Failed State: Was South Sudan Doomed From the Start?


Following the latest armed clashes in Juba, South Sudan’s status as a failed state seems confirmed. A ceasefire order from President Kiir just about prevented all-out civil war last week. But the extent of violence seen in the capital recently makes a mockery of the country’s peace deal.

It’s not yet clear how many people have been killed in the latest clashes. However, aside from the casualties involved, the saddest part is nobody will be surprised by further conflict in South Sudan. Some would argue it was inevitable, that South Sudan was doomed from the start.


A failed project

South Sudan wasn’t exactly alone in its quest become an independent state. Sudanese rebels had captured the hearts of many, portrayed as romantic Christian warriors by the US press in particular. Their fight against the oppressive Al-Bashir regime turned into a battle for human rights – one they ultimately won through politics.

Victory came in the form of a referendum; the vote overwhelmingly choosing independence. South Sudan had the backing of the international community, millions of dollars in aid and hundreds of experts to help establish a new nation. The UN also established a peacekeeping mission to make sure the transition was peaceful.

Less than two years later the country turned on itself, split by civil war. The world’s project to create a new nation had failed.


The reality of independence

Sudanese rebels fought the Bashir regime largely to escape ethnic persecution. Life one the wrong side of an ethnic line brings repression, poverty and grave human rights violations. An independent South Sudan was supposed to free rebels and their supporters from these hardships.

Unfortunately, the reality of independence was very different. The new border drawn across Sudan split the nation’s oil sector in two. The majority of natural oil reserves now lie in South Sudan while almost all the industrial refineries sit across the border.

To this day South Sudan has basically no industry to speak of. The underdeveloped country now faces an economic crisis and, to make matters worse, international donors have lost patience with its endless fighting.

So far, South Sudan has only managed to build a country of conflict and poverty – precisely what it voted to escape in 2011.


Was South Sudan doomed from the start?

With the ethnic nature of Sudan’s second civil war, unity was the vital ingredient for a peaceful South Sudan. It’s no coincidence the international community stationed so many experts in the country. Nor the UN’s decision to start a peacekeeping mission in the newly founded South Sudan.

However, the country’s president Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar share a long relationship without much unity. Kiir’s ethnic Dinka roots and Macher’s Neur background placed them on opposite sides during Sudan’s civil war.

The pair fought against each other and occasionally on the same side during a complex conflict. It’s fair to say they made an unlikely duo to lead South Sudan through its first years as an independent state. A former field commander with little formal education as president and a British-educated doctor as his deputy was a social contrast if nothing else. And, while contrast can be a good thing in certain settings, this turned out to be one of conflict rather than compliments.

It didn’t take long for the infighting to begin. Machar’s political ambitions grew too big for Kiir’s authority and he was among many officials sacked in 2013. Accusations of an attempted coup d’etat promptly followed and civil war broke out. And, while there’s nothing to suggest the leaders’ ethnic backgrounds had anything to do with the initial conflict, the war certainly took an ethnic direction – one that persists, despite multiple peace agreements.


Are Kiir and Machar in control?

South Sudan’s troubles stem from a conflict between its two leaders. It was their fallout that escalated into one of Africa’s most desperate political crises. However, experts still question whether the pair have enough control over their rival forces to end the conflict and bring peace to South Sudan.

Not everyone accepts this as a possibility, though. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s speculation the two couldn’t care less about the peace deal.

“Salva and Riek do have over-all command responsibility over their troops,” insisted a UN official, who was speaking to The New Yorker. “Command responsibility is not a fluid concept. You can’t claim to have it today because they are following your orders and adhere to a ceasefire you imposed, and then say you didn’t have it yesterday because they were fighting.”

It’s a strong argument – as long as South Sudan’s current ceasefire stands holds. But it only takes on back-handed order to strike an attack and fein lack of control. It’s an impossible question to answer at this stage.

One thing that’s becoming apparently clear, whether or not Kiir and Machar are in control, is continued violence means they were never the right leaders for South Sudan.


Featured image:

By USAID Africa BureauA young girl hangs the South Sudan flag, Public Domain,

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.