To say that South Sudan has had a complicated and rocky beginning might be the understatement of the century. When 98.83 percent of the population voted for declaring independence from Sudan in early 2011, no one would have expected a smooth transition into nationhood, and the situation has been quite difficult. And it isn’t becoming any easier. As of late April, a war between South Sudan and Sudan has become much more than a whisper among the international community. Neighboring countries, the African Union and other global leaders are doing everything in their power to dissuade angry leaders and coerce them into working together to achieve peace.
Despite difficulties, South Sudan has made a conscious effort to become a major player in East Africa, but that cannot be achieved until improvements in infrastructure, health services and livelihoods are made. Still, thousands of South Sudanese continue to return to a community they once fled, trying to rebuild their lives. Is there evidence that improvements actually have been made in the past year?
Who better to ask than people living and working in the region?
Zerihun Lemma and Mahdi Anur have been working with the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) in South Sudan. They offer their genuine opinions, as local citizens and as NGO staff.
How long have you worked in the field and in what positions?
Mahdi Anur (MA): I have been working in the field for the last five years in the Southern Kordofan/Nuba Mountains region, and one year in South Sudan. I’ve worked as an education coordinator and am currently working as a program officer for an NGO.
Zerihun Lemma (ZL): I have been working in the field for six months in the area of applied learning and disaster risk reduction, and I also work as the Country Director of South Sudan for an NGO.
How have things changed over the last few years?
MA: Significant changes have occurred as a result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and the new sovereignty of South Sudan, and a multiparty government has been formed for the first time in the region. Public safety services have been established, and 6,000 kilometers of roads have been upgraded, linking key cities and towns. School enrollment has also improved, and the curriculum has changed from Arabic to reflect the adoption of English as the official language.
ZL: South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is tasked with the herculean effort of building a state almost entirely from scratch. The challenges include diversifying its sources of income, a large majority of which comes from oil. While there have been accomplishments, other countries from which South Sudan imports (Kenya and Uganda) have yet to recognize the new South Sudan currency, and South Sudan is still vying to be respected by East African community members.
How do you see politics progressing?
MA: Internal political issues are minimized, and most of the opposition parties and the government are putting their differences aside to focus on rebuilding. Still, there is some tribal conflict that is mostly fuelled by politicians for their personal gain. The country is still struggling to be recognized by the East African community. Leaders are working to build a modern country that bases policies on common interests and not religion, culture or ethnicity.
ZL: Politics are still in the making, but South Sudan has made significant strides in the formation of a new and more representative government. Consultations have also begun on governing political parties and elections, as well as on the envisaged constitutional review.
Do you believe blame has just been shifted?
MA: The majority of South Sudanese are aware of the state of the government and the challenges facing the country. They also support the recent shutdown of oil [production] by the government due to tensions with Sudan, even though the country depends mostly on revenue from oil. One woman told me, “We have been living without oil [revenue] for decades—we were feeding on wild animals and fruit—and we can still live for another two decades without oil.”
ZL: Except for some skeptics, it seems that everyone understands the complex nature of the situation in South Sudan. Independence is valued as a huge success, but some [still] blame the North as the cause of most of their problems. Most people seem to believe that this is the repercussion of the long-stayed conflict.
How do you feel about the independence of South Sudan?
MA: Independence is a big success, and people feel they are now free to express themselves as they want and are no longer considered third-class citizens. To me, the independence of South Sudan is a new era of ending [the] slavery of a marginalized population.
ZL: Despite the realities, the people and government of South Sudan have the joy of freedom that independence has granted them.
What initiatives has the government taken to improve communities in South Sudan?
MA: The government has taken steps to improve the country’s infrastructure despite limited resources. Roads, health facilities, schools and communications are among the basics that the government is trying to improve in the main towns of South Sudan. The government is also challenged with opening its borders for supplies as South Sudan currently imports almost 99 percent of goods and supplies from neighboring countries.
ZL: Over the past seven months, hundreds of thousands have returned to South Sudan, and accommodating all of these displaced persons was one of the main challenges for the government. The struggle to ensure peace for the population is another challenge. Even if it is very slow, attempts are being made to improve social services, infrastructure and road construction.
What initiatives have local and international NGOs undertaken?
MA: I feel like South Sudan is one of the few countries in the world that gained its independence without basic infrastructure and other services in place, but both local and international NGOs have been playing a crucial role in bringing people basic services and support.
ZL: Local and international NGOs are working with the government and local people to change the situation on the ground. Most of the local organizations are highly engaged in peace-building, good governance and gender issues.
It is too soon to make an informed prediction about what the short term holds for South Sudan. For a new nation building itself almost entirely from scratch, it seems progress has been made despite challenges. But there is still so much more that needs to be done before it can become a real participant in East African economics and politics. It might be wise for the government to slow down building relations with outside communities and focus more on its own growing population of returnees, establishing necessary economic policies and allowing the identity of the country to emerge. Scores of people are returning to a new nation that has little infrastructure to absorb them, and it is virtually impossible to build a life when basic resources and necessities are unavailable.
Investment in developing local communities is perhaps the best step forward. The rest of the world is watching to see how great this new nation can become.