South Sudan: Independence Marked by Major Challenges

On July 9, 2011, the world officially welcomed its newest nation, South Sudan, which finally achieved independence after decades of violent oppression at the hands of the Northern-based regime. Although the achievement is momentous, it also brings with it significant challenges, especially for the South Sudanese government, which must contend with prevalent poverty, ongoing tribal conflict, continued security and economic threats from Khartoum and perhaps most daunting, a serious lack of governmental and social infrastructure.

Economic Development Challenges in South Sudan

South Sudan is one of the poorest and most disadvantaged countries in the world, and therefore faces serious challenges to its development. Its economic troubles stem predominantly from years of heavy mismanagement of government funds and oil revenue, as well as serious neglect and violent interventionism, by Omar al-Bashir’s northern regime. The percentage of South Sudan’s population that currently lives below the poverty line is over 50%. In addition, the country’s child malnutrition rate is 48% (average Global Malnutrition Rate for children 6-59 months is 22%), significantly higher than emergency levels, and its child mortality rate 38%. South Sudan’s poverty is compounded by a serious lack of social and educational services, as the number of schools and health centers are limited. As of 2010, the adult literacy rate is a mere 37% (compared to 76% in the North); and the percentage of the population with a primary education, only 48%. South Sudan is also struggling to cope with a severely deficient infrastructure. Its airport lacks a decent airstrip and power outages in Juba are frequent. Access to improved water and sanitation services is extremely low, and there are only about 100 miles of paved road throughout the entire country (an area the size of France), resulting in minimal market access for a population that still lives mostly in thatched roof houses.

Currently, South Sudan depends on the oil industry for 98% of its revenue and that revenue funds a significant majority of the government’s activities. The country’s oil resources are vast; in fact, the majority of the 500,000 barrels of oil produced daily within the whole of Sudan comes from the South. Under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), North and South Sudan each receive 50% of the two countries’ total oil revenue. The two governments have been in discussion over the future of oil shares, specifically how much the South should pay in transit fees to ship oil North via Khartoum-owned pipelines. However, they have yet to come to any agreement. Khartoum has sought to impose transit fees totaling one-third the export value of Southern oil shipments to the Port of Sudan, Sudan’s only major maritime port. South Sudan is currently entirely dependent upon Khartoum both for piping oil, as well as refining and exporting it, as it does not exercise control over any pipeline or refinery, nor does it have a substantial port. The Kenyan government does plan to expand the capacity of its Lamu Port, which includes building a new pipeline to the port, under the Lamu Port South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport Corridor, or LAPSSET, project, which would allow South Sudan an alternate shipping route. However, funding has not yet been secured; hence it would be years before the pipeline and port are actually fully operational.

Recognizing the danger of continued dependence on Khartoum’s cooperation for its revenue, the South Sudanese government (GOSS) has sought to diversify the country’s economy, particularly by expanding agricultural investment. Like many other African countries, South Sudan is seeking greater foreign direct investment in its agricultural sector—as it does not currently have the capacity to industrialize the country’s agricultural industry on its own. Rainfall levels are adequate, and fertile uncultivated farmland is widely available throughout the country (it is estimated that only 4% of South Sudanese land is currently being cultivated), so the potential for large agricultural production is high. In fact, from 2007 to 2010, private investors acquired approximately 6.5 million acres of land in South Sudan, for production of agriculture, mining and timber, as well as oil. To determine the potential for further investment, South Sudan will hold a major conference and trade fair in October of this year in Juba, where government officials, donor agencies and private sector representatives will discuss possible opportunities for economic and business development.

Increased investment and economic diversification are key to South Sudan’s future stability. Not only would this result in greater and more secure revenue for the government, but this would also increase employment and income opportunities for the population; ensure greater food supply (South Sudan currently imports staple foods and relies on food aid due to inadequate domestic production); and help establish comparative advantage by industrializing sectors and creating a productive labor force. However, there are currently several major obstacles to the country’s economic advancement that must be addressed. The development of the agricultural sector is hindered by a shortage of skilled labor (only 30% of the population engages in agricultural production), poor rural infrastructure, limited to no use of improved technologies, inadequate inputs and little to no agricultural/livestock extension services. Other significant barriers to growth include a lack of financial/market infrastructure and services, the lack of adequate government and legal infrastructure and continued often unpredictable violence.

Fiscal Threats and Policies

Most recently, the GOSS suffered a serious financial setback after Khartoum announced the early introduction of a new currency, shortly after South Sudan’s launch of its currency. The 2005 Peace Agreement prohibits the Northern government from introducing a new currency until at least six months after South Sudan launches its currency, allowing the Southern government time to invest and/or otherwise exchange its Sudanese pound reserves. South Sudan decided to launch a new currency in July, just after declaring independence. GOSS claimed it had no choice but to launch so soon after independence, as Khartoum had stopped supplying it with its share of the country’s oil revenue. Khartoum has often used its control over oil profits and refined oil production to either pressure or punish the South. Last year, Khartoum switched the South’s oil payment currency from US dollars to the Sudanese pound, an apparent move by the fiscally inept Northern government to hold onto its US dollar reserves and undermine the South’s fledgling economy by flooding it with money that would essentially be worthless in several months’ time. It had been suggested by international experts that both countries hold off on the launch of new currency, so as to allow the current currency and trade between the two to stabilize. Khartoum had even suggested the two form a monetary union; however, distrust on both sides and the Bashir government’s many underhanded tactics seemed to force South Sudan’s hand.

