Brown University

Why South Sudan Has Not Found a Path to Democracy by Will Conard @ Brown University

South Sudan, the world’s newest sovereign nation, has had consistent trouble maintaining freedom for its citizens both socially and politically since it achieved independence in 2011. After 50 years of conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, with approximately 2.5 million lives lost, a peace treaty was ratified in 2005. This treaty allowed for 6 years of South Sudanese autonomy that would culminate in a referendum, by the people of South Sudan, to decide whether they would secede. The secession movement garnered near complete support, with 99% voting in favor of separation. on July 9th 2011 South Sudan became an independent nation. However, nearly every year since 2011, South Sudan’s Freedom House score has increased (a sign of a failing nation) moving from a score of 5.5 in 2012 to 7 (the worst possible score) in 2017. This increase in scores suggests an erosion of any remaining freedom or democracy within South Sudan; however, the democracy of South Sudan didn’t erode because, in many ways, it never truly existed. South Sudan has not developed into a democracy, despite promise, for three distinct reasons:

  1. The economic conditions were not in place for Democratic Consolidation
  2. The President and his allies hold and have always held near universal power
  3. Civil War has infringed upon all voting practices and electoral success


Part 1: Economic Conditions

According to Carles Boix, democracy is only possible when Economic Equality and Capital Mobility are high. South Sudan’s economy relies heavily on oil exports. Roughly 60% of its GDP relies on oil and oil is their only major export. However, in January of 2012, because of disputes with Sudan, the government of South Sudan halted all oil production – which was the source of 98% of South Sudan’s revenue. A treaty between the countries was eventually reached, but oil production for South Sudan did not return until April, 2013, and oil production is expected to fall and almost entirely disappear by 2035.

Further, 85% of the working population is engaged in “non-wage work,” primarily related to agriculture. However, since 2013, Civil War has crippled all forms of growth, with farmland left to rot and livestock abandoned due to constant looting and pillaging. Thus, opportunities for work and food production have been decimated and this has led to nearly half the population living in danger of “extreme hunger” and 65.9% of the population experiencing extreme poverty. At the same time, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, accused 75 government officials of stealing approximately $4 billion in 2012, but no action was taken and no money returned. There is massive economic inequality, with a large gap between the poorest and richest citizens. High poverty rates and a lack of investment in “human development” – primarily education – have made the growth of South Sudan’s economy, and democracy, nearly impossible.

Part 2: Despotic Executive

By self-identification, South Sudan is a Presidential Republic where the president has near universal power. Kiir was elected president of the autonomous region of South Sudan prior to the referendum and inherited the presidency in 2011. He cannot be impeached and has the power to fire state governors and dissolve parliament and the state assemblies.” A permanent constitution, that was supposed to be ratified in 2015, was never passed by the government. Similarly, no national elections have been held since 2010 due to civil war. Further, persistent intimidation and violence by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM – Kiir’s party) led to landslide victories for their candidates in 2010. Candidates who were not part of the SPLM party were arrested and were not allowed to campaign while voters were threatened.

There are almost no indications of democratic operations in South Sudan, nor are there signs that they have the capacity to move toward free and liberal democratic government. The people have not been able to express their voice through legal proposals or elected officials (even in the notably unfair 2010 election). Thus, they do not meet criteria for a democracy by many definitions. They do not have the freedom to formulate opinions or freedom of expression as Kiir has repressed the media and arrested and silenced political opponents. Rulers in South Sudan are not held accountable to anyone and the incumbent has not lost an election primarily because there has not been an election.

Part 3: Civil War

In 2013, President Kiir – a member of the Dinka ethnic group – dismissed his Vice President Riek Machar – a Nuer, leading to civil war among their respective supporters. This war has resulted in thousands of atrocities (murder, rape, property destruction, and mass pillaging) targeting civilians – primarily along ethnic lines – and foreign aid workers and diplomats. No cease-fire or attempt at peace has found permanent success.

On October 17th, 2017, according to the NY Times, the leader of the United Nation’s peacekeeping operations warned South Sudan and other neighboring countries of the disastrous nature of the young nation’s state. Currently, 17,000 UN peacekeepers are stationed in South Sudan. Still, both sides commit atrocities. Since 2013, approximately one third of the country’s population, over two million citizens, has been displaced (they are either in UN camps or have fled to neighboring countries).

On November 28th, 2017, the United States warned the South Sudan government about possible sanctions if violence continues(although these sanctions are highly unlikely to be enacted given Russia’s counter warning against using them). It appears clear that peace talks are not in the near future for South Sudan ultimately resulting in more instability and less freedom for its citizens.

In many ways, the Freedom House Rankings of 2012 seemed wholly optimistic (despite a score of 5.5 which is still “Not Free”). South Sudan’s people had just voted to secede, had plans for a democratically elected government and had every intention of creating a new constitution by 2015. At the same time, there seemed to be no major codified checks against the executive in South Sudan, no true power for the people to voice their opinions legislatively, and even independent media had no legal protections. Editors, journalists, and anchors were arrested for criticizing the president and his party; newspapers were seized after printing an interview with a rebel leader; and media workers were constantly assaulted and/or arrested without reason.

Religious freedom, educational freedom and freedom of association and assembly are all sited in the interim constitution. However, Civil War and unrest have led to restrictions on related citizen rights, primarily due to concerns about personal safety. The government technically acknowledges the aforementioned freedoms – at least superficially – but attending school, assembling publically in opposition, or expressing cultural pride can result in death.

The only discernible difference between 2012 and 2017 – that resulted in a 1.5-point rise in Freedom House Freedom Rating – is the actualization of the civil war. Ultimately, it is the war itself that has led to constant instability in South Sudan. Because of the war, human development, economic development and innovation, and political development and citizen participation have been restricted. Thus, the people have been unable to thrive and democracy and its related freedoms have eluded South Sudan.

Photo by Al Jazeera English, “Salva Kiir, the president of southern Sudan,” Creative Commons Zero license

1 Comment

  1. Amalia Perez

    December 4, 2017 at 5:44 pm

    I greatly appreciate the breadth of your coverage in such a short amount of time/space! The piece impressively reconciles nuance and scale. You touch on the topic of peace-keeping and the role of multinational bodies in promoting peace and, thus, democracy. There seems to be a near inverse relationship between the presence of UN peace-keeping operations and the prospects of peace; this implies not only that peace-keepers are not, in fact, keeping the peace and paving the way for democracy, but are in fact exacerbating the violence. This argument has resounded throughout the literature.

    The dubious role of peace-keeping missions in South Sudan merits specific attention. Horror-stories have been leaked of peacekeepers hiding in their battalions. Peacekeepers themselves are largely pulled from developing countries where they could otherwise not find jobs. A damning report concludes, in the words of Patrick Wintour of The Guardian, “failed to protect hundreds of civilians from death or rape because of a risk-averse culture and chaotic leadership, according to an independent report.” A lack of leadership and preparedness was proven to have, in fact, exacerbated the conflict

    And yet, peace-keeping and state-building in South Sudan have become inextricably intertwined. Peacekeeping was literally tasked with creating a system of public financing from scratch. Insofar as state-building has obvious ramifications for democracy, peace-keeping plays far too integral a role in the process of democratic consolidation given its structural and categorical ineptitude when it comes to mitigating conflict. These revelations underscore your rightful assertion that the civil war has consequences for democracy today; these ramifications go beyond electoral procedures, and in fact undermine the state. We as a world ought to move towards promoting peace-keeping and state-building that empower, rather than undermine.

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