Ten years since independence, South Sudan goes from state-building to state-capture

Dr Walt Kilroy

[An earlier version of this blog appeared on the website www.presidential-power.net]

South Sudan marks the tenth anniversary of its independence from Sudan on 9th July, though it is hard to know how much celebration there will be given that a brutal civil war has waxed and waned for much of its short history as the world’s youngest state. Meanwhile, implementation of a power-sharing agreement between rival factions, which is fundamental to an exit from this period of war, continues to be affected by delays and lack of trust.

The rivalry between President Salva Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar was a key factor in triggering the outbreak of war in the new state in December 2013. Peace agreements have been followed by further tensions and violence between the factions, with very real consequences for the whole country. Kiir leads the main wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which fought for decades against Sudan for self-determination, and ultimately led the nation to statehood. It is dominated by the largest ethnic group, the Dinka. It would be an oversimplification to say that ethnic rivalry explains the war, but sadly it is an important factor and politics have become increasingly polarised along these lines. The other main group is led by Machar, from the largely Nuer ethnic group. This is the SPLM-IO (SPLM-In Opposition). Neither ethnic group makes up a majority of the population, which in fact has dozens of distinct ethnicities.

A peace agreement was signed between the two factions in 2015 which was to see them both in government again, and Machar takes up his role as First Vice-President once more. Tensions were high when he finally returned to the capital, Juba, the following year. In July 2016 violence between the two wings broke out again, and the SPLM-IO leader had to flee the capital. He turned up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but was exiled from the region and even effectively held under house arrest in South Africa for some time. The two rivals along with other smaller parties signed a further agreement in September 2018, which was more like an elite pact dividing up the spoils of government rather than a well-grounded peace process. They agreed to form a government together which was delayed but finally came together in February 2020. But highly sensitive issues remain to be worked out, such as incorporating all armed elements into a united army, and setting up a hybrid court to consider crimes committed during the war.

Effects of the war

The cost of war has been enormous, for a population that was already vulnerable, and with few supports or services being provided by the newly emerging state. Most services are in fact provided by the international community, whether through bilateral state aid, UN agencies, or international NGOs. Out of a population of approximately 12 million people, a third have fled their homes due to the fighting and ethnic cleansing. About half of these are refugees beyond South Sudan’s borders, with Uganda hosting approximately one million people. Agriculture and movement of goods have been disrupted, so more than half of the population is currently food insecure. Man-made famine arising from the conflict has even reappeared in South Sudan on occasion since 2017, having been absent throughout the world for some years up to then. Death tolls are notoriously difficult to assess, but if indirect deaths are included, one estimate in 2018 put the death toll from 2013-2018 at close to 400,000 people. Gender-based violence and ethnically-based killings have been widely reported. Both the government’s SPLM troops and those of the SPLM-IO have been responsible for attacks on civilians. All of this makes implementation of a deal, coexistence, and peacebuilding even more difficult. The situation is more fragmented and harder to resolve as many “local” conflicts have turned violent. While the rivalry between the two main factions is significant, many other disputes manifest themselves as ethnic or related to power politics. Belief in the new state as something which would embrace and serve all citizens has been badly shaken as ethnopolitics and kleptocracy make clear that the state is something to be captured for the benefit of whoever “wins”.

There are of course many courageous actors with vision, working for a pluralistic South Sudan, but the space for civil society is very restricted and there can be real consequences for speaking up. The country’s military budget is many multiples of its spending on health, with limited capacity to deal with Covid-19 if a significant wave of the disease were to materialise. Vaccines have been trickling into the country, but even some of these were due to be destroyed after going out of date. 

Regional diplomacy

The many rounds of peace talks and have been actively supported by neighbouring states. Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda took a lead role individually at various points, hosting talks in their capitals. The work came under the umbrella of the regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The African Union is another potential forum, while the US, EU, Norway, and Britain have also supported the process. The UN is of course a significant actor with a multidimensional peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Its responsibilities are in fact very broad and sometimes at odds with each other, ranging from supporting dialogue and human rights to the highly problematic obligation to protect civilians from physical attack.

Difficulties in the region, however, mean that less attention is being paid to the challenge of implementing what has been agreed in South Sudan. Ethiopia is facing increasing tensions and violence after a brutal war broke out in its northern region of Tigray last year. The area is still largely cut off from humanitarian agencies and independent monitors. The process of filling the reservoir created on the Blue Nile by Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is causing serious tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan and especially Egypt. Sudan’s own delicate transition to civilian rule amid an economic crisis is underway following the popular ousting of President Omar al Bashir in 2019. This sees the military and civilians share power uneasily for three years. The difficulties of such transitions have been underlined this year in Myanmar and more recently in Mali, where civilian-military interim governments were effectively replaced when the military took back control. Chad meanwhile saw the long rule of President Idris Deby end suddenly in April with his death during fighting with rebel groups. His son was nominated immediately after to succeed him but faces opposition from within the former regime.

For South Sudan, an inclusive peace process and carefully organised national dialogue are needed for a sustainable resolution and for the opportunity to build the new state—a state which had barely come into existence before being driven towards failure. Livelihoods, inflation, basic services, and food security remain urgent questions. Moving back from the “zero-sum game” of winner-takes-all politics will be difficult, given the polarization of the last decade. Governance has been exposed as being crucial to the physical safety of citizens. For now, implementing the power-sharing deal between President Kiir and First Vice-President Machar and their supporters are challenging enough, and little progress can happen on any front without a workable accommodation between them.

Selected Readings


Dr Walt Kilroy is the Associate Director of the Institute and also Assistant Professor at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. His research interests include development, conflict, peacekeeping, civilian protection, and peacebuilding, as well as the interactions between these processes. His teaching has included these topics, and international media and reporting.

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