Why South Sudan remains delicate even under a reconfigured government

Even though South Sudanese president Salva Kiir has reconfigured his government, incorporating his principal nemesis, Riek Machar, as his first vice president, one among a total of five vice presidents, the prospects for lasting peace in South Sudan remain doggedly remote. After a long battle with the Khartoum-based government, South Sudan emerged on 9 July 2011 as the world’s newest nation. However, just two years after its establishment, in December 2013 the country was plunged into civil war, courtesy of the fissures that started right at the top. A cursory analysis reveals that the underlying problem was ethnic in character, pitting President Kiir, a Dinka, against his vice, Machar, a Nuer. The eruption of civil war along ethnic cleavages somewhat justifies the alleged Aristotelian claim that “a common danger unites even the bitterest enemies.” Thus, seceding from Sudan exposed just how the seeming solidarity of those identifying as South Sudanese always rested on very shaky ground.

Ethnic cleavages have had a deleterious effect on Africa’s wellbeing. In his presentation at the Wilson Center’s Africa Program in October 2019, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo averred that, when asked about his main fears from Africa, he does not dither to state that he has four; the cardinal two are: 1) the management or mismanagement of diversity; 2) the management or mismanagement of population, especially the youth population; 3) the management of credible elections and 4) the effect that elections have on the commission of democracy and how this, in turn, affects management of diversity and the harnessing of youth.

The South Sudanese situation currently buckles on all the fears that Obasanjo listed. If peace is to hold, Kiir bears the responsibility of not only securing the security of Machar but all Sudanese whose grievances verge on tribal and/or ethnic exclusion. The country has a displaced population of at 4.2 million citizens (2 million of which are internally displaced persons or IDPs and 2.2 million externally displaced). With a per capita GDP of $243, South Sudan has the lowest per capita GDP in the world. These circumstances compound the already Herculean task of forging a unified nation out of fragmented ethnic groups. The United States, South Sudan’s biggest aid donor, is understandably exasperated about its beneficiary’s dithering over peace accords.

However, it would be an exercise in futility to hope that the current configuration of the government is sufficient insurance for quick peace returns. South Sudan’s own young history offers salutary lessons. Kiir and Machr are aware that the road they have embarked upon has twice been trodden before, with the second time Machar fleeing the country on foot while leaving behind a civil that has claimed an estimate of 400,000 lives. This time around Kiir is in bullish and has stated that peace has definitely descended upon South Sudan. He has gone further to urge those who fled the country to come back. He might do well to learn from his own experience that aspirations, wishes, and rhetorical bombast do not effortlessly become reality.

Peace cannot hold a nation when it is only the high echelons of society that craft and follow “a gentleman’s covenant.” While leaders opportunistically exploit tribal sensibilities to political mobilization, the biggest stakeholders in any peace process are the ordinary people who do not only enjoy numerical dominance but readily feel the deleterious effects of a fragile existence. For this reason, the current government will have to offer political and economic direction on improving the country’s fortunes. However, South Sudan needs help that will be offered to ordinary citizens on how to live peaceably in a nation of diverse ethnicities and how, when necessary, to subsume regional identities under the banner of national unity. Much of Africa is still struggling to achieve this, but the situation in South Sudan appears more desperate than in many other African countries.

The signs so far do not offer much room for optimism, except the part where Kiir has agreed to whittle down the number of states from 32 to 10 as a way of accommodating the concern over tribal divisions that were raised by his opponents. The country does not have the resources needed to sustain peace. The African Union and the international community, in general, will have to pool their energies together and help South Sudan, most especially in areas that have sustainable benefits such as social services. While emergency relief is a necessity in a country where ‘over 7.1 million people – half the country’s population – are facing extreme and deadly hunger,’ there should be simultaneous efforts in health, education and community building because it will be on these pillars that any longstanding autarky and peaceful coexistence can be established. The South Sudanese government is woefully incapable of doing this singlehandedly.


Emmanuel Matambo is a senior researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS) as the University of Johannesburg, South Africa

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