Last week marked the 9th anniversary of the independence of South Sudan. Ideally, it is a moment for remembrance of past sacrifices and a celebration of present accomplishments. Unfortunately, the anniversary likely has only reminded the people of South Sudan of the sad state of affairs in their country. The wobbling peace agreement, intercommunal violence, rampant corruption, and impunity for crimes against humanity threaten to tear the country apart.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, regional competition and the absence of global leadership, South Sudan’s tragedy has deepened. The guarantors of the 2018 peace agreement, Sudan and Uganda, apparently have abandoned their roles and the international community appears to equate the slow, selective implementation of the agreement with progress.
South Sudan is in deep trouble. The country exists as a sovereign state with a seat at the United Nations, but that is all that its people can celebrate. It does not really exist as an idea with a meaning attached to it. The “liberators” of the country have not presented an idea of South Sudan to the people — a set of principles that define who they are and for what they should aspire. The fragile unity that was maintained during the war of liberation quickly evaporated after the declaration of independence in 2011.
In the absence of a covenant to define South Sudan and hold the country together, independence has unleashed forces that howl beneath the ethnic divide, born out of two decades of brutal civil war.
Instead of offering an alternative, hopeful pathway for an inclusive peace with prosperity, South Sudan’s political elites have exploited ethnic divisions, poverty and ignorance to capture the state and accumulate wealth at the expense of developing the nation. Corrupt political elites have mismanaged public resources and parked the much-needed money in their personal accounts overseas. Hence, the notion of public good was turned into an opportunity to pursue self-enrichment.
Ethnic communities are fractured by hostilities and resentments. Consequently, the social and political fabric of the society has weakened, triggering violence. The ongoing displacement of civilians and raging sexual violence against women and girls, especially those in the Upper Nile, Bahr el Ghazal and Equatoria regions, are manifestations of a country at war with itself. This sad reality testifies to the utterly inhuman behaviors and practices that expose the trouble with the state and with the society as a whole.
South Sudan needs a total break with the current state of its politics. To be sure, the country can only save itself from destruction and mayhem when its diverse ethnic groups agree to think about a new covenant — a covenant on how to get out of the vicious cycle of political violence and build a society that will generate good governance, sustainable development, and insured justice and accountability. But this process cannot be conceived without a commitment to charting a new polity with inclusive institutions that adhere to the highest ideals of human freedom, justice, equality and citizenship. It must be predicated on the assumption that the lives and livelihoods of all South Sudanese, whatever their ethnic or cultural background, are equally valued and cherished.
This new covenant cannot be based on the existing peace agreement; it requires a new, inclusive political process that is not limited to elites, but includes other segments of the society — women, youths, refugees, internally displaced persons and religious entities. The intention is to create a broad consensus on the unanswered questions about the relationship between state and society since independence, including how to govern South Sudan, how to instill trust and confidence in government, and how to restore law and order and repair fractured communities.
The future of South Sudan rests solely on whether its people decide to be a nation truly worthy of independence, governed by a set of principles that respect and value their diversity.
*Amir Idris is a professor and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York.