(This analysis was originally published in The Conversation.)

In 2011 South Sudan became the 193rd United Nations member state. This was met by a great deal of local celebration and international praise. It marked the seemingly happy end of decades of a mostly violent struggle over the relationship between the north and the south of the country.

But as South Sudan heads into its fifth year as an independent state, major questions persist over its viability. Despite significant international support, it is not clear whether a South Sudanese state actually exists or if the entity that was born four years ago has collapsed and is now a failed state.

Fighting has displaced one-sixth of South Sudan’s roughly 12 million people. One-quarter of these are refugees in neighbouring countries. Two-thirds of the population are deemed to be at risk of food insecurity. Almost five million, or 40% of its population, will require international assistance this year alone to secure even basic livelihoods.

How dramatic this crisis has become is illustrated by the recent cholera outbreak in Juba county, where the country’s capital of the same name is located.

Four years of independence have thus not been the stellar success that many expected, and it may be time to consider alternative approaches to putting South Sudan on a trajectory towards sustainable statehood. But to do so requires an understanding of the nature, origin, and dynamics of the multiple problems that the country faces.

A conflict that stretches back over decades

Conflict in Sudan dates back at least to the run up to Sudan’s independence from Britain in the first half of the 1950s. A brief but intensely violent mutiny in the south was put down by northern troops in August 1955.

What came to be known as the North-South conflict began in earnest in 1963. It saw a ten-year respite after 1972, resuming in 1983. Eventually, a settlement – the so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement – was brokered in 2005 by a regional East African organisation, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.

The agreement provided for a referendum in South Sudan. This was held in January 2011 with 99% of voters supporting secession. Independence was formally declared six months later.

Since then, the world’s youngest country has been in free-fall, politically and economically.

The country’s economy has been crippled by near-constant violence within South Sudan and long-running disputes with Sudan over transit fees the south pays for transporting oil across Sudanese territory.

South Sudan is heavily dependent on hydrocarbon resources for revenue. Deprived of such income, it has not been able to build viable institutions. As a consequence it lacks the resilience to cope with a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions.

A man-made crisis

The current crisis broke out in December 2013. Political tensions within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) came to a head. This quickly descended into an ethnic conflict between the majority Dinka group of President Salva Kiir and the Nuer group of his erstwhile vice-president Riek Machar, who had been dismissed from office by Kiir the previous July.

The violence that has spread relentlessly since then and engulfed most of South Sudan’s ten states may have been triggered by political rivalries within the SPLM. But its roots and exacerbating factors reach deep into the complex demographic, ethnic, religious and political realities in South Sudan.


The crisis in South Sudan is clearly a man-made disaster. But it is also one that pre-dates the country’s independence in 2011 and arguably even the 2005 agreement.

The SPLM had long faced significant security challenges in the areas that it has controlled since the north-south civil war. Perceived political and military domination of the south by the Dinka alienated and radicalised other communities.

Encouraged by leaders in the north, this led to the emergence of various militia groups. The militias, and the issues underlying their emergence, “survived” the peace agreement interim period. South Sudan thus inherited both an anti-SPLM insurgency and high levels of inter-communal conflict at the time of independence.

Unprecedented failure of state-building

While rich in hydrocarbon resources, what was to become South Sudan was also relatively underdeveloped economically, especially in terms of its transport and communication infrastructure.

Independence has not allowed the government to build even basic infrastructure for public services. This has contributed to disaffection, eroded the regime’s legitimacy, and increased the temptation for ethnic scapegoating.

In turn, the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by the further destruction of already poor infrastructure as well as the insecurity created by years of violence and atrocities.

These factors have also impeded humanitarian relief efforts. International aid programmes are also desperately under-funded. Only 41% of the US$1.63bn estimated requirements for 2015 alone have been met.

The reasons for South Sudan’s almost unprecedented failure of state-building are many and they exist at different levels. Chief among them is the failure of political leadership. This is best illustrated in the abject lack of will among local leaders to bring an end to the current civil war and the inability within the international community to do much about this.

Turning South Sudan into a protectorate, as suggested in January last year, might soon be the only option left to save the country and its people. It would require an enormous, probably long-term, militarily backed, and well-resourced international effort, temporarily taking over basic governance functions, providing essential services, establishing institutions and training their officials so that eventually a credible administration can emerge.

There are distant and recent precedents for this, including Namibia in the late 1980s, as well as Kosovo and East Timor at the turn of the millennium. None of these were without challenges and problems, but none were at the level of the crisis that South Sudan has experienced over the past four years.

The United Nations strenuously denies any plans in this direction. But such a step could create a breathing space, avert descent into an even greater disaster and eventually reverse it. It may also be the only way for South Sudan to find anything worth celebrating in the future.