Is South Sudan a Failed State?

 South Sudan President Salva Kiir. Image Wikimedia Commons

South Sudan President Salva Kiir. Image Wikimedia Commons

Back in July 2011, after a long civil war, South Sudan split from Sudan to become an independent country. However, even though statehood was achieved and a new country was born, the efforts to transform South Sudan into a proper nation-state seem to have come to a standstill.

Is South Sudan a failed state? Even worse, is the country almost on the brink of collapse? In this article, I shall attempt to answer these questions.


Undivided Sudan was Africa’s largest country. It surely had its share of issues, such as famines in the Darfur region, but overall, its primarily agrarian economy was doing well. Around 1999, Sudan also started exporting oil, thereby adding to its GDP.

The civil war lasted for nearly 23 years, and it ended in 2005 when a peace deal was signed between the Sudanese state and the southern rebels. However, the separation occurred in 2011, when South Sudan decided to break away from Sudan and form a separate country. This also had a negative impact on the economy of both the nations: most of the oil-rich regions are now in South Sudan, whereas almost all the refineries are in Sudan.

Oil is not among the easiest commodities to live without, and coupled with issues such as border disputes, the tensions between the two countries knew no limits. It was only in September 2012 that the leaders of both Sudan and South Sudan reached an agreement about oil trade and security matters after their meeting in Ethiopia. And then, in March 2013, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir suggested measures such as resuming oil production, and withdrawal of troops from the borders, as well as a possible official visit to South Sudan.

South Sudan: A Dismal Picture

While reconciliation between Sudan and South Sudan might be a possibility, resolution of South Sudan’s internal instability seems highly unlikely at the moment. Ever since its formation in 2011, South Sudan has been trying hard to find its feet, with extremely disappointing results.

To begin with, in spite of the oil resources, South Sudan’s economy is nothing to be proud of. Financially, the country is shattered and one blow short of collapse. Additionally, services such as public health and progress are unheard of. Even more importantly, South Sudan currently suffers from deep-rooted corruption which makes growth unlikely and worsens the matters for its residents.

Since South Sudan is barely two years old, it needs support from the international community. However, owing to South Sudan’s internal tensions, most countries are having a hard time trying to justify their association with this Central African nation. Britain, for example, has advised its citizens not to travel to Juba.

Sadly, gun battles have become common in South Sudan. Due to such unrest, hundreds have been killed, whereas thousands have been forced to seek refuge in bases established by the United Nations.

Digging Deeper

The two major groups at the heart of this violence are both former rebels who once fought together for the independence of South Sudan.

President Salva Kiir, who comes from the powerful ethnic group named Dinka, sacked Vice President Riek Machar in July 2013, accusing him of organizing coups against his government. Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe (the second largest ethnic group after Dinka), in turn accused Kiir of trying to establish his dictatorial control over the entire country.

It is indeed true that ever since coming to power, Kiir has not been very kind with his political rivals. However, Machar himself does not seem to be someone sans ambition — he has often publicly claimed that he is aiming to be the next President, and even called on Kiir to step down and offer him the chair.

What began in July as a conflict of political ambitions has now led to country-wide unrest. The South Sudanese military too seems to be taking sides: one section remains loyal to Kiir, whereas the other group has pledged allegiance to Machar. Bentiu, an important city and a provincial capital, was captured by army units loyal to Riek Machar, thereby implying that unrest has transformed into full-fledged civil war. It is worth noting that Bentiu also happens to be the country’s most oil-rich region.

Machar’s forces are claiming that they are just 200 kms from reaching the country’s capital, whereas Kiir’s troops are stating that they have eliminated all possible rebels from Juba (though the latter has acknowledged that Bentiu has been lost). Here is Toby Lanzer, UN Assistant Secretary-General, currently stationed in Juba, offering a live account of events.

International Response

Almost all the foreign governments, especially USA, Britain, Uganda and Kenya, have organized special evacuation flights to pull out their nationals from the war-torn South Sudan. There have been appeals to end violence, and USA has made it clear that it will not side with a government that grabs power by the use of military might, as noted by Al Jazeera:

Any effort to seize power through the use of military force will result in the end of support from the United States and the international community.


The fighting in South Sudan does not seem to be ending anytime soon. This conflict between Machar and Kiir has both political and ethnic dimensions, and with the military being involved in the fray, chances of peace are highly unlikely.

