BY PATRICIA TAFT
It took three years, a slide from growing dysfunction to rapid escalation in violence, and more than a fair share of international hand-wringing to arrive at this place: South Sudan is the world’s most fragile state. What occurred in the twelve months since the last Fragile States Index — when the world’s newest country ranked fourth — to this year, where it is the chart-topper, is as complicated as the facets of state-building itself. Nonetheless, a few salient lessons might be culled even at this early stage, if not to prevent a further slide, but to at least manage expectations going into the future.
As Nate Haken and I wrote last year in an article about the crisis in South Sudan, in the case of state-building, wanting it badly enough still does not make it so. This was evident last year. For nearly a decade leading up to the 2011 declaration of independence, the cause of the nation and its citizens was one that was near and dear to the heart of two successive U.S. administrations and some of its most seasoned and effective thinkers and policymakers. It was one issue, and at times seemingly the only issue, which appeared to cross partisan lines. Everyone could agree that this embattled African territory, and its people, deserved to finally be free, and not only from the brutal machinations of its overlord to the North. In order to secure this nation-building “win,” both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations poured tons of aid into South Sudan, in every form imaginable. From military aid to food aid to the provision of technical expertise, America was South Sudan’s biggest ally and backer, ardently midwifing the country into nationhood by whatever means necessary.
Of course, with such lofty expectations comes a kind of attachment that often leads to myopia or, at times, wholesale disillusionment with the realities of state-building itself. South Sudan, for all of its promise, was a nation that was built out of virtually nothing. Decades of warfare and a complete lack of infrastructure had left behind a state that was one in name only. It had virtually none of the capacities or functions of a nation other than a name and a flag. The question that preoccupied some of the brightest lights in both administrations was, “How is South Sudan going to be a state?” This often missed one key element, specifically, “How is South Sudan going to function as a state?” And it was in the functioning, or lack thereof, that things began to unravel.
From the start, the cleavages between the leadership, represented by President Salva Kiir and former Vice President, Riek Machar, current leader of the opposition, were evident. Decades of personal history, fraught with ugly political and tribal undercurrents, may have been temporarily shelved in the name of national unity but remained unresolved and simmering below the surface. When Kiir dismissed Machar and replaced most of the cabinet in July 2013, these cleavages became formalized, and the December 2013 clashes between soldiers loyal to each leader kicked off the current spasms of violence that have gripped the country ever since.
Institution-building, which was painfully slow even by the most clearheaded of estimates, came to a screeching halt as the gun once again replaced the pen. The capacity-building efforts of the U.S. as well as several other nations could not have possibly prepared the number of civil servants and trained military personnel needed to manage the crisis in an effective and timely manner. As it was, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), an entity supposed to be emblematic of national unity, but which fractured along ethnic lines in December, had been tasked with the impossible. Given the size of the country and the lack of roads and other critical infrastructure, expecting the SPLA to disregard decades of unaddressed inter-organizational grievances and suddenly coalesce behind a largely imposed idea of a united South Sudan was a painfully flawed assumption. At the same time, despite years of effort in training cadres of South Sudanese civil servants and professionals, the fact remained that it is impossible to build a functioning state and functioning citizens overnight. Even in the most stable of environments, state-building is a long and arduous process. In the face of a renewed civil war, these delicate institutions have the ability to collapse like a house of cards. This is what happened in South Sudan.
The most current figures leave very little doubt that the country is once again on the precipice of a full civil war, if not embroiled in one already. As of May 2014, according to estimates by the United Nations as well as other international donor and relief agencies, the number of displaced stands at over a million, with over 10,000 dead. In addition, it is estimated that over 80,000 people are sheltering at UN camps with over 300,000 having crossed into Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda to escape the fighting. Adding another layer of impending crisis, the UN has estimated that up to five million people, or half of South Sudan’s population, is in need of humanitarian aid. With UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warning of a catastrophic famine in the coming months and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voicing concern over an impending genocide, it seems that things are going to get much worse before they get better.
