Some Reflections on South Sudan’s Unhappy Fourth Birthday

I visited Juba for the first time during the month leading up to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. The main reason for my visit was my participation in a conflict assessment in eastern Warrap State as part of the Carter Center’s initiative to foster both grassroots and high-level dialogue targeted at ending the rebellion that was then going on in Unity State. At the time, Peter Gadet was leading a rebellion that appeared to draw on ethnic grievances and cyclical patterns of cattle raiding between Unity and Warrap. One week after our team visited Akop, over 50 people were reportedly killed in the town in a cross-border raid. On the eve of independence, South Sudan was faced with severe internal struggles, but the people we met were optimistic that with independence, they could resolve their differences.

Few initiatives in conflict resolution during the post-CPA period ever came to fruition, drowned as the work was in the broader downward spiral that characterized the infancy of Africa’s 54th sovereign state. This article reflects on my experiences in South Sudan and examines South Sudan’s independence through the lens of various capacities in which I visited the country, from an undergraduate researcher to a graduate assistant/conflict analyst to a guest of former diaspora returnees.


The view from 2009

My research on conflict in South Sudan had begun before my 2011 visit, during a month-long stay in Mundri, Western Equatoria in 2009, where I conducted undergraduate research and helped a water engineer with construction projects. At that time, the local branch of the SPLM was very popular, and people cheered the party as officials in Mundri presented the SPLM as the messiah of South Sudan at a local rally. Messianic themes carried throughout a political rally: “Let us remind ourselves of the objective: The Promised Land,” said one government adviser amid loud cheers. Another official said, “SPLM is the messiah of Sudan – it has changed the whole Sudan. Sudan cannot go back to what it was in 1956.” … “SPLM says the New Sudan is here. It is a matter of one last kick and the baby is out.”

One chief in Mundri told a story about three bulls and a leopard who tricks them into separating in order to eat them one by one. The idea was that the Arabs had tried to separate the different ethnic groups in South Sudan, but the chief argued that the Southern Sudanese could not be separated.

On the whole, the people in Mundri were hopeful, but vestiges of civil war remained as stark reminders of the past, and ethnic and military violence continued to haunt Western Equatoria. My time in Mundri came soon after Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had attacked some towns along the border between the DRC and Western Equatoria. While I was in Mundri, a contingent of SPLA soldiers returning from repulsing the LRA on the DRC border came into town and wreaked havoc, chopping up the desks and benches in the local school to use as firewood while cooking their dinner and generally harassing the civilian population. Yet hope remained that the undisciplined former militias that made up the SPLA could yet become a disciplined national army that promoted security and garnered support from South Sudan’s civilian population.

Bombed-out buildings in Mundri left from the Sudanese Civil War

Bombed-out buildings in Mundri left from the Sudanese Civil War

Warrap conflict assessment and the visit to Juba and Wau in 2011

After landing at the airport in Wau on the morning WFP flight in early June 2011, my boss and I rode in a Land Cruiser along the paved road from the airport – until the pavement turned to go up a hill in a residential area. The road leading to the center of the city became a bumpy gravel track. “Why does the paved road go into that neighborhood?” I asked the driver.

“That’s where the governor lives,” he replied.

Uneven development, corruption, and social fracturing became the themes of the three visits to South Sudan that I made between 2011 and 2012. As a conflict analyst working with the Carter Center, I visited embassies, consulates, and NGO offices in Juba for about two weeks in June 2011 and again in December. My experience there inspired the article which I later co-authored with my MA adviser Richard Grant, on how the Development Complex drove spatial fragmentation and the development of fortress architecture in Juba amidst the insecure environment in South Sudan. Richard was an invited contributor to the issue of Local Economy, and despite our primary focus at the time on Johannesburg, we decided to review recent literature and data on Juba for the contribution on urban development in Africa. We found that between the 2005 CPA and South Sudan’s independence in 2011, at least 700 development organizations had flocked to Juba. The city was filled with “expats” (I use the term with some irony, in agreement with a recent piece in the Guardian as to its hierarchical connotations) and government officials, all of whom seemed divorced from the contexts inhabited by South Sudan’s citizens on a day-to-day basis. In fact, relations between international development workers and government officials merely seemed in my experience to reinforce the distance between these upper-level groups and the majority of Southern Sudanese. Most “expats” that I talked to had never been very far outside of Juba, and many had never even been to some of the poorer areas on the outskirts of the city. The UN would regularly issue security updates banning its workers from patronizing certain venues. Ironically, one of the venues that was flagged during my stay was literally next door to Logali House, which was one of the most popular expat hangouts in the city.

Our assessment of conflict conditions along the Warrap-Unity border in June 2011 also revealed the stark disparities between Juba and other areas of South Sudan, which were seemingly being compounded by the inability of aid and government finance to escape the “Juba bubble”. In Juba we could pay $250 US for one night in a dirty hotel room and $10 for breakfast; in Tonj and Marial-Lou, we slept in a tent or in a tukul and paid a couple of Sudan Pounds (SDG) for food. Development workers were taking hefty salaries and shocking per-diems in Juba because of the price bubble there (unfortunately for me, I was on contract as a graduate assistant with a flat monthly stipend).

