South Sudan: War & Tragedy in the World’s Newest State

By Erika Brady
Columnist, PhD Student at the Handa Center of Terrorism and Political Violence


The conflict in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has played an integral and unfortunate part in the shaping of that nation. Since its formation following relatively peaceful elections in January 2011, the country has been torn apart by civil war and ethnic rivalries, particularly between the two largest ethnic groups – the largest being that of the Dinka (of which President Salva Kiir is a member) and the second largest that of the Nuer (of which former Vice President Riek Machar is a member).

These two men, and the groups behind them, have made South Sudan a veritable failed state, bringing the country to the brink of famine. As of 2016, South Sudan has the second highest score on the Fragile States Index (an annual report published by the US think tank Fund for Peace and the magazine Foreign Policy and formerly known as the Failed States Index). As with many of the conflicts which are conducted in sub-Saharan Africa, the world looks on with pity, but with little understanding. However, the extent of the conflict is such that, without some form of external intervention – be that at the level of the UN whose current mission is already heavily embedded in the war-torn country, or at a regional level – this conflict will merely continue and augment the bloody and tragic decades-long civil war which defined Sudan before South Sudan elected to break away and form an independent state.

Without external intervention, this conflict will merely continue and augment the bloody and tragic decades-long civil war which defined Sudan before South Sudan elected to break away.

Historical Context: 

Sudan has experienced decades of turmoil and violence following its achievement of independence from Egyptian and British rule in 1956. From this point until the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement, the country was torn apart by civil war. The 1972 Agreement resulted in ten years of relative peace, only to have that fall apart when fighting broke out in 1983. Twenty two years of conflict ensued, resulting in the death of an estimated 1.5 million people and the displacement of about 4 million others. The rebels and the government finally signed a comprehensive peace deal in 2005, after two years of negotiations. This Accord provided for a high degree of autonomy for the south of the country, and paved the way for the elections which resulted in the independence of South Sudan in 2011. However, it was not long before tensions rose up again, and hostilities broke out in the newly formed nation in December 2013 when President Kiir accused former Vice President Machar of being behind an attempted coup. Machar denied this, but was was forced to flee into exile.

Global Context: 

According to the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2016, over 20 per cent of the population of South Sudan is classified as refugees or displaced persons. The GPI also addresses the issue of internal conflict deaths, comparing the results of the Index in 2008 and in 2016. Of course, South Sudan did not exist in 2008, but the data for 2016 does not engender confidence. South Sudan is placed at 7th on the scale of ‘Deaths as a result of internal conflict’ in 2016 after Syria, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Yemen. The economic impact of violence for the ten most affected countries accounts for more than 25 per cent of their GDP, and South Sudan is listed at five on that list, with 35 per cent of its GDP going towards dealing with violence, a total cost of violence containment at 8,213 million (2014 PPP).  In the table indicating ‘Societal Safety and Security Domain’, South Sudan comes in at the third least peaceful, after Iraq and Syria.

President Kiir

So what does all of this data tell us? It sets a clear picture of a country experiencing deteriorating levels of peace and safety for its citizens, levels that were not particularly high in the first place. Having achieved independence and become its own state, South Sudan has witnessed the continuation of the unresolved issues of the previous decades of conflict experienced by Sudan as a whole. In January 2016, following two years of civil war, a tentative peace took hold, only to crumble again in August 2016 when fighting in Juba, the capital, re-ignited the conflict and forced Vice President Muchar to flee the country into exile for the second time since December 2013. He has loudly and repeatedly accused President Kiir’s government of corruption.

It sets a clear picture of a country experiencing deteriorating levels of peace and safety for its citizens, levels that were not particularly high in the first place.

Economic Implications

While rich in oil resources, South Sudan is also one of the least developed countries in the world. In January 2015, Frontier Economics in collaboration with the Center for Conflict Resolution and the Center for Peace and Development Studies published a report titled ‘South Sudan: The Cost Of War – An estimation of the economic and financial costs of ongoing conflict’. A very bleak picture was presented. In a summary of its key findings it said the following “A central finding of this report is the need for early action. The costs of conflict to South Sudan, its neighbours and the international community are likely to increase at an accelerating rate the longer conflict persists.”