This new move by Khartoum essentially renders the South’s USD700 million worth in Sudanese pound reserves valueless. GOSS has set up stations across the country so its citizens can exchange their old Sudanese pound holdings to the South Sudan pound. The government had planned to sell those acquired holdings back to the North in exchange for foreign currency or replace the holdings through commercial trade with the North. However, with the North already suffering inflationary rates due to poor fiscal policy (that included a change in currency just a few years back), Khartoum was clearly concerned that the infusion of such large amounts of cash would further devalue the country’s currency, aggravating its current fiscal crisis. In addition, the issuance of a new currency ensures that the Southern government cannot utilize those reserves to benefit itself or its people in any manner. Khartoum claims that it will allow Southern citizens three months time to exchange their personal holdings and that it will work with GOSS to resolve the reserve issue. However, it has been reported that Khartoum is demanding that the South Sudanese government return the reserves to the North, now that they cannot be exchanged or used for trade. Khartoum fears that the South will attempt to smuggle its reserves into the North to exchange it. GOSS has refused to surrender its reserves.

Continued Territorial Disputes with North

The South’s issues with Khartoum are not limited to monetary policies, which have been arguably reckless on both sides. In addition to fiscal attacks, South Sudan continues to face a military threat from its Northern neighbor. Shortly after the South became independent, Khartoum launched a major assault on the town on Abyei, a disputed oil-rich area, which under a joint agreement between the two countries is patrolled only by UNMIS, a United Nations Mission in Sudan force that is comprised of police units from both sides, as well as foreign troops and civilian UN personnel. A referendum was supposed to be held in Abyei in January to determine its future status; however a dispute over voter eligibility prevented it, resulting in deadly clashes between opposing groups. The ethnic African tribe of the Ngok Dinka, which is mostly southern-based, and the Arab tribe of Misseriah both lay claim to the area.

Khartoum’s attack on Abyei seemed to have been motivated by an alleged assault on its police units and foreign UNMIS troops by Southern forces that killed 22 Northern soldiers and spurned larger firefights between Southern and Northern troops that resulted in the deaths and injury of another 300 Northern troops. Khartoum used the attack on its soldiers and its claims that the SPLA (Southern forces) were occupying disputed areas as justification to invade the town, driving all Southern Dinka tribes people from their homes and land. Armed gangs reportedly set Dinka homes and property on fire after looting them; Khartoum also brought in large numbers of Arab Misseriya, in an attempt to repopulate the area to its advantage. By the end of its assault, Northern forces and armed thugs had razed much of the Southern sections of town and the North retained total control. Khartoum eventually agreed to withdraw its troops from the area, after Ethiopia offered to send a peacekeeping force to the town; however, as of August 2011, the SFA (Northern forces) still remains in total control despite the fact that thousands of Ethiopian troops have been deployed. Meanwhile, in Kordofan state, another disputed oil rich area, Khartoum continues to allegedly bomb civilians; it has also blocked aid deliveries, forcing more displacement. Human rights groups have warned of major atrocities being committed in the area; however, access remains restricted by Khartoum.

Internal Challenges to Southern Unity

Challenges relating to territorial disputes and Northern military interventionism, including in Darfur (it is estimated that over 1,000 have been killed and over 200,000 more displaced since 2010), are further complicated by South Sudan’s internal conflicts and a severe lack of government infrastructure. This month, over 600 people were killed and many more injured, kidnapped and forced to flee in clashes between warring tribes in Jonglei state. These types of clashes, which have killed over 2,300 South Sudanese in just the past few months, are often driven by disputes over resources. This most recent conflict involved two tribes attacking each other to steal cattle resources, avenge deaths resulting from previous clashes and kidnap children, who are considered a valuable resource to tribes with very few. Violence related to this specific dispute has been ongoing for at least the past few months; however the government has been powerless to prevent its escalation or to bring the perpetrators on either side to justice. Its simply lacks adequate security and legal infrastructure in this area, which is a common challenge it faces in many parts of the country. In fact, in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, some major ministries are currently operating out of trailers.

Also compounding such conflicts, particularly in Jonglei state, is the continued rebellion by former SPLM member and SPLA commander, George Athor. Athor is one of several former leading SPLM members who have taken up arms against GOSS, resentful over his inability to secure a more powerful position within the new government. Athor lost the governor race in Jonglei state and in retaliation has sought to destabilize the territory, as well as punish those who did not lend him their support. It is reported that Athor’s forces have killed and forced the displacement of thousands. Athor has also armed numerous tribesmen to perpetrate acts of violence against other tribes, all with the alleged support of Khartoum. GOSS has attempted to negotiate peace with Athor and various other rebel leaders, even offering amnesty. SPLA forces have also launched offensives against rebel militias, hoping to place added pressure on them to surrender and reintegrate. Some progress has been made. Lt. General Gabriel Tang surrendered this year and is currently in detention, and Gen. Gatluak Gai, who had been particularly troublesome, signed a peace agreement with the SPLM in July, only to be shot and killed allegedly by one of his own men, a week later. Currently, however, Athor and several other rebel leaders continue to pose a threat.

