Tuesday, February 12, 2013

South Sudan: Stumbling or Crumbling?

A cattle raid may sound like petty thievery, but in the Jonglei state of South Sudan where inter-communal violence has thrived for years and where cattle herding is the dominant economic pursuit in the northeast, cattle raids are a sensitive issue. For those whose livelihoods depend on it, cattle herding is virtually the only economic opportunity they have, underscored by the country's total lack of infrastructure. This coupled with longstanding tribal conflicts provide the context for a cattle-raid-turned-massacre of more than one hundred people in Jonglei yesterday. Among the dead are women, children and 14 Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers. It is believed that militia leader David Yau Yau--in rebellion after losing parliamentary elections in 2010--coordinated the attack.

Since South Sudan's independence and in the years leading up to it, the nascent government in Juba has grappled with huge challenges to its functional ability. South Sudan lacks critical infrastructure, is strapped for cash and greatly dependent on a coalition of agencies to ease the pain of Juba's separation from the north politically, economically and diplomatically. As previously laid out in past articles (here and here), South Sudan's sovereignty was created with the help of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UMISS), which sought to facilitate the establishment of government, law and its institutions, DDR (disarmament, demobilization, reintegration) programs and other essential services in South Sudan. But with very little infrastructure to start with, South Sudan's process of nation-building has slowed and is in some ways collapsing. Yesterday's violence sparks fears of reprisals and underscores the tribal frictions that have reemerged since the country's independence.

South Sudan's inter-communal violence is only one factor adding to the region's instability. Last summer, the two Sudanese states severed economic ties after oil and land disputes ended their momentary embrace of a negotiated settlement. Oil pipelines--which used to carry South Sudanese crude through Sudan to the Mediterranean--remain empty as both countries continue finger-pointing and cross-border violence. Regional and local assistance has so far failed to facilitate economic and political solutions between the Sudanese states, prompting South Sudan to look elsewhere for ties. In a pivot away from restarting talks with Khartoum over oil pipelines, officials in Juba have signed an intergovernmental agreement with Ethiopia and Djibouti in the hopes of rerouting South Sudanese oil through pipelines to the east, not north. Although Japanese and American companies have expressed interest in jointly funding the project, the project is in its infancy and it's too soon to tell if the plan is a means of pressuring Khartoum into a better agreement or a sincere effort to cut Sudan out of the oil profits.

While tribal violence threatens internal stability, economic stagnation continues and new regional partners offering the allure of political and economic relief from a costly disengagement with Sudan, South Sudan's difficulties cannot be eased in the short-term. UNMISS and other UN agencies continue to offer their good offices, recently proposing a pilot program to protect journalists in the country and other initiatives. Ultimately, South Sudan will never see peace--or even stability--if longstanding issues with Sudan are left unresolved. These outstanding issues prevent economic development and accountability, and erode human security, especially in the states straddling the border. South Sudan has for better or worse avoided collapse thus far, but it will continue to stumble in the current context. Before inter-communal violence flared yesterday, it was safe to say that the most robust challenges facing South Sudan's development are political and economic. But now, domestic stability--possibly the most important necessary condition for growth--is cracking, and if reprisal attacks are on the horizon, South Sudan runs the risk of truly crumbling.

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