What has South Sudan gained from independence?

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As South Sudan’s peace process continues to fail and the international community debates which course of action to take, the number of people killed or forced to leave their homes only rises. Meanwhile, the reports of horrific human rights abuses continue to surface, detailing violence, sexual assault, torture and brutal killings among the list of atrocities taking place in South Sudan.

Those who manage to escape the violence face the prospect of hunger as food shortages spread across the country. Parts of the country are on the brink of famine as government troops and rebels continue to destroy essential resources and block humanitarian aid.

Seven years ago the South Sudanese people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Sudan – but what have they gained from it?

Why did South Sudan seek independence?

Like many nations in Africa and the Middle East, Sudan was born from British colonialism and given independence without much consideration about the long-term cultural and political implications.

Sudan became an independent state in 1956, comprised of a Muslim majority in the north and a mostly-Christian population in the south. The cultural mismatch was extreme and a brutal civil war had already begun a year before Sudan gained the status of an independent nation.

After 16 years of internal conflict, the civil war ended in 1972 and southern Sudan became an autonomous region. Five years later, in 1978, Chevron found oil between the border of the north and autonomous south and a new cause for conflict surfaced between the two regions. In 1983, Sudan President Gaafar Nimeiry ended the south’s autonomy and a second civil war broke out – one that would run on for 22 years, until 2005 and result in an independent South Sudan in 2011.

At the highest level, there’s no doubt oil was a major factor in the second Sudanese civil war but this doesn’t explain the overwhelming public support from the south in the push for independence.

By late 2010, the south was preparing to vote on independence and it was hard to find anyone in Juba who wanted to remain a part of Sudan.

“We, the citizens of South Sudan, no one is going to vote for unity,” one Juba resident told VOA.

When asked why they wanted to leave, most members of the public said they felt discriminated against and marginalised by the Muslim north.

“This unity actually it is not serving us,” a student called Ria, who was 26 at the time, told VOA. “Because the Muslims in the north they always, you know, like [favour] themselves,” he said.

“They never, never give any rights for non-Muslims and they never, never value any non-Muslim to be a human being like them. They call you names, they put you in very difficult categories and you get yourself, you are very, very different from them.”

What have South Sudanese people gained from independence?

There aren’t many positive ways to answer this questions, sadly. While South Sudan’s citizens have escaped the discrimination they experienced as Sudanese citizens they find themselves marginalised in new ways by their own government, armed militias and rival ethnic groups.

After fighting for independence in two brutal civil wars, South Sudan managed to sustain peace for just two years before it descended into a civil conflict of its own – this time a power struggle between the country’s elite, which has sidelined the general public for almost five years now.

For its citizens, South Sudan’s civil war has resulted in grave human rights violations, killing thousands and forcing millions from their homes. Both government troops and rebel forces have deliberately killed citizens, abducted and sexually assulted women and young girls, looted and destroyed people’s homes, attacked medical facilities and blocked humanitarian aid designed to help those most in need.

When famine was declared in South Sudan last year, UN officials described the food shortage as a “man-made” crisis that should have been averted with government intervention. Instead, emergency aid was blocked while people were starving. Or, as Amnesty International puts it, food is being used as a weapon of war against the people.

All of these human rights violations are still happening in South Sudan today.

What has South Sudan’s government gained from independence?

Well, the obvious answer to this question brings us back to oil. When South Sudan split from the north, it took most of the oil discovered in 1978 with it and this has funded the country’s civil war for five years while amassing large fortunes for top officials in the government and the leading rebel group on both sides of the conflict.

Multiple studies have found that President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar have sold oil in return for weapons and profited personally from South Sudan’s oil reserves – most famously The Sentry report that’s popularised by the backing of George Clooney.

In a bid to put pressure on South Sudan’s elite to maintain peace, the US has placed oil sanctions on 15 companies in the country. However, it has done little to improve the situation for the citizens who voted to escape Sudan in 2011. For them, independence has simply resuted in another war and oppression from a different kind of government.

Featured image: By USAID Africa Bureau – A young girl hangs the South Sudan flag, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21460264

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.