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The promising dream of an independent South Sudan has turned into a humanitarian nightmare.

South Sudan: Dream versus Reality

February 21st, 2016

By Marta Luzes – Research Assistant

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South Sudan, with only four years of independence, is the newest nation in the world. However, what seemed like a promising dream has turned into a humanitarian nightmare. After years of conflict with Sudan, and decades of struggle for the Christian population under the controlling grip of the Arab Muslim North, South Sudan became independent in July of 2011, with huge international support. The dream of an independent nation quickly crumbled with the rise of a long and painful civil war that has been ruling the country since 2013.

South Sudan endured decades of civil war before the referendum, which limited the political, economical and humanitarian development of the country resulting in  a newly formed country, with very weak institutions and poor governance structures.  The conflict started out as a dispute between the President and the Vice-President, when the former accused the latter of attempting a coup d’état. The situation quickly escalated into a complex tribal conflict primarily between the two main tribes, the Dinkas and Nuers, and it latter entered the stage of a full -on civil war. However, this simplistic explanation that the conflict is solely a tribal dispute is insufficient, there is the need to understand that the conflict is also a consequence of the chaotic leadership that exists in the country the government’s disregard for democratic principles. Additionally, the low levels of investment in- and non-existence of infrastructures characterize the economic environment of South Sudan. Adding to all this it is important to reflect on country’s high illiteracy rate: 73%. Education plays a key role not only in preventing conflict but also in rebuilding post-conflict societies, increasing awareness of the consequences of war and their civil and political power to stop conflict[1]. South Sudan’s illiteracy rate is yet another factor that allows the conflict to continue.

Since 2013 the country has seen tens of thousands of deaths, malnutrition is rampant and at least 2 million people have become refugees either in neighboring countries or UN camps[2] and, despite the fact that at least seven ceasefire agreements have been signed in the last three years, they have been continuously violated and the conflict has only increased, as have the consequences.  The lack of attention given by the media to this forgotten war is another important factor to consider since it represents the minor involvement of the international community. Not only is the current level of international aid insufficient, most often the missions are plagued by failure[3]. Policymakers and international organisations have turned a blind eye to the country’s situation, permitting the violence to continue unabated. This is perpetuated and reflected by numerous global security crises and the recent focus on the European refugee crisis that has drawn the attention of media and international actors; maybe it seems difficult for some countries to admit the failures of South Sudan, a country that bore so many hopes at the start of 2011[4]. The lack of international engagement has allowed horrendous human rights violations to go unpunished and it has allowed for the continuation of a war that has completely destroyed the country and is a threat for the security of the whole region[5].

The Dream of Freedom

South Sudan became independent after a national referendum was held in 2011, in which 98,83% of the population voted in favour of independence. However, only two years later, on the 15th of December 2013 a conflict arose that would soon turn into a violent civil war. The ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the party that fought for independence against Khartoum and rose to power once the country became independent, split into two as the President, Salva Kiir, accused the former Vice-President, Rick Machar, of planning a coup. Violence quickly spread through the capital and it rapidly morphed into a conflict primarily between the two larger tribes of South Sudan: the Dinka and Nuers. Later the conflict spread to several subtribes and other rebel groups that did not belong to any tribal or political faction[6]. The conflict has rapidly spread and it now engulfs most of the country.

The consequences of the war, which has been going on for 2 years, have been devastating not only for the economy but also, and most importantly, for the civilian population of the country. It is estimated that since fighting started, the death toll stands between 50,000 and 100,000[7] victims, with at least 1,500 children killed.  As many as 15,000 children have been recruited as child soldiers and the rate of malnutrition amongst children is through the roof[8]. Food insecurity is an important challenge facing the country since its 4.6 million people have been considered food insecure, even in the regions not affected by the conflict the food supplies cannot arrive since the roads and supplies have to pass through conflict-affected areas.[9] Additionally, the number of displaced people continues to increase: almost 2 million people have been forced to leave their homes since the violence started. Most of these people have fled to neighboring countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda while others (about 100,000) have sought refuge inside UN bases and camps scattered across the border areas.[10]

