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South Sudan at 10: A Cautionary Tale of Disastrous Independence From the World’s Newest Country

09 Jul 2021
By Associate Professor Mark I. Choate
Jubilant South Sudanese celebrate the victory of their national soccer team over Equatorial Guinea in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations. Source: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Ten years ago, South Sudan became independent from Sudan to become the world’s newest country. The many disasters since then have dissuaded formal recognition of any other prospective countries, or any other changes to the extant international boundaries in Africa.

On paper, South Sudan offered much promise. Britain had governed the south of Sudan differently from the north within the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, resulting in many disparities in culture, religion, and development. After a long civil war within Sudan, an independent South Sudan could in theory benefit from its oil resources and the support of its Christian neighbors, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) prospered under the charismatic leadership of John Garang, a George Washington-like figure who became first vice president of Sudan. Garang argued powerfully for a unified, secular, and democratic Sudan.

The Republic of Sudan, under ex-president Omar Bashir, had discredited itself by hosting Carlos the Jackal, Osama bin Laden, and other nefarious figures in the early 1990s. Such foolishness was hard to live down, even after Sudan reversed course. Sudan rendered Carlos the Jackal to French custody in 1994, and attempted to deliver Osama bin Laden the same year, but the United States government refused on moral and legal grounds. Bin Laden’s famous successes from Afghanistan, after Sudan had expelled him, had the effect of making Sudan more notorious rather far-sighted in its attempts to forestall al-Qaeda’s terrorism. After two US embassies in Africa were bombed in 1998, the United States destroyed a medications factory in Khartoum with a missile strike, cementing Sudan’s status as an international pariah.

Unfortunately, none of Sudan’s failures meant that South Sudan would succeed. John Garang died in a helicopter crash in 2005. The referendum on South Sudanese independence proceeded in 2011 without any clear leaders for what would become a sovereign nation. The SPLA leaders shut out the educated South Sudanese diaspora from any position of power or influence. Garang had earned his PhD at Iowa State University, and many other South Sudanese were trained at the world’s best universities, but independence was seized by the SPLA as a chance to profit from their years of fighting in the bush. President Salva Kiir, for example, never finished primary school, in a society that strongly values formal education. The purported Christian ethic of South Sudanese leadership was belied by polygamy practiced as conspicuous consumption, with senior leaders keeping dozens of wives. The SPLA’s ex-chief of staff, Paul Malong, had 112 wives at once.

It turned out that the narrative of the Sudanese Civil War itself had been skewed. More southerners had died in decades of brutal interethnic fighting than from attacks by the Khartoum regime in the north. The Dinka form the largest ethnicity in South Sudan and traditionally dominate the other tribes, but number only 35 percent of the population. Though “born to rule,” the Dinka cannot control a democratic government if the other ethnicities coalesce in a voting bloc. The SPLA is aligned on ethnic lines, as a Dinka force for Dinka interests, and fresh civil war after independence was completely predictable. The vice president of South Sudan, Dr Riek Machar of the Nuer tribe, has broken with President Kiir or been attacked by President Kiir multiple times, in an ongoing cycle of short periods of peace alternating with long periods of ethnic conflict: mass rape, murder, forced starvation, use of child soldiers, widespread torture, and societal collapse. During this on-and-off civil war, half of South Sudan’s oil fields have been destroyed. The supposed guarantee of South Sudan’s economic self-sufficiency – oil – has proven as fragile as ethnic hatred has proven intractable. More than two million people have fled and nearly 400,000 have been killed. Two-thirds of the country’s population requires humanitarian aid for survival.

What went wrong in the entirely well-intentioned international involvement in South Sudan? The United States’ success in eastern Europe and Eurasia, from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, created an entirely false narrative of the power of romantic freedom fighters creating their own destiny through peaceable and effective governance. Religious leaders in the United States also believed that a well-meaning missionary impulse could overcome underdevelopment, lack of schools, and any other obstacle. US political and religious leaders were willing to believe the lies presented by the SPLA, who appealed to the heartstrings rather than to any rational analysis of South Sudan’s chances for success.

Two other examples of new countries highlight the extremely risky road taken towards South Sudan’s independence debacle. The world’s second-youngest and third-youngest sovereign governments are Kosovo and East Timor (Timor-Leste), respectively. Like South Sudan, East Timor was a Christian society emerging independent from Muslim Indonesia, but, unlike South Sudan, with heavy involvement by the United Nations and the committed leadership of Australia. Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in the former Yugoslavia was achieved by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is still present in the country today. Kosovo’s sovereignty was rejected by Serbia, Russia, and their allies, as well as countries opposing internal regional breakaways, such as Spain. When Sudan’s government agreed to South Sudan’s independence, however, the many issues and problems raised by the foreseeable bloodbath were never fully discussed on the international stage.

South Sudan at this point is a taboo subject in the United States. When South Sudanese refugees began fleeing to Darfur, this completely overthrew the reigning political assumptions in Washington about conditions in the region. But the cold realities of diplomatic failure should be carefully studied in excruciating detail. Many of the international borders of Africa, as in several other continents, do not make sense according to culture or natural geography. But changing frontiers by creating new states, while tempting on paper, can clearly make conditions worse for the peoples involved, as has happened in South Sudan.

Mark I. Choate, PhD is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.