Of course, it is always much easier to criticize planning and lament missed opportunities in the aftermath of the outbreak of a crisis. Although there were surely missteps and the shortcomings of policies meant to deliver “statehood or bust,” the amount of effort and dedication devoted to the birthing of South Sudan as a nation cannot be denied. Yet time and again, the realities of state-building seem far beyond either the appetite or the reach of most international efforts. As evidenced by the Index scores of several states in the Balkans this year, a hotbed of nation-building in the late 1990s and early 2000s, stability and viability take time. In most cases, it takes a lot of time; at least a generation. In the interim many things can go wrong, including a return to hostilities if not a full scale return to war. Ironically, the wars that gripped Sudan from 1983 until the ceasefire in 2005 were emblematic of that very fact.
So does this mean that we as the international community should stand by and do nothing as the world’s most fragile states tear themselves apart? Of course not. From both a national security as well as a humanitarian standpoint, allowing a country to unravel and kill and displace millions of people is insanity. Nevertheless, this naturally begs the question of what can be done? In the case of South Sudan, it seems that the current environment offers few options that are ideal. For example, despite a ceasefire that was violated almost immediately upon its inception, it appears that neither side at this junction perceives that it is “losing” and could be compelled to put down arms. In addition, neither side has articulated a vision for a solution to the current conflict. While the espoused ideals of national unity and statehood still find their way into press conferences and meetings convened by regional leaders, these appear to be little more than lip service meant to placate at best and buy more time for territorial and other war gains at worst.
In the meantime, South Sudan’s economy, based on oil exports, has once again ground to a halt with signs that outside investors, including China, are growing weary with having their investments and infrastructure constantly under siege. South Sudanese businessmen, including a diaspora population that returned in the wake of independence, are also once again fleeing the country, further hampering the economy as well as removing a critical brain trust. And, as noted by the UN Secretary General in May as well as other international aid organizations, South Sudan may soon be facing its worst food crisis in years, with a combination of weather conditions and warfare making crop cultivation impossible. On most fronts, it seems, there is no end in sight to the current misery.
Yet there are a few causes for hope that while certainly not a panacea or cure-all may, with support, be able to staunch the current arterial flow. The first is the role that the region and its countries have played in South Sudan. From the start, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya have all had a strong interest in an independent and stable South Sudan and have lent pivotal support to the government in Juba. To be sure, without the intervention of Uganda as well its support to several local, pro-SPLM, militias, it is likely that the government would have already lost Juba to opposition forces, as well as other territory. The Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African sub-regional body, has played a pivotal role from the outset in trying to negotiate an end to the crisis through peace talks and, as of this writing, formalizing plans to deploy a 2,500-strong peacekeeping force to augment the beleaguered United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). While each country may have their own reasons for becoming involved in the South Sudan crisis, thus far there has been a surprising show of regional cohesion and a willingness of both regional (the African Union) and sub-regional (IGAD) organizations to shoulder a significant amount of burden.
Beyond the regional level, the years of international involvement in the country also holds out the benefit of good offices, with individuals both in and out of government having had long standing relationships with key actors on both sides to the conflict. While the U.S. has been sharply criticized for taking too slow of an approach to dealing with the current crisis and not exerting enough pressure on the leadership, it does remain in a key position and thus can continue to remain involved and influential in the process. In addition to the American political leadership and high-level individuals, grassroots American organizations and religious groups also have had a vested interest in a free and stable South Sudan for years. These relationships were a critical voice in lobbying for South Sudan’s independence and can once again become a voice in lobbying for an end to the current bloodshed.
In that vein, South Sudanese civil society organizations are a much overlooked but critical component in the process. While elements of the political leadership continue to portray the crisis as one in which the country is fracturing along deep-seated ethnic lines, many civil society organizations have been pivotal in the creation of projects meant to address such grievances as well as institute processes of reconciliation that is so critical to national stability. While most of the focus during the current crisis has been on the political leadership, those most deeply affected by the bloodshed are regular South Sudanese citizens on the ground. Continuing to empower civil society and support their efforts at reconciliation may be the most effective way to dis-empower the divisive rhetoric from the top aimed at enflaming and exacerbating tensions.
While none of these efforts likely holds the ultimate solution, a combination of them might be the very best chance South Sudan has right now to keep from sliding further into the abyss. In the meantime, the fact that the world’s newest state is now also its most fragile should certainly give cause for consideration going forward on how we, as the international community, manage emerging states. Years of state-building, from the Balkans to Timor-Leste, seem to hold one repeating message: it takes a lot of time and a lot of resources. South Sudan may yet be one more reminder of the need to manage expectations from the onset, for all involved. And to be at the ready to provide a lot of triage. Fast.