity government as deputy to Kiir – who originally built his reputation after taking over the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in 2005 – and who was then elected president of the autonomous region of Southern Sudan in 2010.

The “revitalised” unity government of Kiir and Machar is racked with factionalism. In August, there were clashes between forces loyal to Machar and a splinter group that wants to oust him as leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition.

"We had big dreams of a beautiful country, a peaceful country, a prosperous country," says minister for defence Angelina Teny, who is married to Machar. "And now 10 years later, we're still very happy we have this nation. It is a big, big achievement. We don't regret it. No one can take it away. We have had a very difficult time since independence. And this difficult time started with the fact that we failed to form a consensus."

‘American nation-building’

South Sudan was born out of tumult. Clashes between groups in the north and south began before Sudan even gained independence from Britain in 1956. Sparked initially by a mutiny in the south, the subsequent violence left up to two million people dead, many from starvation, during two civil wars, from 1955 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005. The creation of South Sudan grew out of a 2005 peace deal to end one of Africa’s longest conflicts between the pro-Arab Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south of Sudan.

In a referendum six years later, voters overwhelmingly chose separation and South Sudan became an independent country. "A proud flag flies over Juba and the map of the world has been redrawn," read a declaration by the then US president Barack Obama, whose country was heavily involved in the independence process.

The US involvement was partly due to its enmity with Sudan's former strongman leader Omar al-Bashir, say analysts. But officials now grumble that the powerful constituency for supporting South Sudan's independence was a "strange alliance" between Hollywood celebrities, including George Clooney, evangelical Christians and a bipartisan effort in Capitol Hill that overlooked the internal rivalries in the liberation movement, leaving many with a "bitter taste in their mouths" in Washington today.

The US, among other powers, is calling for a de-escalation of internal conflicts, including demobilisation and disarmament, and to establish a permanent constitution-making process. But, as with the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, analysts say South Sudan is yet another example of US foreign policy over-reach. "US efforts in South Sudan seemed like a final spasm of naive American nation-building, which has all collapsed in epic fashion," says Alan Boswell, the South Sudan expert at Crisis Group, a think tank.

“The South Sudanese themselves oversimplified what it takes to build a state,” says Jok Madut Jok, author of Breaking Sudan. “There is definitely no belittling the dedication, the resilience and the determination to get independent statehood. . . But there is also no question that it has failed miserably to live up to the expectations and the euphoria with which the country was received.

“Most of that is born out of failure of leadership, failing to become the nation state that people aspired to – a state where institutions, not individuals, rule,” he adds.

The political infighting in the capital Juba mirrors the tension elsewhere in the country and partly explains the government’s focus on creating one of Africa’s largest armed forces rather than building strong institutions, a civil service, and delivering on basic needs, say local analysts.

"Everyone is tired of war and all the crises going on," says Shama Peace Elia, a 22-year-old member of an activist group of artists in Juba called Anataban, or "I am tired". She was born in a refugee camp in neighbouring Uganda, but her mother brought the family "home" after the 2005 peace deal.

“We were celebrating, I couldn’t sleep that night because people were all over the street, we were crying,” she said of independence day in 2011, a stark contrast to today. “They really wasted 10 years . . . We could have been in a good situation by now – the country would be built, would be somewhere.”

Instead, according to the UN, 8.3 million people need humanitarian assistance – an increase of 800,000 from last year. Some 1.4 million children are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year with 60 per cent of the population being “severely food insecure” – due to the “compounded effects of conflict, displacement, massive flooding, the economic impact of Covid-19 and rising poverty”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says nine out of the 10 South Sudanese states harvested on average 50 per cent less cereal and vegetables in 2020 than the year before, and that only an estimated 40 per cent of healthcare centres remain operational. According to the International Organisation for Migration, conflict and instability have pushed more than four million people out of their homes in internal and cross-border displacement in the past eight years.

Many also complain about corruption, with Transparency International ranking South Sudan at the bottom of its 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with Somalia but below Syria and Venezuela.

