The second anniversary of South Sudan’s independence is overshadowed by the release of the annual State Failure Index by the Fund for Peace, which ranks the country as the world’s fourth most failed state. It is a sobering balance sheet after two years for a state born of two civil wars and a comprehensive peace agreement that was all but comprehensive.

South Sudan’s fundamental problem is that many of the problems it struggles with are not of its own making, but a legacy of decades of conflict and associated consequences. But the situation is, at least in part, also due to the inability and unwillingness of the government of South Sudan to build a viable state.

Border troubles

The biggest challenge South Sudan faces is insecurity. This manifests in three concrete, poorly contained threats: inter-communal violence, insurgencies and constant tensions along the now international border with Sudan, including over the disputed, oil-rich territory of Abyei.

These various and at times intensely violent conflicts have contributed to mounting casualties and large-scale internal displacement. They have hindered, and at times prevented, aid agencies from assisting populations with no secure access to water, food and sanitation, contributing to a humanitarian crisis further exacerbated by environmental problems.

The easy availability of arms, support of rebel factions from Sudan, cyclical (i.e., regular) disputes between nomads and pastoralists over land and water and now a thinly-veiled leadership challenge from the country’s vice-president are all indications that security for South Sudan’s people is all but a distant hope.

The complexity and severity of the country’s security problems makes it almost inconceivable that the government will be able to establish a functioning system of law and order anytime soon.

The security challenge that South Sudan has struggled with for the past two years as an independent state – and for a much longer period during its war of independence, has intensified two other dimensions of its failure as a state.

Economic and social malaise

The first of these is the inability of South Sudan to provide essential public services such as healthcare, education, economic development and welfare. Expenditure on security comes at the cost of investment in public services and the infrastructure to provide them. There is also a lack of educational opportunities, on top of high levels of illiteracy. This, and the absence of any real expectation of change compound the dire living conditions and increase the incentives for those with even moderate levels of education to leave the country.

South Sudan thus lacks the very professionals needed to build a viable state and economy. The result is a vicious cycle of a skills drain diminishing further the chances of South Sudan strengthening its institutions and avoiding becoming permanently entrapped by mutually reinforcing dynamics of state failure.

Contributing to the country’s economic malaise and consequential institutional weakness, the deeply conflicted relationship with Khartoum (capital of Sudan) has deprived the government of South Sudan of its most important source of revenue – the proceeds from oil exports.

A historically grown south-north oil infrastructure with most of the oil in the south and refineries and access to the world market in the north has created a mutual dependence between Sudan and South Sudan that should, but does not, encourage co-operation. To the contrary, it has more often than not intensified reciprocal hostility, which in turn has focused the government’s resources on dealing with the crisis of state rather than human security.

Internal political strife

The second dimension in which South Sudan’s security problems have exacerbated its failure as a state, relates to the very legitimacy of the country’s institutions. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) that fought the government in Khartoum in Sudan’s second civil war from 1983 to 2005 and negotiated the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was neither unified in its vision of an end state for the south nor unchallenged in its claim to representing southern interests.

John Garrang, its long-time leader, was committed to a united, albeit reformed Sudan. Upon his untimely death in 2005 just months after the conclusion of the agreement with the north, he was succeeded by Salva Kiir who represented the secessionist strand in the SPLA/M and led the south to independence in 2011. Advocates of unity became marginalised in this six-year period, and many others who did not subscribe to Kiir’s and the SPLA/M’s increasingly authoritarian style of government became disillusioned with the path the south took.

Combined with pre-existing military challenges to the SPLA/M’s dominance, fuelled and supported by Khartoum to this day, illustrate the legitimacy problem that the South Sudanese state has in terms of a contest over access to political power.

The current legitimacy crisis goes deeper: it is no longer a matter of a few quarrelling militia leaders who feel short-changed and left out when it comes to sharing the spoils of independence. Many ordinary South Sudanese are deeply dissatisfied with the failure of their country to deliver on the hopes and expectations that they, realistically or not, had at the time of independence in 2009. This disengagement does not bode well for future efforts to build an inclusive state in South Sudan, capable of engendering its citizens’ support and loyalty.

Is there hope for the future?

So, the current rank that South Sudan occupies on the state failure index does not come as a tremendous surprise and there is little reason to celebrate this second anniversary of South Sudan’s statehood. At best, it is an achievement that the situation has not deteriorated further into civil war or an all-out military confrontation with Sudan.

If these “gains” can be consolidated, in other words if the security challenges that the country faces, can be managed, there may yet be hope that South Sudan’s third birthday will coincide with a (much) improved ranking on the State Failure Index.

(This analysis was also published in The Conversation.)