South Sudan’s Search for Peace: The responsibility of leadership in the challenge of nation building | HART Prize for Human Rights

4 May 2016


This essay, by Charlotte Evans, received first prize in the 2016 HART Prize for Human Rights, Junior Essay Category.


After decades of conflict and almost two million deaths, a peace agreement in 2005 secured South Sudan’s independence from Sudan and ended Africa’s longest-running civil war. There was huge optimism for the future of the world’s youngest nation, but within weeks the “excitement had gone” and political relations had broken down into conflict, which was soon to escalate into civil war. “People have come to realise”, says Lorna Merekaje, an official observer of the 2011 referendum, “that independence is not as beautiful as we thought” (Green, A, 2013). Whilst the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, had united the people of the South against the oppression from Khartoum in the North, their newfound power descended into conflict with personal and political vested interests surpassing a necessary, unifying vision to bring the country together to build a new, democratic and politically stable nation. The result: a new bloody, complex, “tribal” civil war.

International Business Times
International Business Times

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is a landlocked nation in East-Central Africa comprising a huge diversity of languages, cultures, and religions, in which ethnicity plays a central part of the people’s heritage and values. Despite the many differences, the people are arguably united in their general social state- one of widespread poverty and underdevelopment. In a country with the highest population growth rate in the world, 4.02%, (CIA, World Factbook, 2015), there is increasing pressure on resources and, despite the wealth of natural oil reserves, the nation remains “one of the most impoverished countries in the world” (M Arnold, 2013). With less than 5 per cent of the population using ‘improved’ water and sanitation facilities or completing primary school education (Copnall, J, 2013), many believe that the underlying causes of grievance and discontent lie in the poverty of the divided country. Indeed, while 10.32% of South Sudan’s GDP was spent on military in 2012, just 0.7% was directed to education. Herein lies the tale of a militarised state in which political and violent clashes have overtaken even the most fundamental humanitarian needs, and a civil war has been allowed to claim thousands of lives.


The civil war, triggered by a suspected coup in December 2013 following the political power struggle between President Salva Kiir, and his rival and former Vice-President, Riek Machar, quickly took on ethnic overtones. Claiming over 20,000 lives thus far, the current conflict has been prolonged by five main reasons: the unwillingness of either side to concede to the state; the lack of direct consultation with the people; the exclusion of tribal and religious leaders in the reconciliation process; the lack of demilitarization; and the vested interests of those in power.


The reluctance of either side to contribute to the reconciliation process can be attributed to the fundamental weakness of the ‘nation state’: a problem which South Sudan must address as the nation strives for peace. However, it is the current leaders who must arguably accept the greatest responsibility for the current situation, both of conflict and humanitarian crisis. The hamartia of the government is that is inherently militant, because the leaders were military leaders themselves, and thus a strong political, judicial, administrative government has been prevented by the military presence of the ruling SPLA. Corruption within the political elite has also contributed greatly to the both crises, with “embezzlement of state funds by many of South Sudan’s elite thought to total $4bn” (J. Cusick, 2016) and where politicians own properties abroad worth more than $3m.


This endemic corruption runs parallel to a humanitarian crisis, where 2.8 million face “acute” food insecurity, according to the UN, and 6 million require basic humanitarian help. The invaluable work of the United Nations and over 140 NGOs, Oxfam in particular, has prevented far greater suffering; thousands are dependent on air drops from food aid organisations, with 40,000 queueing in Nyal during the recent famine. Yet despite the suspected corruption, the world has continued “pouring more aid” into South Sudan: $2bn from the US and $500m from Qatar to salvage the banking system, for example. The solution is not to halt the lifeline that is emergency food aid, but perhaps to limit the outpouring of funds to the government, which unfortunately- but inevitably- ends up in the hands of the political elite. Therefore, the international community has a responsibility to monitor aid in a suitable manner.


However, it is the root cause of the crisis which needs to be tackled and the duty of this falls on the citizens to build their own nation. First and foremost, Kiir and Machar need to retire and allow democratic, political leadership to replace their military rule. This must be accompanied by disarmament and consultation of the people, with a ‘grassroots’ approach, education and time the answers to weakening tribal identity and building the strength of the nation state. The recent reappointment of Machar by Kiir has provided hope for a broken nation, but a significant change in leadership is required to bring South Sudan out of the darkness of conflict, famine and human rights abuse and into the light of a new dawn.



A Journey of a Thousand Steps: The Challenges of State and Nation Building in South Sudan, Marie-Joëlle Zahar

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