Given South Sudan’s state of disrepair, it can be difficult to fathom that the world’s newest country was once synonymous with hope. A decade ago today, tens of thousands of elated South Sudanese sang and danced in the capital of Juba to celebrate their country’s independence from Sudan, while a parade of foreign dignitaries from China, the United States, and the United Nations arrived to offer pledges of financial support. After years of efforts to end the Sudanese civil war—Africa’s longest-running conflict—optimism reigned. After all, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had defied skeptics by conceding the loss of a third of his territory and the source of his country’s massive oil wealth.
What a difference a decade makes. Today, South Sudan is failing. Its first years as an independent country were consumed by a devastating civil war, which has left up to 400,000 people dead and displaced another four million, a third of its population. A shaky 2018 peace deal has brought little relief. Millions suffer from chronic hunger and unchecked violence at the hands of local militias who stalk the countryside, and a new insurgency is simmering in the south. This bloody start presents a huge dilemma for the United States and other major Western donors, which have lambasted South Sudanese leaders for plundering the country’s oil wealth even as they remain on the hook for billions of dollars of lifesaving aid to the country.
But all is not lost. Although the risk of a return to all-out war is real, South Sudanese leaders and their external partners have an opportunity to reverse the mistakes of the past and establish the foundations of a more peaceful country. In order to turn the tide, they should focus on the main culprit of South Sudan’s botched birth: fractious internal politics. The country is too divided and too fragile to survive without a political pact securing a more consensual form of governance. Forging such an agreement is still possible, even if it means tossing aside South Sudan’s constitutional structure in the process.
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