There was a tragic inevitability about the violence that has erupted in South Sudan in the past week, given the weakness of state institutions and the intensity of unresolved internal antagonisms in the world’s youngest country.
It was the Troika of Britain, Norway and the United States that nudged and wrestled the component parts of what are now the states of Sudan and South Sudan into the negotiations that brought 23 years of civil war to an end. It was the outside world, again with Britain to the fore, that cajoled and badgered and bribed the north and the south into treating each other with sufficient respect to allow the population of the south to decide on its destiny – to remain within the north or to form the world’s youngest nation state – through a referendum that was seen by most analysts as a foregone conclusion. Independence was duly celebrated in 2011, and it seemed a great result.
The euphoria was premature, however. South Sudan teeters on the verge of civil war, with deep-rooted ethnic division and the destabilising influence of oil resources creating a conflict that is potentially devastating for Sudan and the larger region, as well as for the south.
It is no easy business to create a new state, and it should be no great surprise – for all that it is regrettable – if there are teething problems. Even so, there are more and less sensible ways to proceed.
The question was how to create a democratic state in a land of extreme poverty, cursed with oil and riven by tribal and linguistic divisions that are numerous even by African standards. The response from the international community was to ignore the vast majority of internal ethnic divisions and external regional stakeholders, to cherry-pick the most powerful and bellicose tribal warlords and to force them to jump through a series of constitutional hoops far removed from politics on the ground.
Nor is this an isolated case. Too often, from Afghanistan to Somalia to South Sudan, this is how desperately frail states are brought into being, states which cannot be expected to long survive the exit of their patrons. There must be a better way.
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