The civil war and its consequences also pose a great risk for the peaceful relationships of South Sudan with its neighbours. Uganda, a country that has important relations with South Sudan, has been one of the most affected neighbours. An example of this is that, from the beginning of the conflict, large numbers of Ugandan residents had to return home since they could not work in South Sudan, diminishing the country’s remittances. In addition, military spending has increased in neighbouring countries, a measure that directly influences the budget for services such as health care and education in these countries. Moreover, the displaced populations from South Sudan that have fled to neighbouring countries can, in the future, be a matter of concern due to tribal and cultural differences. The conflict has been straining relationships between all countries in the region and if it continues, it could become the epicentre of a complex regional conflicto as different states have conflicting interests in South Sudan and persist in supporting opposing factions.[11]

Additionally, the conflict has had great impact in countries that directly depended on South Sudan, such as China. China has a strong economic interest in South Sudan as the China National Petroleum Company is the largest foreign investor in the country: in 2012, 80% of South Sudan’s oil exports went to China[12].  The effect of the civil war on the oil market is easy to identify, and if the war does not let up it will undoubtedly further damage economic international relations it currently maintains.

When the country became independent, after years of civil war with Sudan, several challenges were overlooked, not only by the international community but also by the local government, as this new future seemed too promising to fail.  After gaining independence from Sudan there were still considerable unresolved problems: one of the main challenges was oil production and oil exports. Most oil production is located in South Sudanese territory, however, since the country is landlocked, Sudan controls the pipelines and export ports. This created disagreements on the sharing of the oil revenue, leading to tensions and disputes between both countries[13]. Additionally, the high number of armed forces within the territory once it became independent was very worrisome, without effective demobilization and reintegration programmes. In a country with no economic development and in which 80% of the GDP comes from oil revenue, there is little employment to be offered once a country is at peace. The result was a high militarisation of the political sphere and a high level of restlessness among the population. Combined with too little institutional development, a corrupt and fractioned government and elite and an uneducated population, the dream of South Sudan was challenged from the very start.

It is important to understand that the tribal dispute is not the sole cause of the conflict, its reasons are far more complex than that: the challenges discussed above had great influence and, in one way or another, they all contributed to the reality of South Sudan today. All these challenges are at the root of a conflict that seems to have no end date, and without addressing each of them it is very difficult to move forward.

The Dream of Peace

Contrary to other African countries that became independent in the past, such as Ethiopia or Uganda, the South Sudanese rebel movement had no joint vision of what they envisioned for the country, they only agreed on one thing: independence. However, after this independence was won, the divergences started to unfold/expand, eventually turning into a civil war. These same divergences contributed to the failure of several peace agreements that were signed in the last three years.

While the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional organisation for development, has been acting as the mediator in several of the ceasefire agreements, results have not been effective, as parties continuously violate these agreements[14]. The first agreement was signed on 23rd of January 2014, and it included Monitoring and Verification Mechanisms and Teams alongside an agreement to withdraw the Ugandan forces that were present in South Sudan defending the government of Kiir in the conflict. Neither Uganda, nor the other parties involved complied with the agreement; parties continued fighting despite the threats of sanctions that never came. Similar peace agreements were attempted (7 in total), for example: 5th of May 2014 in which a realistic compromise was suggested but it was ignored by IGAD; 29th January 2015, September 2015 and many more. Despite the efforts, the agreements were continually violated.

The disagreement between the parties and, even more important, the disagreement within the rebel’s movement, in which there are several factions each with their own distinct vision, compromises the possibility of the country to find common ground that would enable them to move forward[15]. Nevertheless, this is not the only reason for the impasse in the negotiations. The recurrent interferences of external forces of the region, like Uganda, in the countries’ conflict, supporting one party or advocating for measures, make it very difficult for the conflict to be resolved by the national entities. Additionally, the mediator (IGAD) is composed of countries that are not impartial and have diverging interests in the South Sudan conflict. This has been damaging to the peace deals and negotiations, promoting the continuation of the conflict. IGAD has not been able to act firmly and fails to be an efficient mediator in the attempted peace deals[16].

On a more positive note, aid has been forthcoming by some actors, provided by NGOs and major international organisations: Oxfam currently supports nearly 700,000 people with humanitarian assistance providing food drops and refugee support in neighbouring countries, health assistance and much more[17]. The same can be said for the UN that has installed camps throughout the country and tries to be an influentially positive actor in the peace process. South Sudan has received at least $1.2bn in emergency relief from the United States last year alone, being one of the top priorities of the United States aid[18]. Despite such efforts and funds, there has not been a comprehensive and strong international involvement in the conflict: there has especially been lacking involvement of the media and policy makers, little productive moves have actually taken place.

