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South Sudan’s Third Birthday: Tragedy over Joy?

A traditional dancer takes part in celebrations marking the third anniversary of South Sudan's independence, in Juba July 9, 2014.

Just a few short years ago, South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, celebrated its independence from Sudan after a long and bloody conflict. Today, July 9, South Sudan turns 3 years old. The joy of independence has since, however, been overshadowed by political disputes and violence.

Even on South Sudan’s independence day, internal tensions simmered beneath the surface. Following the August 2013 sacking of then-Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, by President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, those tensions turned into political conflict. In December that political conflict turned into violence, plunging the new nation into an ethnically charged civil war.

For some, this outbreak came as no surprise. Upon South Sudan’s independence, many experts foresaw that the task of creating a united nation would be the biggest challenge facing the country. In August 2013, when Kiir fired Machar as well as his entire cabinet, Africa Growth Initiative Guest Scholar Josephine Kibe and Senior Fellow and Director Mwangi Kimenyi warned that even the perceived abuse of power by the president in this fragile country would lead it down a dangerous road.

Now, 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes by the conflict, 3.5 million suffer from crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity, and 4 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. And the effects of the conflict are spilling over into neighboring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Peace talks in Ethiopia have started and stopped since earlier this year, with ceasefires (not always kept) in between. But a permanent solution has yet to be found and, just today, President Kiir asked to restart the talks.

Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow John Mbaku has called on both leaders to step aside. He argues that an interim government without these two powerful, controversial figures has the most hope for creating peaceful coexistence and successful reforms.

But is this scenario likely or even desirable? In an AGI blog earlier this year, the founder and director of the Center for Strategic Analysis and Research in South Sudan, Peter Biar Ajak, discussed the outcomes of this scenario:

“There is… a risk that the country could fall apart in the absence of Mr. Kiir, and local strongmen could carve out fiefdoms, ending the integrity of South Sudan as a state. It could also set up a dangerous precedent where an elected president is asked to resign in the wake of an armed rebellion in order for peace to return. However, with the commitment of the region and international community, an interim government could give South Sudan a chance of starting over and embarking on a reconciliation process.”

On the other hand, Ajak also noted that a coalition government including the two would likely be similar to the one that recently fell apart and, after all that has happened, is unlikely to form.

On South Sudan’s birthday this year, let’s hope that its leaders can remember their success in working together to achieve their independence and can come together to unify and heal their young nation.

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