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South Sudan: Oil, War, and Kony2012

The border clashes that erupted on March 26 between Sudan and the newly  independent state of South Sudan have once again pushed the two nations to the brink of war. Sadly, this seemingly inherent predicament of North-South animosity – and the consequent regional instability it has caused – is hard to shake, let alone correct.

South Sudan received its long-sought independence from Khartoum on July 9, 2011, after a ‘mere’ half a century of  ongoing civil war. With an estimated 2.5 million casualties, the civil war also caused development in the region to stall , if not regress.

Hurdles to Development

South Sudan faces immense challenges on its path toward nationhood and economic independence. It has the lowest literacy rate of any country in the world, with only one quarter of the population being able to read and write. South Sudan also has the highest infant mortality rate: an estimated one in every nine children dies before their first birthday.

Moreover, a staggering 98% of the government’s revenue comes from oil. That figure was prior to January when it decided to halt all oil production in protest of the high transit fees the North was charging . The fact that oil revenue can be as much a blessing as a curse is well known. However, a self-imposed ban on its only source of revenue seems misadvised.

This is because the ‘state of stability’, although brief in South Sudan, rests almost exclusively on a vast system of clientelism aimed at  appeasing regional elites and military warlords. And although the government in Juba announced it would not cut the salaries of the military or civil servants, 70% of the government’s budget goes towards such salaries. With no oil revenue, where will Juba turn once its financial reserves run dry?

Worryingly, South Sudan’s government has no short to medium term contingency plan. There exists no infrastructure to export oil except through the North. Construction did begin on March 2 for an  oil pipeline which would link South Sudanese reserves to the Kenyan port of Lamu, but this pipeline will take an estimated 3 to 5 years to complete .

In the meantime, oil will remain a considerable issue of tension between Juba and Khartoum – tension which effectively augments South Sudan’s numerous obstacles to development. Moreover, Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, is encouraging these internal difficulties seemingly to hold a thumb on the efforts of the secessionist South.

South Sudan and the West

Just recently on March 23, actor George Clooney was arrested for picketing the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC. Clooney did so in protest of Bashir’s suppression of the Nuba, an ethnic group in the border regions of South Sudan. Clooney’s actions were arguably a publicity stunt to raise awareness of the often ignored humanitarian crises in Central Africa, much in the same fashion as the controversial KONY2012 video.

More broadly, this may raise the question of  what role does the West still have to play in Africa? In an oversimplified response: the IMF, World Bank, national donors and NGOs should all assist South Sudan on its path to development. Smart aid (that is regionally specific aid),  technical assistance, and favourable  trade relations  must all  be provided. At the same time, Juba’s government should embrace such cooperation with the West.

However, the argument that Africa needs no western backing in fixing its austere domestic issues, falsely christening such support as ‘neo-imperialism’, is fundamentally flawed. It is rooted in a position of emotional bias, understandably stemming from the personal response to the many historical injustices that still hang as a shadow over the continent.

There is no denying that this shadow is almost exclusively the product of European colonialism, and to a certain extent, also to the machinations of the IMF in the latter half of the 20th century. Yet, continually condemning these actions seems somewhat futile.

On the other hand, the Western media does too often patronise Africa best exemplified in the KONY2012 video – which then directly feeds these resentments towards Western ‘interference’. The other day, I overheard a  joke  I found entertaining while still pertinent: celebrities like George Clooney, Bono, and Angelina Jolie are all praised for their work in Africa, yet it is quite hard to imagine them being asked to come to Greece and correct the Euro crises.

All of this being said, it must be noted that real progress in South Sudan can only come from within. While the international community should assist the government in Juba, the actual initiative must be domestic. Ultimately, South Sudan faces immense challenges, and it is thus difficult to avoid being pessimistic regarding the young state’s future. As in this case, pessimism so closely borders pragmatism.


–  Elias Kühn von Burgsdorff


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