There is a great need to continue the fight for a consistent and all-comprising peace deal, since the kind of agreements that have been implemented will not solve any of the systemic problems of South Sudan, with a need for the political system to be transformed and for democracy to be fully embraced[19].

Policy recommendations

Despite the dark scenario and the atrocities that the country has experienced until now, hope still persists. This is evidenced by the rise of civil society movements that can be spotted in the country, none supporting the rebels or the government. These have derived mainly from the Diasporas that live abroad, with new political organisations being built, mutual-help groups appearing and increasing partnering and networking to promote development and peace.[20] It is essential that the international community supports and promotes these movements, helping their voices become louder and their actions stronger to positively influence a one day peaceful transition.

However, the sole action of civil society will not be enough. There is an increasing need for the international community to step up and actively engage with the reality of the civil war. This engagement is even more important from countries that were directly involved in the secession of South Sudan such as the United States. Nevertheless, the international community has to understand and accept its limitations. Outside intervention can definitely help the peace process, but lasting peace can only come from national actors and those directly involved in the conflict[21].

This cannot be confused with an involvement of all forces, such as external parties that favour one or another faction. This is the case, for example, of the Ugandan troops that have been involved in the conflict for a long time, as they try to defend their interests in South Sudan. External forces with an interest in the civil war have to withdraw, running the risk that the conflict drags neighbouring countries into violence. This is also the case for the involvement of Sudanese armed groups that should not be allowed to enter the conflict, as the countries need to build a long-term peace solution and not worsen South Sudan conflicts.

There needs to be a greater pressure on the parties involved to end the war and to build lasting and sustainable peace. This should be supported by the inclusion of civil society in the peace talks, and not only warring parties as has been done in the past – regional past experiences have demonstrated how effective this can be. At the same time, IGAD needs to act impartially and to rise above other member states interests. The organisations member states have played a biased role in the mediation of the conflict since most of them have divergent interests in the country. If it wants to be successful, mediation by IGAD needs to address the root causes of the conflict and to deal with the national parties with no external bias – if possible.

Additionally, it is very important to focus on the human resources of the country, as this will be a strong asset for lasting peace. South Sudan low education rates and the years of war that the population has suffered have left unimaginable damage to its people. In order for the country to move forward the needs of the populations have to be addressed. It is urgent that the international community strongly commits to tackle the human challenges that South Sudan faces. A lack of measures will allow the country to plunge into an even bigger conflict, a situation that will have consequences not only for South Sudan population but also for the whole region.

Author is a Research Assistant with the HSC. Contactable at:


Cite this article as: Luzes, Marta (2015) South Sudan: Dream versus Reality’ Human Security Centre Policy Brief. February 21st, 2016

[1] Unesco Institute for Education, March 2005 (LINK)

[2]  The Nordik Africa Institute, 2015 (LINK)

[3] The Guardian, 15th November 2015 (LINK)

[4]  BBC News, 31st August 2015 (LINK)

[5]  Frontiers Economics, January 2015 (LINK)

[6]  Frontiers Economics, January 2015 (LINK)

[7] Frontiers Economics, January 2015 (LINK)

[8] The Guardian, 28th October 2015 (LINK)

[9] The Guardian, 14th January 2016 (LINK)

[10] Frontiers Economics, January 2015 (LINK)

[11] Frontiers Economics, January 2015 (LINK)

[12] The World Post,  July 2014 (LINK)

[13] US Energy and Information Administration, September 2014 (LINK)

[14] The Nordik Africa Institute, 2015 (LINK)

[15]  OpenSecurity, 3rd September 2014 (LINK)

[16] African Arguments, 24th August 2015. (LINK)

[17] Oxfam. (LINK)

[18]  BBC News, 31st of August 2015 (LINK)

[19] African Arguments, 24th August 2015. (LINK)

[20]  Open Democracy, 2nd July 2014 (LINK)

[21] Garst, Brian (2015) Stumbling Toward Peace in South Sudan in Center for Freedom and Prosperity, August 2015 (LINK)

Image source: Steve Evans

About Marta Luzes

Marta Luzes recently completed her MA in International Development at the University of Warwick. Her research interests also include the power of discourse narratives in the development field, gender challenges in the developing world and poverty alleviation strategies. She has previously interned for the World Fair Trade Organisation and for the UK based NGO Ibba School of South Sudan.