The Challenges of South Sudan Governance

GOSS is currently operating under an interim constitution that was finally approved, after much debate, just days prior to the country’s formal independence in early July. Although the constitution’s approval was an important first step to establishing a democratic foundation to governance in South Sudan, its heavily centralized provisions elicited immediate criticism from opposition parties, civil rights groups and the international development community. Criticism specifically centers on the significant enhancement of presidential powers under the new constitution, which allows the president to remove state governors and dissolve state assemblies “in the event of a crisis in the state that threatens national security and territorial integrity.” The provision is a bit troubling, as it is difficult to imagine a scenario within a democratic state, even in a context as volatile as South Sudan, in which the removal and replacement of an elected official in such a way is justified. In addition, a provision such as that could easily be exploited to the advantage of the president and his party. This is a legitimate concern in a country where SPLM rules veritably unchallenged—though mostly at the behest of the people, who have voted overwhelmingly for SPLM candidates in the few elections held thus far.  

Opposition parties have argued against extraordinary national government interference, particularly presidential interference, into state affairs, as they seek a federal system of governance, in which states exercise significant autonomy. However, it is questionable whether such a system would be appropriate for a country in which regional and tribal conflict is so prevalent and where a foreign government, namely Khartoum, continuously interferes in hopes of retaining influence in the South.  In addition, the main opposition party within South Sudan, SPLM-DC, has yet to prove itself as a legitimate and valid alternative, as it is comprised essentially of disgruntled former SPLM leaders, whose only platform is opposing the ruling SPLM. The lack of support its candidates have received thus far from the population reflects a strong distrust of the party’s intentions.

The SPLM has repeatedly accused the SPLM-DC of operating militias in Upper Nile and Unity states with the intent to destabilize the region, particularly during the period leading up to the referendum. Furthermore, SPLM-DC’s founder, Lam Akol Ajawin, former Foreign Minister under Sudan’s unity government, was allegedly removed from his former position because of his closeness to Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum. The SPLM-DC has denied all accusations regarding its links to both Khartoum and to any militias. It has accused SPLM and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir of slandering its leaders, as well as unlawfully blocking its political activities, such as campaigning during the elections. SPLM-DC alleged that SPLM security forces used intimidation and violence to stymie its political efforts.

What perhaps is most troubling is that the Southern government continued to try to halt SPLM-DC political activities even after the country’s Supreme Court ruled such government action unconstitutional. President Kiir had initially signed an executive order directing state government officials to use all means to prevent SPLM-DC from engaging in political activities on the basis that it believed SPLM-DC was operating violent, anti-government militias; however, the court ruled the order unconstitutional. Although concerns regarding Khartoum’s influence and other destabilizing forces are certainly legitimate, unilateral moves on the part of GOSS’s executive, that have no constitutional basis, are also a threat to South Sudan’s future as an independent democratic state. In this case, the SPLM acted without establishing a legal or evidentiary basis for its accusations against the SPLM-DC. Kiir once again exercised excessive executive power more recently when he sacked the President of the Supreme Court, a power invested to him by the interim constitution. Most worrisome is that no explanation was given for the president’s removal.

Given the volatile nature of the South Sudanese political context, which includes various nefarious forces working to destabilize and weaken, not only GOSS, but the future of independent governance in South Sudan, as well as limited governmental capacity, it is somewhat unreasonable to expect democratic practice at the level of long-established democracies. However, GOSS must ensure that the principles upon which it establishes the country’s political system are not specific to the current environment. The heavy concentration of executive power within the central government, as outlined in the interim constitution, reflects the government’s distrust of the current political situation as well as its own ability to democratically resolve crises. Although this may be appropriate for governing in the current setting, if the country is to achieve true democracy, any future constitution will have to be based on principles that apply within a purely egalitarian context.


As per the interim constitution, the transitional period will last a period of four years, during which time, GOSS is obliged to develop a formal constitution, build state institutions and develop the country’s economy. Although the length of the transitional period has been criticized (opposition parties had requested the period last no more than two years), the task of constructing an entire country is monumental and without proper development of political and social institutions, the costly election of new officials would prove inconsequential. The country is completely devoid of governmental and institutions, which includes a weak civil society. It is also struggling with humanitarian crises brought on by conflict, with hundreds of thousands displaced, and lacks an independent source of revenue. South Sudan faces tremendous obstacles in its quest for successful independence. It is imperative that the international community continue to lend it substantial technical support on several fronts, but particularly in the area of good governance, which is the most necessary element to both political and economic success.