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South Sudan in Crisis

South Sudan in Crisis

[European Union]

South Sudan earned its independence just over two years ago. Yesterday, really. By the standards of international policy most countries had not even begun to think about South Sudan as anything other than a regional roadblock, never mind as its own entity. Hell, I don’t even have a coherent view of South Sudan. And so its falling apart in the last few weeks doesn’t surprise me mostly because I have not had enough time to think of it as anything more than a temporal entity.  I have not granted it enough history to be surprised by its historical failure.

And so rather than pontificate about the situation there blindly, it might be of some use for me to re-post what I wrote about South Sudan’s independence some thirty months ago or so:

The congratulations have rolled in from around the world. As has United Nations recognition. And a new currency. And of course a new president in Salva Kiir. People have celebrated in the streets and generally speaking a mood of hope and optimism and happiness prevails. Exiles from years of civil war and devastation have returned.

South Sudan, yes, congratulations — you are now a new, independent nation state. Independence represents a high water mark. Now the hard work begins and reality sets in.

For one thing, don’t be fooled by the joyous mood and the world’s hosannahs (and, yes, self-congratulations). The fact is that you still have an intractable, not especially trustworthy, (and relatively speaking more powerful) neighbor to the north. And with that neighbor, even as some urge peaceful relations, you still have to address contested areas such as South Kordofan and Abyei. New borders equal new problems.

Domestically, the economic realities are, well, grim. Independence is no panacea and there are plenty of anxious days to come (on both sides of the border). By almost any measurement (health care, standard of living, literacy, etc.) the Republic of South Sudan appears set to hang around the lowest rungs on world rankings for some time. In short, there are as many unresolved problems as reasons for hope and quite possibly more.

So, yes, congratulations. But think of this as the midway point of a long, fraught journey and not the end of one. But do not be surprised when the joy of independence gives way to reality, some of which might seem quite harsh in comparison to the elation that you have just seen. These realities have hit newly independent countries arguably better equipped than you and they have often not handled things well at all.

So most of my concerns came from the fact that South Sudan has a particularly unreliable neighbor in Khartoum. And God knows that it does. But of course its internal divisions are pretty miserable as well. And so as we enter 2014 South Sudan faces nightmare strife that may well result in civil war. And the real victims of those divisions are civilians.

The West probably made some bad bets. But what were the good bets — and more important, who was placing those bets in 2011?

South Sudan’s future as a nation state may well be imperiled, which is not to say that it would not have been in any less peril as part of a grander Sudan. And African leaders might well find some room for optimism, because the system has been gamed in such a way that anything but optimism about a newly emergent African state comes across as Afro-pessimism and thus a betrayal of the Pan-African ideal.

But where does success lie? With the United Nations? Even devoted internationalists would be excused for finding the UN to be a feckless body. But if not in the UN, where? The United States and UK are unlikely to invest more than cursory support and would likely not have any idea of who or what to support. (And, dear reader, do you have any idea who or what to support? And if you do, have you any idea of how best to support them?)

The situation in South Sudan is terrible. But there are likely few obvious solutions to that terrible situation. It might be worth keeping that in mind if the situation gets worse. And the situation is likely to get worse.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid