Everything played out like a script: A January 2015 peace agreement to end 21 years of war, a week-long referendum in January 2011 in which nearly 99 percent of voters chose to secede from Sudan, followed by the proclamation of South Sudan’s independence on 9 July 2011.
The birth of the world’s newest nation pushed thousands of people into the streets of South Sudan’s capital, Juba. They waved flags, cheered and danced in an atmosphere marked by euphoria.
A new currency was introduced, football and basketball teams formed, passports ordered. When the national anthem was sung for the first time ever, tears dotted the cheeks of men and women whose hopes for a bright future glimmered in the sun.
The longest-running conflict in Africa
For Africans in other parts of the continent, South Sudan’s independence signalled the end of the longest-running conflict in Africa, fuelled in part by religion, ethnicity, resources, land and oil. Between 1983 and 2005, 2 million southern Sudanese died and 4 million were displaced from their homes as a result of hostilities between the largely Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the mainly Christian and animist south of Sudan.
“Today is the most important day for the people of South Sudan, the proclamation of whose birth and emergence as a member of the community of world nations you have just witnessed,” President Salva Kiir told a huge crowd. “We have waited 56 years for this day. It is a dream that has come true. Let us celebrate today, but we must get to work right away.”
A couple weeks after independence, this country of around 8 million people became the 193rd member nation of the United Nations and was admitted to the African Union. The country appeared to be on a path to socio-economic and political development.
But on its anniversary in July 2012, it became glaringly obvious that the world’s newest country was struggling to live up to the hopes of a year ago. People saw that Kiir never ‘got to work right way’, and the people’s hope that the war was over seemed to teeter on a precipice. It became clear that the scar the war left on the people was flaring up again, and that South Sudan would bleed again.
Internal ethnic wrangling and strife
This time, however, the enemy was not the ruling regime in Khartoum: it was not Sudan’s initial confiscation of crude, it was not issues regarding border demarcations and the contested region of Abyei that destroyed South Sudan. It was the internal wrangling that created deep ethnic rivalries. It was the dismissal in July 2013 of the vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, by president Salva Kiir, a Dinka. For the record, the two biggest ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer, had long struggled over resources such as land and water.
Kiir’s move led to a civil war that is deeply rooted in the control of a vast oil wealth and other natural resources. The war in South Sudan is becoming more and more dire by the day, with increasing brutality against civilians.
Despite a peace deal in August 2015 – where the two sides agreed to form a national unity government and integrate their forces – clashes between government and opposition forces, rapes, killings and lootings continued.
The conflict has forced nearly 3 million South Sudanese to flee their homes since December 2013, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). UN agencies have earlier stressed that this east-central African country is teetering on the brink of “man-made” food insecurity this year, with a collapsing economy affecting agriculture and leaving some 100 000 people on the verge of starvation.
The famine – the first to be declared since 2011 in Somalia – was formally declared in parts of South Sudan in February, with the World Food Programme (WFP) saying that a further 1 million people were on the brink of famine.
The WFP further noted that around 5,5 million people would face “worsening hunger” in July “if nothing is done to curb the severity and spread of the food crisis”. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) update released in February showed that 4,9 million people, which is more than 40 percent of South Sudan’s population, are in need of urgent food, agriculture and nutrition assistance.
Landlocked South Sudan stands to benefit from its strategic location. It borders Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic – a massive opportunity for trade and investment.
But political infighting never allowed any of this to happen. And for the second year in a row, South Sudan has cancelled celebrations for its independence day. Last year, the government also cancelled celebrations because of a lack of funds.
Here lies a country that gave people hope only to take it away.