A Second Chance for South Sudan

The end of war brings a chance to start anew. Step one: Scrap failed institutions.

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In December 2013, a long-simmering dispute within South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), turned violent and plunged the country into a civil war that killed tens of thousands of the country’s 11 million people and displaced over 2 million. While the social fabric has been seriously damaged, peace may be on the way thanks to the mediation of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an African organization, and Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi. The warring SPLM factions have pledged to reunite, end the war by March, and form a transitional government by July. Fighting has continued for now, but there is enough reason to hope that the war will end as regional and international pressure on the warring factions grows. (In the photo, South Sudanese child soldiers are demobilized as part of a UNICEF program.)

The return of peace gives South Sudan a second chance to get things right. In regards to state formation, the country will now face three main challenges: building capacity, sustaining the peace, and forging a common identity. Success will require a delicate balance between devolving overly centralized authority to the community level and maintaining national unity. One reason for hope is South Sudan’s most unique feature: its newness. This gives it an opportunity to try new approaches to statecraft.

Centralized administration is relatively new to South Sudan due to its distinctive colonial history (the British mostly ignored it, declining to establish a local civil administration) and the nearly six decades of marginalization suffered under the Khartoum government. As a result, the 60-odd tribes and hundreds of clans of South Sudan have enjoyed relative freedom in managing their affairs, resulting in strong communities. Instead of replacing these with weak bureaucratic systems, South Sudan should build on them to help it implement the complex, adaptive initiatives crucial to state formation.

This is exactly what South Sudan and its friends failed to do in the immediate aftermath of its long war for independence from Khartoum. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 ended more than two decades of a civil war between Sudan’s north and south, the ex-guerilla fighters in the south faced the challenge of establishing institutions of governance from scratch. The peace agreement called for the creation of a semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) under the control of the former rebels, all of it financed by the new country’s copious oil wealth. The south’s new rulers created ministries of finance, internal affairs, education, health, and 18 others, all modeled after Great Britain’s, as well as 10 state governments, 78 counties, and hundreds of local administrations. They proposed ambitious targets for these large bureaucracies, which they filled with thousands of ex-combatants lacking the necessary education or experience.

Newly appointed officials actually had to take boxes of cash from the finance ministry to pay the army and civil service — yet soldiers regularly put up roadblocks in protest of not receiving salaries. Thousands of teachers were employed, but only 13 percent of them were qualified to teach, and they were not showing up in classrooms. In 2007, when a former finance minister was arrested on allegations of corruption on the direct orders of the president, members of his clan marched to the prison, held the prison guards at gunpoint, and had him released.

Another former minister of finance paid over $1 billion to companies (many of them fake) to supply sorghum that was never delivered. Farmers from the fertile eastern regions regularly produce surplus food, but a significant portion of this surplus rots due to lack of storage facilities and roads to take it to the capital. As a result, the country imports over 50 percent of its food.

$2 million in cash disappeared from the president’s office. Meanwhile, the president had to write a letter to 75 ministers and former ministers in the government to beg them to return over $4 billion they had allegedly stolen. The bureaucratic institutions established have not functioned, instead becoming extremely corrupt due to limited oversight.

In short, the new South Sudan was unable to carry out even the most basic tasks of governance. It quickly became an old-school failed African state, with dysfunctional institutions, high level of corruption, and violent ethnic conflict. Transparency International recently ranked it as the fifth most corrupt country in the world; it also topped the 2014 Fragile State Index created by the Fund for Peace. South Sudan now finds itself in a situation known as “isomorphic mimicry” — a kind of state failure where countries adopt the form of functional states without acquiring their functionality. Think Hollywood stage sets. The country’s institutions are — almost literally — window dressing.

In the larger scheme of things, however, it is probably fortunate that these institutions, which were upgraded to national institutions after independence, failed. It is now clear that the fledgling republic needs to take a new approach to building institutions rather than entrenching the failed ones it had. If South Sudan does indeed succeed in achieving peace as a result of the current negotiations, it just might have a chance for a fresh start. The key to successful reform lies in distributing power and oil wealth from the national level to the lower tiers of governance.

According to the most recent numbers from 2012, oil exports, which brought in $3.2 billion between July and December 2011, account for 64 percent of South Sudan’s GDP, 98 percent of the government’s revenues and a near totality of foreign exchange earnings. But South Sudan’s 10 states and the lower tiers of government combined had consistently received less than 15 percent of the Juba government’s $2-3 billion budget. The central government should give local communities the authority (and a larger share of the oil wealth necessary) to deliver services such as education, health, agriculture, and roads. This would give them the latitude to try new approaches — and as the successful ones are repeated, good habits can be reinforced, eventually solidifying into organic, functioning institutions.

What won’t work are more workshops, “capacity building” exercises, and foreign technical assistants. Countries like South Sudan that are caught in the “capability trap” — a low implementation capacity that is improving too slowly, if at all — can take centuries to make their dysfunctional bureaucracies work. These transplanted bureaucracies are unable to function effectively and are overloaded by the complex tasks they are asked to perform, which prevents them from actually gaining capacity. As a result, they fail, and that failure is repeated and entrenched.

The window of opportunity to make this new vision work is small, perhaps no more than a year or two. But it ought to be seized. Otherwise, bad habits formed in peacetime that have trapped other countries in state failure will reemerge.

Unfortunately for South Sudan, the country faces many other difficult challenges besides institution building. The African Union established a commission of inquiry last year to investigate atrocities committed by both sides during the war and to recommend ways to work toward accountability, healing, and reconciliation, so that a sustainable peace can be cemented. South Sudan’s people are now deeply divided by the war, and the warring factions have perpetrated grave, ethnically motivated atrocities against each other. Also, both sides have tens of thousands of fighters and civilian militias under their command. The two forces are supposed to be merged into one, and transformed into a professional and accountable service under civilian control. Needless to say, this is no easy task. 

It is obvious that the road to reconstruction will be long and difficult. But despite the magnitude of these challenges, South Sudan can still succeed if it summons enough courage to try new approaches. As Malcolm X once observed, “the only failure that lacks dignity is the failure to try.”


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