Choosing Peace: South Sudan’s Continuing Challenges

At the end of September, Salva Kiir, the President of South Sudan, met with Omar al-Bashir, his Northern counterpart, for peace talks in Addis Ababa. Neither leader had an easy task. Despite the separation of the two states last July, mutual distrust and antagonism, still runs deep.  In the past fifty years, the now separated states fought two civil wars (1955-1972 and 1983-2005) that resulted in over two million deaths, four million displaced persons and inestimable social, economic and psychological damage. Despite these difficulties, the two sides nonetheless faced an expired UN deadline as well as significant domestic and international pressures and eventually came to an agreement on a number of important issues after four days of negotiations. Most importantly, the parties consented to terminate all outright hostilities, establish a demilitarized zone on their shared border to monitor aggression, and resume oil production. The South Sudanese oil industry had been halted by Juba (the South Sudanese capital) in January 2012, following claims that Sudan was demanding transit fees for more than 30 times the standard international rate for use of its pipelines. Following the announcement of the deal, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon congratulated the two states for “choosing peace over war”, claiming that the agreement would “provide important building blocks for a stable and prosperous future for both countries.” This appears to be overly optimistic.


Image courtest of United Nations, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The most obvious issue that remains unresolved surrounds the border between the two states. Most significant is the status of Abyei, a disputed region the size of Lebanon that before 2005 was responsible for 25% of unified Sudan’s oil output. Both sides claim it to be their own, a dispute that played a major role in the outbreak of hostilities earlier this year. Furthermore, both countries are currently plagued by seemingly intractable internal conflicts—Sudan in South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur, and South Sudan in the eastern states of Jonglei and Upper Nile—and neither hesitates to blame its neighbour for supporting internal opposition at every opportunity. Until these issues are addressed, the internal stability of both countries will be severely compromised.

Such concerns only begin to scratch the surface of the South’s domestic problems, as the country continues to faces serious economic and social issues that threaten its long-term viability. No other government in the world is so heavily reliant on a single source of revenue as South Sudan is on oil.  It accounts for about 98% of government revenue. Such a dependency is clearly unsustainable, especially considering Kiir’s recent admission that government officials have stolen up to one third of the state’s oil revenues, nearly 4 billion USD, since 2005. Even without corruption, the situation remains dire, as known oil reserves will likely be almost exhausted within the next decade. Without an immediate diversification of its fragile economy, the consequences of such an event could be disastrous.

Perhaps the best hope comes from expanding agricultural production. It is estimated that 78% of South Sudanese households are engaged in the agricultural sector while 83% of the population maintains a rural lifestyle. Still, only 4% of the country’s arable land is currently in use, suggesting that the potential for growth is significant. Past efforts to promote domestic agricultural expansion though have been widely unpopular, with over five million hectares of land sold or leased to foreign multinational corporations with little or no input from local communities. Beyond such deals, little investment or development takes place outside of Juba, which has more than doubled in size since 2005 and is now afflicted by serious housing shortages, sanitation issues and as a result of the presence of more affluent internationals, heavily inflated prices. The entire country also suffers from a serious lack of infrastructure. At independence, it had around only 100km of paved roads, most of which remain highly concentrated around its capital. For a country the size of France, this is clearly inadequate.

The obstacles to growth are considerable. 70% of the population is illiterate, 90% live on less than 1USD a day, at least 50% lack reliable access to food, and while infant mortality rates are amongst the highest in the world, maternal mortality rates are the worst. The country also hosts over 200,000 refugees; the vast majority of whom fled the North as a result of discrimination or violence in the Southern States. State budget expenditures on security (28%) and enforcing the rule of law (12%) far outweigh allocations to health (2%) and education (5%). Indices are also correspondingly low: only 20% of the population receives medical treatment and only 10% of children complete primary school. Recent privatizations and cuts to government spending have only exacerbated these issues. The government has little time to reverse these trends. Its most recent agreement with the North may be an important step in the right direction, but in terms of guaranteeing its long-term survival, much remains to be done.