"The list of tragedies in South Sudan," says one humanitarian official in the country, "is longer than the biblical Ten Plagues of Egypt. "

Black gold woes

Among that list is the oil-dependent economy. After year-on-year gross domestic product growth of 29.3 per cent in 2013, the economy then shrank 21.4 per cent between 2015 and 2018, weakened by falling oil prices, armed conflict and mismanagement, say donors. It expanded 0.9 per cent in 2019, only to shrink 6.6 per cent last year.

Yet South Sudan inherited oilfields producing some 350,000 barrels a day of oil in 2011 and Beijing as a top oil investor via the China National Petroleum Corporation. But the newborn country had no real structure to turn oil receipts into sustainable growth in a country in which oil accounts for 70 per cent of gross domestic product and more than 90 per cent of state revenues, according to the African Development Bank.

"The SPLM didn't develop its people in terms of running a government," says John Akec, vice-chancellor of the University of Juba. While part of Sudan, "we didn't have the power, we were inexperienced in the craft of government, so we had to learn. Now, we have the country and we don't have the experience to run it. It's been trial and error, and trial and error takes a very long time."

Oil output has more than halved to about 150,000 b/d in the past decade and the landlocked country still has to pay fees to Sudan to ship its crude because of a lack of infrastructure at home.

While the World Bank is due to pour $320 million (€269 million) into development projects to reduce South Sudan's reliance on humanitarian aid, oil minister Puot Kang Chol hopes that securing oil investments close to $500 million – he did not say from who – "will take us to a different stage . . . a prosperous nation that we will all be proud of".

Floods and locust plagues have also hammered the agriculture sector, which accounts for 15 per cent of GDP and employs 80 per cent of the population. Following a currency devaluation in February, inflation is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to hit 40 per cent this year after topping 66.1 per cent last year.

“They have a political problem. And unfortunately, that can disrupt the economy,” says a senior foreign banker operating in South Sudan. “The problem is whatever revenues they have, they use them to fight in the war.”

Politicians, analysts and diplomats agree that a shift to institution building and away from fighting is urgently needed. But the fundamental political desires that fuel the violence – the ability to distribute resources and political control of one ethnic group over the other – have not changed in a country where government officials estimate that six of 10 people have firearms.

"The conflict is driven by hunger, and poverty. That's the issue behind it. Now, if we can fight hunger and fight poverty, a multitude of people in homes would be productive," says Aggrey Cyrus Kanyikwa, the commissioner of Yei who fought alongside Kiir in the 1990s. "There is no benefit in forcing issues by gun."

"Before independence, we had one identity – being called South Sudanese. The people of South Sudan got independent but they were used to knowing only one enemy. The absence of that one enemy created a very big vacuum," says Juba-based political analyst Abraham Kuol Nyuon, a former SPLM/A fighter.

“Up to the time of the referendum, nobody said ‘This is Nuer, this is Dinka’, those [ethnic] sentiments were not there,” adds Nyuon. “When we became independent, there was a cake in front of us and some people said they were the ones who would eat it alone. As a result of this, other people said: ‘If you are going to eat it, it is better we fight over it.’”

Boswell at the Crisis Group warns that the country will probably see “perpetual conflict unless power-sharing changes from the current ‘winner-takes-all’ struggle and is divided better” between the 60 ethnic groups. But Nyuon cannot see that happening any time soon: “When Kiir is in charge, Riek is not happy, but Kiir will not accept Riek to be in charge. It is very difficult for just one of them to be in charge. And for both of them it will be very difficult to go.”

Although he fears the 2023 election will be delayed, voting would help because it would make politicians, “whether elected wrongly or rightly, to be somewhat accountable to the people of South Sudan”.

Tereza Sima, a 36-year-old cassava farmer from a village halfway between Juba and Yei in Central Equatoria, has already lost hope. She sums up the drama the political infighting has caused for many south Sudanese. This year, men attacked her village. A gunshot pierced the walls of her hut, striking her left foot and injuring her nine-year-old son. She still does not know if they were rebels or soldiers or bandits. "They looted the village, they took everything," she says, adding that her husband was murdered in the village three years ago.

She voted for secession but is disenchanted. “I would accept independence if there is peace,” she says. “If there’s peace everything will be solved, like education for the children, roads, the economy. Now, we are in crisis, people are dying, people are running away, everything is being looted.

“When there’s war, there’s nothing,” she adds. “And we have been at war for far too long.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021