Few South Sudanese would contest the reality that their beloved country has collapsed.
Social scientists might be found debating what constitutes a failed state and what characterises such an eventuality. But for the people living in a failed state, varying definitions notwithstanding, it is often unmistakable what that means. Ask the South Sudanese and you will hear some of the most poignant expressions of what state collapse looks like in their personal lives.
The newest member state of the East Africa Community beats the rest in nearly every index of human suffering and has earned that status.
South Sudan was born into riches that its citizens could not enjoy. This is mainly because it was born from blood and violence, from a war that has left a heavy burden on the national psyche. However, the misery South Sudanese live in is mainly because their leaders acted like spoiled rich kids and wasted the country’s wealth on a quick addiction to glitter and glamour, behaving as if oil money was infinite.
And now, the country is broke, lawless, shredded by communal violence, warring militias, competing politico-military leaders and by poverty and food insecurity. Its image and national pride are wounded by the fact that majority of its citizens are fed by foreign agencies and almost all basic public goods and services, things that are the fundamental responsibility of the state, have been relegated to international organisations.
This was brought on by theft of public resources, to the point where the country cannot afford basic healthcare for its citizens and feed its people. South Sudan's education system is a total sham, and the government has not paid its civil servants and security forces for over a year, turning them into a threat to life itself.
No more shame
One of the characteristics that South Sudan has demonstrated as a real measure of state collapse is the loss of a sense of shame in the manner with which the country’s wealth is siphoned off to foreign countries, flagrantly diverted from building the country, evading all accountability institutions while compromising and weakening them to a point where they simply watch this broad day-light robbery without capacity to lift a finger.
Last year, for example, the Central Bank shocked everybody when it announced that the country’s entire foreign currency reserves were squandered. But why is this happening? Can someone stop it? How?
It is often said that countries which emerge in the manner that South Sudan came into existence, through armed struggle, often inheriting a war economy, a dilapidated infrastructure, wrecked social and ethnic relations and flailing moral stature.
This has been described as the “liberation movement syndrome,” where the country is run by unskilled former rebels, encumbered by a sense of entitlement among the liberators to hold office for life, get big pay, have unrestrained access to the public purse with no accountability and get their cronies into key positions. This turn of events often leaves the citizens wondering what they were liberated for.
Examples of this phenomenon abound in Africa, from Zimbabwe to South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and many more. It is one of the most ubiquitous post-colonial realities Africa is grappling with.
That said, blaming history for current woes can only go so far in explaining the failure and before it becomes a cover up for abuse of public office. The collapse of South Sudan lies squarely at the doorstep of its rulers.
The competing leaders have long taken leave from the nationalism that had truly inspired so many of them to selflessly pursue liberation. For example, they have taken the newness of the country and the horrific history that gave birth to it as an alibi for their unwillingness or inability to do better, always singing the mantra, “we are a baby country,” as an excuse for the mess they have created for 17 years since the liberation war ended. How many years does it take to ground the country in the rule of law?
What the future holds
What will it take to move South Sudan in a different direction, away from the trajectory of wreckage it has been on?
No one can say anything about what the future holds for South Sudan anymore, given the immense promise independence held for its people and the international good it has squandered. In the immediate term, it is extremely hard to predict.
There is Covid-19 and a looming food deficit disaster that is likely to reach famine levels, with the United Nations estimating that millions will be at risk of starvation come June and July this year. With South Sudan's intra-state trade network disrupted by violence, even barter trade, livestock for grain, for example, has become extremely difficult to conduct. In urban centers all across the country, there has been diminution of the citizen’s purchasing power because majority of city residents are internally displaced persons who rely on international aid.
Overall, this situation is likely to increase public anger over time. Whether this anger can be organised and politically channeled into a popular protest remains the question. So far, the most frequent course of action for people frustrated by bad governance has been armed rebellion, leading to multiplication of armed anti-government militias since 2005. This, however, has not brought any meaningful change. In fact, it has caused more destruction and should be abandoned.
What has not been tried in response to these circumstances is non-violent civil disobedience. People are afraid the government could turn it into a blood bath. The Minister of Information, Michael Makuei Lueth is on record threatening violence against anyone contemplating such action.
“We don’t have rubber bullets, we only have live ammunition,” he once declared in a press conference in Juba.
But the real impediment to popular protest is that the South Sudanese lack a strong civil society or a strong labour movement to organise a multi-ethnic non-violent revolution to tell these leaders that the people have had enough.