South Sudan, Africa's newest country, is starting off on the wrong foot.
JUBA, Sudan — Southern Sudan’s earliest post-referendum days were bound to be rough. But in the past month since the official landslide results of January’s vote in favor of independence were announced, the oil-rich region has experienced much more than its fair share of turmoil. There has been heavy fighting between the Southern army and an intractable local rebel movement, clashes between fractious units of the northern Sudanese army deployed in the south, an ugly police abuse scandal, and the assassination of a government minister in his office (a crime of passion by an in-law, but one that nevertheless highlighted the new country’s widespread availability of small arms and its lax security in government offices).
It may not seem like much when compared with the tumultuous events sweeping across the Arab world, but there’s plenty of reason to be concerned by the way that this soon-to-be country in the Horn of Africa is responding to its opening challenges.
Sadly illustrative is the way the South Sudanese government has responded to recent allegations that its only police academy is the site of rampant sexual abuse, physical abuse, and the recruitment of child soldiers. After receiving a detailed and damning letter from the human rights unit of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sudan, the inspector general of the Southern police — who was named in the letter as one of the prime perpetrators of abuse at the academy — sat on it for more than a week.
According to international officials in Juba, U.N. officials were then forced to physically bring the letter over to the minister of internal affairs, who was compelled to respond only after every single international donor suspended its funding from the police academy. On Feb. 2, the internal affairs minister sent a letter to Southern President Salva Kiir asking him to appoint a commission to launch an independent investigation. More than a month later, the commission has not been appointed, and Kiir has issued no formal statement on the issue, which has now been widely publicized in the local and international media. The president, however, has found time to appoint a nine-minister high-level commission to determine a location for Southern Sudan’s new capital city, a project whose price tag is expected to reach billions of dollars.
The government has shown the same approach toward other pressing issues. In the Southern state of Jonglei, an armed rebellion that was temporarily subdued with a cease-fire agreement just before the January referendum has exploded once more. The recent fighting led to more than 240 mainly civilian deaths, including women and children, in a single brutal incident on Feb. 9 and 10. It also sparked anger in local communities and among some government officials, who believe the Juba government “brought the problem into their area” with a shoddy cease-fire deal that didn’t provide for adequate security in places where the two sides to the conflict were to gather and begin a tense reintegration process. Only two months after the historic independence vote, the political and military hierarchies of the south show signs of beginning to divide along internal fault lines that led to so much of the deadly south-on-south violence during the north-south civil war.
Southern Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) — the former guerrilla movement that fought a two-decade struggle against a repressive regime in Khartoum — has staked its reputation abroad on being everything that the Khartoum regime is not: not violently opposed to basic human dignities and rights; not repressive and intolerant of opposition forces, independent voices, and minority groups including women; not dictatorial and patrimonial in its approach to governance.
For this reason, the leaders of Southern Sudan have a great deal to lose by continuing down their current path. The behavior of the south’s ruling party since the peaceful and successful Southern independence vote may cause diplomats, donors, and everyday Sudanese citizens to recall the ugly side of Southern Sudan’s independence struggle. The leaders of the south’s liberation struggle were not grassroots democrats. Devastating internecine fighting among Southerners was an oft overlooked feature of the civil war. Many Southern lives were lost as the SPLM and its army asserted control over a messy patchwork of ethnic groups and powerful Khartoum-backed local warlords. The result was ingrained, lasting grievances among Southerners that have not yet healed.
Although some have argued that Southerners are “their own worst enemies,” the nefarious influence of Khartoum in the south should also not be underestimated, even if there’s not always hard evidence to support Juba’s claims of northern interference. The Southern government needs to avoid alienating potential rivals because the north may well seize every opportunity it gets to destabilize its newly sovereign neighbor.
Southern Sudan is not an unabashedly authoritarian state. It is unlikely that the young Southern government will kick out international journalists, eschew foreign aid, or close its borders as it forges its new country. The soon-to-be state is too big, too oil-rich, and too relevant to slide into the quiet chaos that has enveloped neighboring Eritrea since it gained independence in 1993.
But if the Southern government wants to continue to enjoy the moral high ground over its northern “peace partners,” then it must start acting like an accountable, responsible, rights-respecting enterprise. This will require its senior leaders to swallow some bitter pills: to start cleaning house and establishing accountability in the president’s cabinet, to take a hard look at government spending and priorities, and to investigate the abuses of its vast and ill-disciplined security forces. No one claimed it would be easy for Southern Sudan on its “final walk to freedom,” as the billboards in Juba call it. But everyday citizens of the south deserve better leadership than they are currently getting.
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