Ever since early 2012, South Sudan’s imminent economic collapse has been routinely predicted. Impressions from a recent visit to Juba indicate that this time around it might be more to these divinations than before. The economic crisis is compounded by a de facto break-down in peace negotiations and South Sudan faces a formidable threat to its existence as an independent state.
This is an interesting blog post by Øystein Rolandsen on the economic situation of South Sudan (spoiler: its bad). But I don’t agree with some of its conclusions and observations.
First of all, I don’t think that South Sudan’s “existence as an independent state” is threatened. The country’s independence in 2011 was the result of several decades of civil war and intense international negotiations. There are many people, including all parties of South Sudan’s civil war that would in no way accept the integration of the country back into North Sudan (assuming Khartoum would even want that) or into another of its neighbors.
Due to the civil war and the government’s inability to foster a national cohesion (which is strongly related to the economic problems), South Sudan might follow the trajectory of Somalia and fracture into smaller fiefdoms that act with autonomy from each other. But statehood is still a very entrenched concept and the state of South Sudan will continue to exist for decades, if only as a mostly empty shell (like the state of Somalia has, for more than two decades).
I’m also pessimistic about Rolandsen’s hope that “the crisis might generate enough momentum for Juba and SPLM-IO to reach a compromise […].”
South Sudan’s civil war is not about financial resources per se, but about who controls access to them. This is a function of South Sudan’s “winner takes all” political system. All resources are worthless, unless your faction controls the presidency and therefore the power to distribute those resources. In that sense the economic crisis contributed to the outbreak of the conflict (because president Kiir had less money to pay off rivaling factions) but will do little to increase the will to compromise of any of the parties involved no that the war is in full swing.
Lastly, I should note that Rolandsen’s assumption that “neighbouring countries appear to have no appetite for external military intervention” is not accurate. Uganda has committed substantial military resources, including ground troops and its modern aircraft fleet, to keep the government from being overrun. The government of president Kiir is also leaning on support from rebels from North Sudan, making an overt or covert intervention of the regime in Khartoum only a question of time.
South Sudan’s economy has already collapsed. Waiting for it to collapse further in the hope that it will take the civil war with it into the grave will be fruitless. Instead, mediators and third parties should focus on the roots of the war that predate the country’s economic woes (and its very existence): Its centralized, top-heavy political system; low levels of trust between political actors; the abysmal failure of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration) after the civil war; military and political interventions of neighboring states (not only North Sudan); and the incapability of unwillingness of central political actors (including Kiir and his direct opponent Makar) to put the interest of their country and their people before their own.