South Sudan was formed by partitioning Africa’s largest country, and this partition was justified by being termed as a recognition of the mutual aspirations of the South Sudanese people and their right to prosper without any hindrances. Apparently, those in favor of South Sudan have now been silenced in the harshest manner possible.

The country is marching towards failure, and there seems to be no cure. A military power grab, or a motion in favor of Machar (who has hinted at the formation of a military government), kills all possibilities of a democratic setup in the country, whereas a nod to Kiir results in additional unrest due to his vicious execution of political opposition.

Ironically, the resultant northern state of Sudan was described as a potential doomed country by supporters of South Sudan. While Sudan now hardly has any oil resources and is being forced to rely on its agrarian economy, it has managed to prevent its broken house from crumbling into pieces. South Sudan does not have Darfur famine in its resume: instead, the tagline describes it as a failed state that could not remain peaceful for even two years.

At this junction, one is forced to question: was breaking up Sudan really a wise thing to do? As far as I get it, an undivided Sudan would have been better off. Attempts should have been made to quell the southern rebels and bring prosperity to the entire undivided Sudanese country as a whole. Sadly, we decided for the rather questionable choice of creating two countries, and the outcome is far from praiseworthy, because the newer nation of South Sudan has not impressed anyone.

Sufyan bin Uzayr is the author of Sufism: A Brief History. He writes for several print and online publications, and has recently started his own progressive blog named Political Periscope. You can also connect with him using Facebook or Google+.

  • telescope

    “Attempts should have been made to QUELL the southern rebels and bring
    prosperity to the entire undivided Sudanese country as a whole….” Your poor yet shallow look at the recent past could not even save you from knowing that, this solution was tried and hit a dead-end after three decades of “Quelling.” The author must be an apologist of the racist Khartoum regime. These are pangs of a new born, developing its immune system, I guess South Sudan will overcome these challenges and emerge stronger. For a bastion of well educated and more enlightened SS youth will sooner rather than later take up the mantle of leadership into the next level. Most African countries underwent such strife but later on stabilized and are moving on.

    • Sufyan bin Uzayr

      “this solution was tried and hit a dead-end after three decades of “Quelling.””: Wrong. Balkanization of South Sudan was accomplished in a hasty manner, just so a separate and weaker state with natural resources is created and a puppet regime is installed. Plan back-fired.

      “For a bastion of well educated and more enlightened SS youth will sooner rather than later take up the mantle of leadership into the next level. Most African countries underwent such strife but later on stabilized and are moving on.”: Wishful thinking. For South Sudan’s sake, I hope this is true. Doesn’t seem so, though.

      • telescope

        You are rich in description but pathetic in ascription. Some setting of your premise on a brief historical perspective would have probably allow one to over look your transparent hipocricy. Balkanization was done by the colonial negatives who carelessly and hastily created a cadre of white collar administrators mostly from the north and handed over the entire Sudan at “independence,” without any attempt to unify the Sudan. The new guards perfected the system of segregation along racial line and pathetic attempt at islamization of the south.The results were decades of wars, pestilence and all sorts of dehumanisation for the people of Southern Sudan. The Khartoum regime and the whole world saw the futility of it. This is what back-fired and being corrected. Besides development of human capital is a prerequisite for social and economic transformation of a people. It is definitely true everywhere even within your own community, and you know it. Next time do your homework instead of posting dust-bin articles. As Chairman Mao once said “No information, No right to talk”

        • Sufyan bin Uzayr

          Before I answer your butt-hurt sentiments:

          “It is definitely true everywhere even within your own community, and you know it.”

          Please clarify what you mean by ‘your own community’.

          • telescope

            Oh please, Mr. I-know-it-all. Put on your thinking cap, if you have one at all.

          • Sufyan bin Uzayr

            I never once claimed that I know it all. You, on the other hand, resorted to personal remarks and allegations, instead of offering your perspective in a sane and civilized manner. Can’t blame you though; it is obvious you were an absentee when they taught mannerism in school.
            I actually had figured out what you meant by ‘your own community’ the minute I read your previous comment. I was asking because your logic is flawed if you think my opinion is based on my communal affiliations. That’s naive of you, at best; and sick of you, at worst. In either case, you’re not worth my time.