On 9th July 2011 South Sudan, after years of chaotic civil war, finally achieved independence. It immediately became one of the poorest countries in the world, with a literacy rate of below 30%, according to some estimates, and an overwhelming dependence on revenue from the oil industry. While these revenues are, and have the potential to be, an enormous source of income, predictably the wealth oil generates is concentrated in the hands of a few. At the declaration of independence there was enormous hope amongst the people of South Sudan that this marked the beginnings of a glorious new dawn for the country. The international community too was keen to pledge its support to make sure that South Sudan did not join the ranks of Africa’s failed states.
Yet only two months later, the UN was warning that within the next year South Sudan would face severe food shortages, warnings that by and large went unremarked upon and unnoticed. Inflation in August was at 9%, with food prices rapidly escalating out of the reach of many of South Sudan’s poorest. This problem has been further exacerbated by the flood of refugees into South Sudan from the north. The emergency food programmes that were in place simply didn’t and don’t have the resources to feed so many people for so long.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the South Sudanese government and the UN have been unable to restore order to much of the fledgling nation. The border between Sudan and South Sudan remains highly volatile, with the Northern Sudanese government intent on destroying what it calls ‘rebel strongholds’ on its territory. Militias and bandits have also taken advantage of the disorder to profit, with the UN warning that new mines have been laid and humanitarian efforts disrupted by such groups in the months since independence. Hundreds of people have been killed in cattle raids or skirmishes between tribal groups in the few months of South Sudan’s existence and the UN and South Sudanese authorities seem unable to check the tide of violence.
Avoiding outright civil war may also prove to be a challenge. Amongst South Sudan’s estimated eight million people, no more than one million are from any particular ethnic group. Traditional tribal rivalries and the long legacy of instability in the region could mean South Sudan is ripe to rip itself apart. This was something the CIA recognised in 2010 when it listed the country as one of the places in the world where a genocide was most likely to happen in the next five years.
Economically, the situation also looks fairly bleak for the world’s newest nation. Timber forms an export industry, but overwhelmingly the country’s economy is centred around agriculture. This, however, provides very little in the way of taxation for the government with 98% of the South Sudanese government’s budget coming from oil. In the long run this is clearly not sustainable. Dependence on oil also leaves the country extremely vulnerable in the event of hostilities with Sudan, its northern neighbour, as all of South Sudan’s oil is refined and exported via the country.
The lack of any sort of infrastructure perhaps poses the most obvious immediate obstacle to South Sudan’s progress. The country lacks anything that could be called a transport network, something which will make the process of nation building considerably harder. Consequently for most South Sudanese life will, due to poor communication networks, remain very locally focused, something which can only hinder the creation of a national community. Perhaps the direst statistics for South Sudan’s state of development can be found with regards to health and healthcare. In some regions there are as little as one doctor per 500,000 people and maternal mortality is the highest in the world.
In many respects therefore South Sudan seems to be well on the way to joining the list of Africa’s failing states. The frustrating thing is that, despite the enormous challenges facing the country, this doesn’t have to be the case. Sanctions imposed on Sudan have hampered South Sudan’s economic progress, and while America is keen to become involved in the South’s lucrative oil industry, and the World Bank has promised significant funds, little in the way of investment or aid has reached the ground. Natural resources such as iron ore, copper, silver and hydropower are to be found in abundance in the area. The international community could make an enormous difference in securing the future of South Sudan by ensuring that these resources’ economic potential is quickly harnessed and an infrastructure is built in which to do this.
The lack of action from the international community has meant that instability in the region has only increased in the months since independence, something which will only hamper future attempts at rejuvenating the country. This in turn will only lead to greater instability. People around the world were quick to share in South Sudan’s joy at independence. It would be a great shame if South Sudan and its people were allowed to drift remorselessly into the realms of anarchy and further impoverishment because this intial enthuasiasm turned into indifference.