Five Geographic Challenges for South Sudan

Billboard on the road to South Sudan’s capital, Juba. According to the photographer, James Turitto, this billboard was put up some time before March 2011, and later taken down. That is, this photo predates the country’s official independence day.
At just one week old, the Republic of South Sudan is the world’s youngest country. It made history as the first successful separatist movement in Africa, and the first African country to redraw the colonial borders established under European control. At its independence celebration on July 9th, the South Sudanese celebrated not only their new country, but also the formal end of war with (northern) Sudan. For background on the conflict’s history, see this timeline and this piece on colonial borders. With hope in their hearts, the Southern Sudanese are looking forward to increased prosperity, security, and cultural freedom. 
My most optimistic outlook is this: South Sudan’s (approximately) 8 million people will work together to tap their vast oil reserves under a democratic system that will raise the living standards of the poor, while resisting the interests of the local elite and the manipulating tentacles of foreign powers. The more I think about it, however, the more I worry about this nascent nation’s future. It faces challenges far greater even than its independence (which didn’t come easily or quickly). 
Many of those challenges (poverty; lack of electricity, education, food security) have historical and political roots. In this post, however, I will outline five challenges to security and development rooted squarely in the geography of the country.   
1. Oil, and the Resource Curse: South Sudan’s greatest financial asset¬–oil wealth–may also prove to be its most malevolent antagonist. On one hand, as political scientist Michael Lewin Ross has successfully argued over the past decade, oil wealth tends to sabotage both democracy and economic development. Essentially, he claims, this type of wealth concentrates into an oligarchy, and suppresses economic growth through unnecessary state government functions, massive armies, and dependency-generating subsidies. His theory rang true to me during the Arab Spring, in which non-petro states (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria) had the most successful uprisings, while protests in places like Bahrain were promptly squashed or placated with gifts and subsidies. 

In an email to My Wonderful World, Ross said the following in regard to South Sudan: 
“I think there is a grave danger that its oil wealth will make its government less accountable.  It is certainly an advantage to begin with a democratic government, but it is also very poor, and this makes it more vulnerable to the resource curse.” 
2. Landlocked: Even if South Sudan’s democracy isn’t destabilized by the corrupting wealth of oil, it still has to rely on foreign governments to export it. Right now, oil is piped north to the Port of Sudan, through (northern) Sudan. The two Sudans may not be at war with each other right now, but they still disagree over the fate of the Abyei province, which the northern Sudanese appear ready to fight over. Either way, the North’s threat of blocking oil pipelines is enough to get the South to consider building one through Kenya, its only other neighbor with a port on Africa’s eastern coast. (South Sudan also shares borders with the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia. The DRC has a port, Boma, but it is on the western African coast).
Map of the two Sudans, courtesy 
of the  Library of Congress 
map_image.jpg3.     Road to Khartoum: Just as the North has the potential to embargo oil exports, it also wields the power to prevent imports of fuel and food to South Sudan. While northern Sudan may not be one hundred percent responsible for the current shortages, many South Sudanese claim that the trade disruption is an intentional tactic of the North. 
4. Internal Divisions: Independence redrew the map, allowing the Animist and Christian blacks in the South to separate from the mostly Muslim Arabs in the North. That doesn’t mean that the South is united. In fact, South Sudan already faces multiple rebellions from groups dissatisfied with the outcome of the revolution. In order to tie the country together and avoid oppression similar to that suffered under the northern Sudanese regime, South Sudan’s leader will have to find a peaceful way to integrate the “patchwork quilt” of South Sudan’s ethno-national map
5. Brain-Drain: a combination of civil war, poverty, and attractive opportunities abroad have siphoned many of Southern Sudan’s most educated and most talented citizens to places like Kenya, Europe, and the United States. Hopefully, independence is the first step to bringing these many emigrants back. To learn more about the Sudanese Diaspora, including information on the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, check out this documentary, and other educational activities on the National Geographic Education website. 
-Cedar Attanasio, for My Wonderful World

3 thoughts on “Five Geographic Challenges for South Sudan

  1. Hi Cedar,
    Climate does play a major role in environmental determinism but not the sole role. Ellen Churchill Semple cited the lack of resources for Russians being “shadows” of European civilization. A modern example of resources in environmental determinism would be Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.
    I am familiar with Ross’ work. The “oil curse” fails so often though that it cannot be considered a rule. Mexico and Indonesia have greatly improved both politically and economically for the average citizen compared to a couple decades ago. Oil wealth helped Brazil go from a closed, military dictatorship to become a Christian social democratic economy. Oil money even states with limited to no political freedom like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have resulted in considerable economic freedom unlike flat out kelptocracies like the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  2. Catholicgauze,
    I respectfully disagree with your comment about the environmentally deterministic nature of the arguments in this post. In fact, environmental determinism—the view that the environment, rather than social conditions, determines culture—has nothing to do with my interpretation of Ross’s argument, or my own observations.
    As you know—and just in case our readers don’t know—environmental determinism is exemplified by the theory that climate had a causal relationship with intelligence (advocated by Europeans to explain the inferiority of the global South). The idea was thoroughly abandoned by the mid 20th century. To my knowledge, however, it has never been associated with resource wealth.
    I encourage you to read Professor Ross’s work for yourself. But, for the purposes of this post, allow me to respond to your comment by clarifying my interpretation of the argument, and counter you observation about the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the U.K.
    The argument runs like this: oil (and other valuable resources, like diamonds and gold) poses a threat to the social stability LEDCs because they don’t have the governance structures in place to deal with those influxes of wealth. Wealth concentrates in state apparatuses and inflates existing oligarchies, depressing social and economic progress, especially democratic movements. Countries that democratize and industrialize before they discover oil (U.S., Canada, U.K.)— mostly MEDCs—don’t have this problem.
    Therefore, what I’m talking about are social conditions as they relate to the timing of resources exploitation. The timing for South Sudan is not ideal.
    It might have been premature for me to put Syria on a list of “successful” revolutions. It is still playing out, but you can see the government knows that eventually it has to negotiate reforms. “Non-oil rich Oman has a long history of compromise and since avoided any Arab Spring Troubles.” Exactly my point. In a similar vein, Libya fell into a a globally connected civil war (instead of sorting out its problems internally like Egypt), partially as a consequence of its oil-fueled oligarchy.
    Thanks for your comment, this is a great topic for discussion.

  3. The “oil curse” myth is a environmental deterministic relic. The US, Norway, Canada, Mexico, and the Unite Kingdom all produce oil without being oligarchies while developing responsible governments. It is a political-cultural tendencies which allows for non-liberal democratic governments, not resources.
    And while oil played a part with Saudi Arabia’s protests being limited, cultural tendices played through in the Middle East as well. Syria’s Arab Spring is hardly successful (oil-producing Libya’s Arab Spring resulted in a civil war which the rebels can win), non-oil rich Oman has a long history of compromise and since avoided any Arab Spring Troubles.

Leave a Reply