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South Sudan's unhappy third birthday

Three years after independence, South Sudan still struggles to escape poverty and conflict.

Last updated: 09 Jul 2014 13:55
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Rebels in South Sudan have been fighting government forces leading to the displacement of up to one million people [AFP]

Juba, South Sudan - Mary Boyoi, a popular South Sudanese singer, performed at the independence celebrations three years ago. Today, she spends most of her time organising women civil society groups taking part in the peace process.

Today, like many South Sudanese, Boyoi is frustrated by the "greed for political power" that she believes is to blame for the tens of thousands of lives the conflict has claimed thus far.

Three years after South Sudan's long-awaited independence, and eight years after signing a peace agreement to end 21 years of civil war, the world's youngest country is stuck in yet another violent conflict.

"When we lost people in the civil war, we called them heroes, because they fought to get a country," she said. "But the people that are fighting now - what are we going to call them?"

Violence erupted last December after former Vice President Riek Machar was accused of staging a coup. Fighting in Juba quickly spiralled into a nationwide conflict marked by widespread defections, human rights violations, and the mobilisation of armed civilians.

There is no real debate on what needs to be done better for the people. It's only about the politics of who can stay in power.

-Jok Madut Jok, founder of the Sudd Institute

But the fighting was presaged by a mounting political crisis characterised by an increased use of presidential powers and the central government's failure to ensure inclusiveness. In July 2013 the president issued a decree dismissing then-Vice President Riek Machar and the entire cabinet. State governors were sacked in line with constitutional emergency powers.

The central government's authority has been eroding amid growing popular discontent, shifting loyalties within the government and army, as well as intensifying calls for federalism by the better-off Equatorian states. Still, there is little sense of urgency within the government: "We are at war, we first have to bring peace, then we can talk about federalism," Ateny Wek Ateny, the spokesperson for the office of the president told Al Jazeera.

Much like the old government in Khartoum, the central government in Juba has allowed for a rift to develop between a largely disadvantaged periphery and an increasingly powerful centre.

"There is no real debate on what needs to be done better for the people. It's only about the politics of who can stay in power," Jok Madut Jok, founder of the public policy thinktank, the Sudd Institute, told Al Jazeera

Centralised management of the country's natural resources coupled with allegations over large scale corruption have fuelled dissafection with the current form of governance.

The current crisis is likely to further deepen economic disparities. Following a 30% drop in oil production, the government has significantly reduced spending for development projects and basic services, instead focusing on security and government salaries. Meanwhile, one UN official told Al Jazeera that salaries to state government officials in areas that happen to fall under rebel control have been halted. 

Stalled peace talks

Peace talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa have done little to quell the fighting. Repeated ceasefire violations, tit-for-tat accusations, and unyielding demands have left little hope for a political compromise.

In her final statement before ending a three-year assignment as the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson criticised the ruling SPLM leadership: "If the country and the people are the priority, it is not that difficult to find solutions," she said. "If there are further delays, and the blame games go on, we can draw only one conclusion: that it is only about a scramble for power."

The tragedy is how much the primacy of the gun has gained as the way grievances are settled, power is realised, and incomes are earned.

-Sue Lautze, head the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Sudan

President Salva Kiir has stated that there will be no interim government without him, insisting on his legitimacy as democratically elected president and accusing his opponent of polarising political tactics. Rebel leader Riek Machar, disenchanted with the peace process led by both the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the East African regional peace body, as well as Uganda's political and military support for the government, has embarked on a political tour to rally other African leaders behind his cause.

Talks were indefinitely adjourned on June 23, a major setback after the two parties had agreed two weeks earlier to form a transitional government within a 60 day period. The adjournment followed a disagreement over the involvement of civil society in the peace talks, which have increasingly grown in scope to include the constitution and governance.

Archbishop Daniel Deng Bol, one of the key leaders of the civil society-led National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation, says the involvement of too many stakeholders in negotiations has diluted the objective.  "What was supposed to happen is to first allow the two parties to finalise the permanent ceasefire," he said. "The details were never worked out. The second phase should have been inclusivity".

But there has been little international or domestic pressure to return to the negotiating table. The international community has been hesitant to apply real political or economic pressure.

"At the moment economic sanctions are not on the table but we are talking about individual sanctions which we have already implemented and are in the process of considering whether further ones may be warranted," said Steven Feldstein, US deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor during a recent visit to Juba.

Reversing the progress

Only two weeks before its third independence anniversary, South Sudan jumped to the top of the fragile states rankings published by the Fund for Peace, reflecting the stark deterioration over the past six months.

The fighting reversed much of the modest progress made since the 2005 peace treaty was signed - and is unlikely to enable a swift return to development for South Sudan. Displaced farmers are not working their fields. Children in conflict-affected areas are not attending school. There has been major destruction of civilian infrastructure in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states. Many Chinese and East African investors and entrepreneurs have left the country and will be wary to return.

South Sudan marks third anniversary as debt looms

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis brought about by the conflict has reached alarming levels. The UN has appealed for $1.8bn of humanitarian funding, but only around 40% has been received so far. Four million people are at risk of food insecurity. Over one million are internally displaced by conflict, in addition to 400,000 who have fled the country. Based on these numbers, every second South Sudanese has been affected by the crisis.

South Sudan's security budget already accounted for almost 40% prior to this conflict - and is likely to have further increased.

With South Sudan now so riven by conflict and poverty, the lack of funding for development projects, coupled with the economic downturn, has meant that more civilians are likely to take up arms. "The tragedy is how much the primacy of the gun has gained as the way grievances are settled, power is realised, and incomes are earned," Sue Lautze, the head the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Sudan, told Al Jazeera. "The question is just how much tinder there is for a spark to make it explode." 

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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