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.