Cattle camp in the toich of eastern Warrap, June 2011.

Cattle camp in the toich of eastern Warrap, June 2011.

The officials in the villages along the Warrap-Unity border accused Peter Gadet’s SSLM/A faction of causing all of the problems in their areas. But when Peter Gadet was offered amnesty in August 2011, the fighting continued. The Government of South Sudan’s strategy of offering amnesty and creating government positions for former rebels/warlords seems to stem from both international pressure to respect the human rights, even of rebels, and the legacy of the SPLM/A as former rebels themselves. Fast forward to 2014 and Salva Kiir’s creation of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area and appointment of David Yau Yau as the administrator… Yau Yau certainly had legitimate grievances, but the appointment of rebel leaders as government officials has continued and seems to encourage more violence in the country.

Another side of Juba: 2012

In September 2012 I returned to Juba in a very different capacity, as the guest of a friend that I had made in Johannesburg who was returning to South Sudan for the first time since independence in order to obtain his ID card and passport and to attempt to pave the way for some investors from South Africa to establish businesses in South Sudan. I took a bus from Kampala with a group of SPLA officers who were returning to Juba after military training in Uganda. We arrived at the South Sudan-Uganda border before sunrise in the morning and waited in line with hundreds of Ugandans and Kenyans waiting to gain access to South Sudan in order to do business in the cash-flooded markets of Juba. In Nimule, South Sudanese merchants were buying and selling clean, 2006-issue hundred-dollar bills to travelers.

I stayed in a small but clean mud-and-thatch hut in Buluk and got to see a different side of Juba as I walked the streets or took motorcycle taxis to different parts of the city. At the time, rumors said that bank officials were making a killing in the black market by taking US dollars and selling them on the streets. You could get about a 20% higher exchange rate for a hundred-dollar bill on the street than in an official setting.


Admittedly, I was and remain uninitiated to the ins and outs of family and tribal ties in South Sudan, but I watched the process of attempting to do business in South Sudan’s capital city. The guys with whom I was staying were somehow distantly related to government administrators and managed to ply some connections in order to get a meeting with a security official who also served as a businessman for a very high-level official. We were offered a major road contract if we brought South African investors into South Sudan. At the behest of our would-be investors, we went about the complicated process of trying to secure raw materials (in other words, buy a mountain on the outskirts of Juba to crush in order to create asphalt). After numerous visits to chiefs, villagers, county commissioners, etc., we managed to get no clear idea of how we could secure rights to the mountain that were satisfactory for the investors in South Africa. It was as if everyone thought that they didn’t need to give investors satisfactory terms, because if these investors declined, someone else would come along to bring business to the South Sudanese. During this time, I was basically just along for the ride, and I gained a lot of (worrying) insight into the business environment and the social dynamics at work for people trying to do business in Juba and its surrounds. As a Westerner, I was offered a large site for agricultural investment in Upper Nile, among other opportunities.

People were optimistic about South Sudan’s prospects over the coming years. My friend truly believed that South Sudan was ripe for investment and heading toward a peaceful future, despite signs of continued unrest throughout the country. Juba was booming, with hundreds of foreigners arriving every day to do business in the city. During 2011 I had noticed that most of the hotels and restaurants were owned by individuals who were not of South Sudanese heritage; now this was true of many of the smaller businesses and motorcycle taxi drivers (though the government of South Sudan later cracked down on foreign motorcycle drivers, and government officials have repeatedly complained that the motorcycle traffic in Juba prevents them from getting to meetings in a timely manner).

On the other hand, it surprised me how wealthy some of the people living in shacks near Juba were. Perhaps the case of my friend’s uncle was an exceptional circumstance. The man sent his sons to Uganda to import cattle, which he then sold in Gumbo, on the east bank of the Nile just across from Juba. When we visited his shack in Gumbo, he pulled out a thick wad of US $100 bills and counted off a thousand dollars to give to his nephew. The man was a capitalist who put little value in immediate consumption, instead keeping his wealth circulating between cash and cattle.

South Sudan’s Fourth Birthday

Today as I sit in my office in Atlanta after my return from fieldwork in Ethiopia, I continue to follow the news in Sudan and South Sudan. The headlines have hardly changed since the rebellion broke out in December 2013: violated ceasefires, a president’s refusal to consider change or to own up to any faults, a degree of local and international support for a rebel leader past his prime who has twice been involved in tearing the country apart along ethnic lines. The people of South Sudan are suffering at the hands of a prideful, selfish and corrupt style of leadership on both sides of the rift, and from the militarization of society that has gone on for decades. Localized discontent and increasing inequality have scaled up into large-scale social divides and conflict that spirals out of control.

I wish South Sudan a return to peace. I hope that some true leaders will step up who can get over their personal interest and serve their country rather than their pride or their pockets. The same goes for the international community and the development community, where people need to work for real transformation rather than taking the benefits they can get while working in a country riddled with poverty and conflict.

What are your thoughts?