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Is South Sudan on the Verge of Collapse?

A man holds up South Sudan's new flag as South Sudanese children rehearse their dance routine, to be performed at half time during South Sudan's national soccer team's match with Kenya as part of the independence day celebrations, in Juba (REUTERS/Paul Banks).

Two years since attaining independence from Khartoum, South Sudan appears headed in the wrong direction.  The optimism that accompanied the creation of the new state has now waned and the country appears headed toward a failure that is fueled by power and ethnic rivalries and widespread corruption.  This internal wrangling, together with South Sudan’s many unresolved issues with its neighbor to the north, is hampering the great opportunities for economic growth in that country.  The country is experiencing worsening economic conditions, including inflationary pressures and depreciation of its currency.

On July 23, 2013, President Salva Kiir unilaterally sacked his entire cabinet, including the deputy president, Riek Machar.  On July 31, he named a new cabinet, retaining only a few of the  previous ministers—for example, the oil minister, Stephen Dhieu Dau and Martin Elia Lomoro, previously minister of animal resources and fisheries and now minister of cabinet affairs.  Kiir also made new appointments in ministries such as defense and veteran affairs, the office of the president for national security service, justice, finance and economic planning, among others.  Many of the sacked ministers were key figures in the struggle for independence from the Republic of Sudan, which was eventually achieved following the referendum in 2011. 

The restructuring of the cabinet is seen as an attempt by the president to calm political tensions that have come to characterize acrimony within the regime, primarily between himself and his former deputy, Dr. Machar.  The internal governmental wrangling over who should control SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) has made it difficult for the government to function effectively.  This struggle within senior leadership ranks just makes the situation in the country more volatile given the instability in the Manyang's homeland of Jonglei, characterized by ethnic violence and battles between rebels and the army in which over 100,000 people have been displaced.

Even if the president was acting in good faith and had good intentions in sacking some cabinet members and restructuring the cabinet, such actions illustrate a high concentration of power at the executive level and can have dire consequences for the country.  The perception of abuse of power, whether real or not, can lead to dissent among citizens—history in similar situations has shown that this perception can result in a military coup, particularly when the Sudanese people feel that they are not inclusively represented in government (as is the case right now).  Unless there is real change in the organs of governance and in particular institutions for consensual decision making, the likelihood of escalated ethnic conflict, or even military intervention, in the near future is not far-fetched.  Such an outcome would present a challenge to many countries, including the U.S., other developed and developing nations and countries neighboring Sudan (for example, Kenya, which supported the independence of South Sudan).

South Sudan is embarking on a treacherous road.  Considering the fragile nature of the state today, its priority should be on building strong institutions that focus on the separation of powers and enhancing transparency, and any appointments to senior positions should be scrutinized by independent entities.  Additionally, there is a need to limit the power of the president so that decisions are not arbitrary or largely informed by ethnic alignments.  Foreign actors who assisted in the separation process should also focus on supporting the creation of strong institutions, and the international community should come together in formulating well-coordinated programs for capacity building.

The future of South Sudan does not look good and, unless there are concerted efforts to assist the state in building institutions and in accelerating economic and human development programs, the story of this young state will soon be yet another post-independence African tragedy. 

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