Widespread ethnic cleansing, burning villages, looming starvation, and gang rape “so prevalent that it’s become ‘normal.’” This is what UN experts found when they took a 10-day trip to the African country of South Sudan. South Sudan officially known as the Republic of South Sudan is a landlocked country in East-Central Africa, gained independence from the Republic of Sudan on 9th July 2011 as the outcome of a 2005 agreement that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war. It is made up of the ten southern-most states of Sudan, it is one of the most diverse countries in Africa sheltering more than 60 different major ethnic groups, with the majority of its people following traditional religions.
One would imagine South Sudan to be a country full of hopes, nine years after gaining independence. Instead, it’s now in the grip of a massive humanitarian crisis.
The independence could not bring peace and prosperity to the country, civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, over 50,000 people have been killed—possibly as many as 383,000, according to a recent estimate—and nearly four million people have been internally displaced or fled to neighboring countries.
Political conflict, compounded by economic woes and drought, has caused massive displacement, raging violence, and dire food shortages. Over seven million people about two-thirds of the population are in need of aid, including around 6.9 million people experiencing hunger.
Why is there conflict?: In his speech marking South Sudan’s official independence on July 9, 2011, Salva Kiir, the country’s new president, proclaimed, “May this day mark a new beginning of tolerance, unity, and love for one another. Let our cultural and ethnic diversity be a source of pride and strength, not parochialism and conflict… We are all South Sudanese. We may be Zande, Kakwa, Nuer, Toposa, Dinka, Lotuko, Anyuak, Bari and Shilluk, but remember you are South Sudanese first!” And it seemed — at least at first — that Kiir really was committed to preventing ethnic tensions from splitting apart the fledgling country.
Kiir, who was a member of the ethnic Dinka tribe, appointed Machar, who was an ethnic Nuer (the second-largest ethnic group in the country), to be his vice president. He did this trying to build a unity government in which the two rival ethnic groups shared power. This did not last. In early 2013, Machar began vocally criticizing Kiir’s leadership of the country and his handling of the economy and announced his intention to challenge Kiir for the presidency in 2015. Kiir, not surprisingly, didn’t particularly appreciate that and responded in July by firing Machar as well as all 28 of Kiir’s cabinet ministers and their deputies, leaving government ministries in the hands of civil servants.
Then, in December 2013, all hell broke loose. Forces loyal to Machar clashed with forces loyal to Kiir. What actually happened is still in dispute: Kiir publicly accused Machar of having attempted a coup, but others say the violence broke out when presidential guards from Kiir’s majority Dinka tribe tried to disarm guards from the Nuer ethnic group of Machar.
What are some problems South Sudan is facing?: The conflict has damaged the country’s economy, contributing to soaring inflation. As a consequence, food prices continue to rise and 70 percent of families in South Sudan go hungry. As many as 6.3 million people are severely food insecure. These numbers are expected to rise as the lean season progresses. Famine was declared in 2017 and although humanitarian aid resulted in famine being reversed, current food security levels are now much worse. Many markets are closed, and farmers have been displaced from their land. Food is scarce and often prohibitively expensive, meaning thousands are in dire need of assistance. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in South Sudan as a direct result of the current conflict and millions have been forced to flee. Civilians are the main victims of the fighting, looting, and ambushes. A lack of access to aid further exacerbates an already bleak situation. The conflict has caused health facilities to routinely face shortages of key medical supplies putting further civilian lives in danger.
South Sudan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for humanitarian workers. Since the war began in 2013, 101 aid workers have been killed in the country. Since December 2017, a total of 22 aid workers have been abducted. The impact of this insecurity does not just affect humanitarian workers, but also the people they are trying to reach. Lives are lost when aid cannot be delivered because aid workers are forced to evacuate or are unable to work in areas with critical needs because of an ongoing conflict.
Is there hope for South Sudan Economy?: The real GDP growth was an estimated 5.8% in 2019, a large increase from 0.5% in 2018. The 2019 rebound was driven mainly by reopening some oil fields, including those in the Upper Nile state, and resuming production, and by the peace agreement signed in September 2018. The oil sector remains the key driver of the economy, followed by services and agriculture. Inflation fell to 24.5% in 2019 from 83.5% in 2018 due to reduced financing of the fiscal deficit. The outlook is positive, with real GDP growth projected at 7.4% in 2020 and 6.1% in 2021. Oil exports are expected to reach 180,000 barrels a day, which will boost foreign reserves, currently standing at 0.2 months of imports.
Structural challenges to economic transformation and sustainable development in South Sudan include the lack of economic diversification, high public debt, weak institutions, and political uncertainty. Fluctuations in global oil prices are a major risk to South Sudan. Commitment to the peace agreement will remain key for the stability of oil production, private investment, foreign exchange flows, and public investment in the critical sectors of health, education, and agriculture.
Education is expected to receive only 6% of the budget, and health 1%. Social and humanitarian affairs will receive only 2%. This de-emphasis of social spending is likely to erode social indicators and amplify the challenges of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The 6.4% average economic growth projected for 2019–21 is unlikely to be inclusive since it will be driven by oil rather than agriculture, where most people work. Youth unemployment is a threat to peace and social stability.
What is being done to resolve the conflict?: After almost five years of civil war in South Sudan, Kiir and Machar participated in negotiations mediated by Uganda and Sudan in June 2018. Now, the signatories of South Sudan’s 2018 peace agreement are due to form a unity government. Since the parties have twice delayed forming this government, there has been a flurry of attention on February 22, 2020, deadline from local, regional and other governments. Unlike the previous deadlines, the parties face the additional difficulty of coping with a natural disaster.
Since July, nearly 1 million South Sudanese have been directly affected by flooding. In 2020, food experts predict 5.5 million people in South Sudan will lack sufficient food, in part as a result of the floods destroying crops. These floods put South Sudan at risk of a large-scale humanitarian disaster — and they come at a critical juncture in the country’s peace process. The main challenge going forward is to ensure the sustainability of peace and security in the country.