How South Sudan’s Leaders Let Down the World’s Newest Nation

Two years after an optimistic beginning, South Sudan's bickering leadership has let down a new nation brimming with hope

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Ben Curtis / AP

A displaced boy carries cardboard boxes inside a U.N. compound that has become home to thousands of people displaced by the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan, on Dec. 27, 2013

When I first landed in Juba in the blazing hot October of 2011, all I could see was the roads. Or, I should say, all I could see was that there weren’t any. With the exception of a few paved arteries, the dusty capital of South Sudan was a patchwork of deeply pitted, stomach-churning dirt paths, and the rest of the infrastructure wasn’t much better. Many residents used untreated water from the White Nile. As for electricity, there was none. Or not much, anyway. My guesthouse, which was also a daytime shelter for at-risk girls, had a few hours of generator power each day, until the diesel stopped getting trucked in, and then that stopped too.

I spent my first days in South Sudan worrying about how the world’s newest nation could move forward without the basics — like roads, or water, or electricity, or, at that point, a functioning constitution. But I soon learned I was missing the point. Sitting one evening at an outdoor eatery where the nation’s elite indulged in cold beers, a new acquaintance from Juba said it was hard for her to understand foreigners’ myopic focus on what was wrong. Just months before, after all, her country had achieved independence, finally closing the book on decades of bloody war with the north, now Sudan. Freedom and self-determination were theirs, and people she knew were thrilled, roads or no. Not long after, as I watched a river barge packed with returning South Sudanese cheering as they floated into town after decades of exile, I saw her point.

The palpable sense of hope in the air that day has dissipated over the past two years as South Sudan has struggled to get on its feet. The fight over the region’s rich oil fields has simmered along the internecine north-south border. Development has been slow. But two weeks ago, what is perhaps the nation’s greatest challenge came back into the spotlight, after President Salva Kiir reported he had foiled a coup attempt by former Vice President Riek Machar. (Kiir dismissed Machar, along with most of the Cabinet, in July.) Fighting between supporters of the leaders, who hail from the ethnic Dinka and ethnic Nuer groups respectively, quickly broke out, and security unraveled around the country. The U.N. says more than 1,000 people have been killed in the ensuing political and ethnic clashes, and tens of thousands more have been forced from their homes. Reports of massacres and mass graves have surfaced. Over the weekend, the U.N. warned that roaming groups of armed youth were advancing on the central town of Bor, potentially adding yet another dimension of violence to the toxic mix.

In Juba, the girls that once crowded my guesthouse courtyard, shrieking with laughter as they washed their school uniforms under the glare of the equatorial sun, have been evacuated to a safer town. Tens of thousands of refugees have sought shelter at a U.N. camp in the capital, and many say they’re scared to leave for fear of being attacked for being Nuer. Ethnic strife is unfortunately nothing new to South Sudan — even as the country battled for independence from the north, it was a fractured fight — but the past few weeks have brought a level of violence that threatens to undo the state. On Dec. 24, because of “rapidly deteriorating security,” the U.N. announced it would nearly double its peacekeeping forces there. In a statement days later, the country’s U.N. special representative Hilde Johnson called upon “the political leaders of South Sudan to order their forces to lay down their arms and to give peace a chance and to do so urgently.”

Does peace still have a chance in South Sudan? Of course it does. But it is a fleeting one. Those who watch the country carefully warn that Kiir and other leaders must act quickly — in a matter of days, they say — to abandon their power-seeking agendas and mend the long-standing ethnic tensions if South Sudan is to avoid a full-blown civil war or, indeed, a collapse. In a country that lacks mature political institutions, its ruling elite must find the will to compromise and achieve consensus within themselves. So far, despite the diplomatic intervention of regional leaders, a truce has not been reached between Kiir’s government and Machar’s rebel forces.

Today when I think about Juba’s roads, I think less about the potholes and more about James Mayul, a man I met shortly before I left the country. Mayul, an entrepreneur, had imported what he said was the nation’s first limousine. It was a 2003 Lincoln Navigator, bought online from a dealer in the Netherlands, with white leather seats, internal disco lights and pretty much nowhere to go. On the surface, it was a questionable investment, but Mayul had a vision. Soon, there would be more roads, and better roads, and more money for people to spend on a night out in their very own limo. In other words, he saw only one thing: potential.

Will South Sudan’s leaders rise to the occasion and act quickly to get peace talks under way? We can only hope they are still thinking back on the first flush of independence when they, too, sensed the possibility of this new country, and that they, too, wanted something more.