Vice-President Machar

The report breaks down the costs of the conflict. In terms of South Sudan itself, the report states “If the conflict continues for another 1 to 5 years, it will cost South Sudan between US$22.3 billion and US$28 billion. . .  The human cost of conflict – death, hunger and disease – also have significant longer term economic impacts. Just taking the effects of hunger on labour productivity could mean a further $6 billion in lost GDP if the conflict were to last another 5 years. . .  South Sudan’s spending on security could increase by a further $2.2 billion were the conflict to last another 5 years. The savings in military spending that would result from resolving the conflict within a year from now would allow South Sudan to meet the internationally recommended target of allocating 20% of spending to education.”

Tragically, almost two years on, the negative predictions of this report are become the more likely scenario, with a return to violence causing security costs to soar and productivity to plummet.

In June 2016, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued a statement following a visit to the country relating to South Sudan’s 2016 Article IV Consultation. It said the following:

South Sudan has suffered political instability and external shocks over the last two and a half years. Since the civil war started in December 2013, around two million people have been displaced, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation. The decline in oil production by almost half and the sharp drop in international oil prices caused large shortfalls in foreign exchange receipts and government revenue. The country is experiencing an economic crisis with a sharp decline in national income and high inflation, which approaches 300 percent. Moreover, the value of the South Sudanese pound has dropped by close to 90 percent since the exchange rate liberalization in December 2015, while central bank international reserves have dwindled to a few days of import coverage.

 “If macroeconomic policies do not change, the economic situation will deteriorate further, resulting in more humanitarian suffering and potentially threatening the still-fragile peace process. The deficit in 2016/17 could top US$1.1 billion or 25 percent of GDP which, if again financed through borrowing from the central bank or accumulation of arrears, would continue to fuel inflation and put further downward pressure on the exchange rate.

 In September 2016, the IMF concluded its report on the Article IV Consultation stating:

 The budget deficit widened to 1.9 percent of GDP owing to shortfalls in oil revenue. Inflation, which had been contained to 12.6 percent at end-2015 (from 25.7 percent a year before), rose to 16.5 percent in July 2016.

 The outlook is subject to significant downside risks. Low commodity export prices, absence of policy buffers, economic sanctions, the withdrawal of foreign correspondent banking relationships, and a weak business environment will continue to constrain economic activity.


On 9 January 2014, Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman, a senior advisor to the president of the US Institute of Peace and a former special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan gave the following as part of his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “the long process of integrating, disarming, and ultimately reducing the size of the military forces and militia must be undertaken. But that can only be undertaken in a context within which fighting has stopped, the cease-fire is well monitored, and a credible political process is under way. All of these are hard tasks and they will demand a much more active and participating role of the international community than heretofore.

It seems that the recommendations of experts since the outbreak of renewed violence have been ignored. Since 2013, recommendations that the international community become more involved, particularly from the perspective of humanitarian aid, have fallen on deaf ears. The South Sudan government has proven itself incapable of securing the state, and its legitimacy has been thus undermined. Until peace can be restored, the development of institutions and the building of the economy cannot commence, and instead, the country is slipping further and further into debt and instability.

The future looks very bleak for South Sudan, especially when the historical pattern has been to achieve some level of peaceful agreement, only to descend into violence again. With conflict defining its existence since 1956, it is difficult to imagine a peaceful nation existing here, and its people will continue to suffer. Possibly the greater tragedy of the whole scenario is that South Sudan is sitting on one of Africa’s largest oil reserves, a fact that could go a long way to seeing the country get on its feet if properly exploited. However, until violence and conflict are firmly a thing of the past, this resource will continue to go untapped, and the region is all the worse off for it.



Featured image of President Kiir by: Al Jazeera English
Image of President Salva Kiir Mayardit by: Jenny Rockett
Image of Vice-President Riek Machar by: Hannah McNeish (VOA) 

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