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February 20, 2019

Why taking sides might be a riskier gamble in S Sudan

If you look back in history, it can be deceptively easy to make a country. Remember the Berlin Conference where colonial powers sat down with a map and a ruler and divided up Africa into lots of countries (which, of course, had little to do with existing populations’ territories, and continues to cause problems until today)?

Making a state, however, is a far more challenging undertaking, and despite what all those ‘capacity building’ development professionals tell you, there is simply no make-a-modern-state kit, no easy, quick, five-year-project-plan solutions.

South Sudan – which the Guardian described as ‘the state that fell apart in a week’ – just reminded us of that again.

It’s not clear yet whether South Sudan has actually fallen apart.

Or, in fact, whether there had been a state to start with, as one of my Focus Group members (aka Facebook friends) reminded me.

It is already a tired cliché to say that the recent developments in South Sudan were entirely predictable, but that doesn’t change the underlying truth of it: maybe not an inevitable development, but surely not surprising if you look at the underlying patterns before.

That country has fought for independence from the north, but has also long fought internal conflicts (often, of course, stoked by the north)-- a civil war within a civil war?

The territory has been administered under a semi-autonomous status since 2005, and became an independent country only in July 2011.

This is probably not even toddler status for a country. And if a country that was marginalised for decades only has a handful of rebel army institutions to work with, and little but subsistence agriculture to employ its citizens, it is difficult to create an actual state from this.

Rebel skills don’t necessarily translate well into skills needed to run a civilian state (but rebel fighters also won’t just step aside quietly either, unsurprisingly).

The country is incredibly rich in natural resources, but the lack of competent institutions makes it challenging to transform those resources to the benefit of the citizens.

Part of South Sudan’s oil millions and billions, for example, have vanished in corruption because there is hardly any institutional framework to prevent this.

Other natural resources are more difficult to translate into revenues: for commercial agriculture, say, you would need even more infrastructure.

In the meantime, South Sudan’s hangover from its decades of conflict means that it has way too many guys with guns, and is way too fragmented along tribal and other lines.

As many observers have pointed out, this complexity can’t just be reduced to tribal factors.

There is a vicious circle: without a tangible alternative to fighter life, you won’t have stability.

But decades of fighter life make it barely possible to transition to a state that creates such alternatives. Most certainly not in a handful of years.

So are the recent developments just another (admittedly serious and deadly) wobble on the way to statehood?

We need to perhaps look at the bigger picture and the history of more established states.

Europe, for example, has both a 30-year war and a hundred-year war on its books, and had to knit its current nation states together from a multitude of little fiefdoms in a process that took centuries.

But South Sudan doesn’t exist in isolation. Those charged with world peace matters and humanitarian issues like the UN might not be on the ball so very quickly (to put it mildly – Médecins sans Frontières just gave the UN an open-letter spanking about their slow, ineffective humanitarian intervention, or maybe non-intervention, in the Central African Republic).

But maybe the fact that South Sudan has built up some significant economic ties with East African Community countries (and had actually applied to join the EAC) could perhaps help provide some steadying influence on the situation.

There are a number of larger corporates like Kenyan banks and insurance firms that have set up operations in that country, braving what must have looked Wild West-type country risk in pursuit of Wild West-type returns.

But interestingly, there is also a host of small traders who have put goods on bikes and trucks and taken them across the borders: South Sudan has practically no manufacturing sector, so processed goods have to be imported.

Kenya had conceived its ambitious LAPSSET northern transport corridor with South Sudan’s import needs and oil export needs in mind.

This had been an evolving situation even before South Sudan’s conflict broke out as the war-torn country had also considered a pipeline through Djibouti, and Kenya’s own recent oil finds certainly make the rationale for LAPSSET stronger even without oil exports from the neighbour.

East African governments, including Ethiopia, are now in talks with South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir.

Will any of this help? I don’t know – not the least because the pursuit of their own economic and border-security interests may focus on overall stability, but may not necessarily address the concerns of South Sudan’s population.

Supporting stability is good. If the conflict intensifies, however, taking sides might be a far riskier gamble.

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