Inside Story

South Sudan: On the brink of collapse?

We ask if fighting and political unrest is damaging the development of this fledgling nation.

South Sudan may have declared a hard fought independence after decades of civil war, but the battle to transform one of the world’s least developed countries into a prosperous, functioning state has yet to be won.

The Central African nation has been struggling to find its feet since becoming the world’s newest country in July 2011.

Critics say it has been unable to shake free from the ills of the past: corruption, a weak economy, a lack of public services and repression of political opponents.

But is that shaping, and shaking, perceptions abroad, at a time when the country is reaching out for foreign investment?

I think the situation is extremely serious, I mean there is an immediate serious problem in Juba in terms of casualties and wounded people in hospitals that are not being attended because lack of medicines … The deepest concern though is the potential escalation of this crisis ... The difficulties in healing these fractures will be really profound and will take a long time to remedy.

by Sara Pantuliano, Head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute

In the latest unrest, hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands have sought refuge in United Nations bases following what President Salva Kiir said was an attempted coup.

The United States ordered non-essential staff out of the country, Britain is advising its citizens not to travel to Juba, and regional airlines suspended flights to the capital.

Gun battles have been taking place in Juba since Sunday, with fighting spreading to Jonglei state.

The two men at the heart of this latest violence are former rebel fighters, and senior figures in the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which led South Sudan to independence.

But they are fierce rivals. President Salva Kiir is from the largest and most powerful ethnic group, the Dinka. He sacked his vice president Riek Machar in July and has accused soldiers loyal to Machar of plotting to force him from office.

Riek Machar is from the Nuer tribe, the second largest ethnic group, which accuses Kiir of monopolising everything from politics to the army. He is said to have switched sides on several occasions during the north-south conflict. He denies being behind the alleged attempted coup, dismissing what happened as a misunderstanding.

John Kerry US Secretary of State, visited South Sudan in June. Speaking on Wednesday he called for the latest violence to be resolved peacefully and democratically.

“I saw it first hand how devoted, dedicated the people of South Sudan were and are, and how they have endured many years of conflict and sacrifice far too much for their country to now go backwards and descend back into violence”, he said.

“Political differences need to be resolved by peaceful and democratic means and those have been hard fought for. The government should respect the rule of law and the people of South Sudan should be able to realise their full potential in peace,” he added.

South Sudan declared independence after two decades of civil war in 2011, but it never fully reconciled its differences with its northern neighbour or resolved political instability at home.

In January 2012, South Sudan stopped oil production following an argument with Sudan over transit fees and disputed territory, and a few months later, each side accused the other of causing fighting in the oil-rich border region of Heglig.

A year on, Sudan and South Sudan finally agreed to resume pumping oil and withdraw troops from their borders, but it was a short lived deal, Sudan stopped oil flows just three months later.

In July this year, President Kiir dismissed his entire cabinet, including Machar, adding to the ongoing tensions.

So how much damage is fighting and political unrest doing to the development of this fledgling nation? How much harm is it doing to the country’s reputation abroad? And should the international community be doing more to get South Sudan up and running?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Sue Turton is joined by her guests, Sara Pantuliano, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, and who led the UN Development Programme’s Sudan Peacebuilding Unit; Mukesh Kapila, former Head of the United Nations in Sudan; and Peter Kemp, editorial director at Energy Intelligence, and a specialist in oil and gas in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

While we are focusing on the current crisis, it is important to remember the historical context. South Sudan … is a very young country … so it is not surprising that with the high expectations following independence … the citizens are bound to be disappointed, and I think the rest of the international community also plays too heavy on expectations on South Sudan. With that kind of expectations you are almost bound to fail … and in a sense the governance arrangements, the imposition of the Western style, liberal democracy, the idea that you can certainly become a modern Western style democracy out of nothing, against the tradition of winners take all … it has been, I think, quite unrealistic.

– Mukesh Kapila,  former head of the United Nations in Sudan