It Was an Unhappy Second Birthday for the Youngest Country On Earth

By Jack Barry


SPLA soldiers in South Sudan. Photo via

South Sudan celebrated its second birthday earlier this month. But festivities for the anniversary of its independence were quiet, presumably because there was little to be festive about. The world's youngest country is currently embroiled in a number of crises, and recently came fourth in Business Insider's list of the world's top 25 failed states, achieving the worst possible scores when it came to foreign intervention, group grievances, and the status of refugees.

Since splitting from Sudan after two brutal civil wars that, added up, lasted nearly 40 years, South Sudan still doesn’t seem to have been able to find much in the way of stability. In fact, the news broke yesterday that President Salva Kiir Mayardit had sacked his entire cabinet, a move that doesn't exactly indicate a stable political system and one thought to be the result of a power struggle between Mayardit and his political rival, Vice President Riek Machar.

The announcement has prompted concerns that the president could start applying authoritarian rule to his country, and that elections, scheduled for 2015, might not happen. This latest political crisis is wedded and adds to the dire situation in Jonglei, South Sudan's largest state, where violence has caused food shortages and the displacement of thousands of refugees. It's threatening to spiral into a major humanitarian crisis, but civil war and social unrest in Syria and Egypt has caused South Sudan's problems to be largely overlooked by the world's media.

The chief source of the trouble in South Sudan is rebel leader David Yau Yau. Originally an aspiring politician who ran in the 2010 local government elections, he turned out to be somewhat of a sore loser when he failed to win his seat, his frustration manifesting itself in the launching of a rebellion against the government in May of 2010.

Yau Yau's insurgency consisted of arming youths from the Murle tribe—of which he is a member—and letting them loose on government forces and any civilians unlucky enough to find themselves caught in the middle. After a year or so of violence, the new government of South Sudan managed to broker a ceasefire.


President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayadit. Photo via

However, the peace and quiet only lasted another year before it was announced that the ever-antsy Yau Yau had defected to the north and was going to start causing trouble again. In April of last year he resumed his arming of youths from Jonglei state, specifically Pibor county, and carried out attacks on the South Sudanese army (SPLA), foreign organizations, and civilians.

The government of South Sudan alleges that he has been doing so with support from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Forces from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) have spotted suspicious aircraft dropping supplies into the jungle and the Small Arms Survey found weapons and ammunition taken from defectors of his army to be the same as those used by the Sudanese Army and other Sudanese-supported insurgent groups.

The conflict rages on, with estimates gauging that between 4,000 to 6,000 Murle youths have joined Yau Yau or used weapons supplied by him. And, to make matters worse, the Lou Nuer tribe—a long-term rival of the Murle—has mobilized in large numbers, comprising a third side in the fighting that has clashed with both Yau Yau's army and South Sudan's security forces.

Of course, all this fighting doesn't bode well for the country's civilian population. I spoke to Ariane Quentier of UNMISS about the current situation. “We are very alarmed and concerned by the reports that we’re getting,” she told me. “We already have troops down there, and we're reinforcing our presence in that area with more troops to make sure that the bases are properly protected.”


A woman registering with UNHCR at the Kaya refugee camp in Upper Nile State, South Sudan. Photo courtesy of UNHCR/T. Irwin

As peacekeepers, the UN obviously isn't one of the combative sides, but I asked Quentier if any UN personnel had been wounded during the conflict. “We’ve had two attacks," she told me. "One was a helicopter being shot down, four killed. The other was an Indian convoy being attacked in an ambush where we had 12 people killed—five Indian peacekeepers and seven civilians.” She went on to tell me that the main problem the UN is facing is that they don't know exactly where fighting is taking place.

"Everyone agrees that there is a deteriorating crisis—that’s why we’re sending more people in—but we just don’t know exactly what’s going on," Quentier told me. "The main problem we’re having to deal with is a lack of helicopters. Without them we can’t get around and see who’s moving where.”

Jonglei state is huge and has very few roads, making it pretty inaccessible to those who don't know the area well or, in the UN's case, don't have a fleet of helicopters at their disposal. Unsurprisingly, the information that they have been able to gather isn't great. Reports state that civilian property has been looted and torched, and facilities like schools and health clinics have been burned down or occupied by armed forces.

This lack of information and the security problems that it presents has also made things difficult for humanitarian groups operating in the area. The UNHCR has a presence in South Sudan, but it has largely been confined to dealing with refugees escaping into South Sudan from conflicts in neighbouring countries. Tim Irwin, spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, told me, “We have a presence in Jonglei, but it’s very much on the fringes as it’s not really an area that you can go into. These areas are very tough to reach—especially at the moment, as it’s the rainy season in South Sudan so many areas of the country are cut off by flooding.”


The Kaya refugee camp in Upper Nile State. Photo courtesy of UNHCR/T. Irwin

The primary source of humanitarian aid in Jonglei has come from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA). I spoke to OCHA’s Michelle Delaney about the crisis. “The UN estimates that over 100,000 people have been affected by the recent wave of violence, which started in March 2013," she told me. "Of that number, about 23,000 people have fled to the neighboring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, where humanitarian assistance is also being provided.”

Although OCHA hasn't come under attack yet, some humanitarian groups have, with facilities being looted and burned and reports from the UN that trucks carrying aid have been fired at by armed groups. Delaney told me, “The humanitarian community is gravely concerned about the situation in Jonglei State. Even without the current hostilities, people in Jonglei State are some of the most vulnerable in the country. Civilians in Pibor County have already experienced several cycles of violence. This was exacerbated by extensive flooding across Jonglei in September 2012, which resulted in a largely failed harvest, destruction of property, and loss of cattle. These cycles of crises have likely reduced the coping capacity of those who are currently displaced.”

Medecins Sans Frontieres—the humanitarian aid organization that provides medical assistance, along with other services, to war-torn regions—has also reported that they have treated over 4,000 people since the beginning of this year and are struggling to reach the hundreds of thousands who have fled into the bush, afraid to come to the towns for fear of being exposed to more violence.


A girl at a school in the Kaya refugee camp. (Photo courtesy of UNHCR/T. Irwin)

The UN and the government of South Sudan have called for an end to the violence in Jonglei, but so far Yau Yau has ignored them, and the continued movements and clashes between his forces, security forces, and the Lou Nuer tribe are worrying.

Another issue is that the South Sudanese public are wary of their government's security forces, which is understandable considering the SPLA have a range of documented atrocities and human rights violations under their belt. Everybody seems to be fighting everybody else, and the only people who aren't fighting don't trust those who are supposed to be looking out for them. So, two years into its independence, there does seem to be serious cause for concern in South Sudan.

Quentier agreed: “It’s true that it has been a very hard two years, but when you have to start your life under these conditions—and with this sort of instability—it’s never easy. There has been progress in the sense that the state has stayed together, that we are working on the rule of law. Slowly but surely the state is advancing and establishing its authority. Unfortunately, the situation in Jonglei is worrying. It’s the biggest state, so what happens in Jonglei tends to reflect what happens in the rest of South Sudan. If everything’s fine in Jonglei, everything else is fine.”

For now, the world’s youngest country must continue to falteringly find its feet, even if the rest of the world seems to have largely forgotten about it. 

Follow Jack on Twitter: @JBazzler

More from South Sudan and its neighbours to the north:

Darfur’s Tribes are Killing Each Other Over Gold and Water

WATCH: Sudan's Forgotten Warriors

Inside Sudan

Comments