Even On Its Dismal Third Birthday, South Sudan's Independence Is Something Worth Celebrating

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Pete Muller / AP Photo

Southern Sudanese wave flags and cheer at the Republic of South Sudan's first national soccer match in the capital of Juba on Sunday, July 10, 2011. The game, played against Kenya, comes just one day after South Sudan declared its independence from the north following decades of costly civil war. (AP Photo/Pete Muller)

On the third anniversary of its independence, South Sudan is arguably the most fragile country in the entire world.

Nearly a fifth of its population has been displaced since rival ethnic cadres of an elite army unit faced off in the national capital of Juba in December of 2013, setting into motion events that rapidly mutated into inter-communal atrocities and civil war. Interrupted supply lines and a truncated growing season are raising the specter of famine for the coming year. The government is resistant to internal reform, a full 70% of the military has defected or deserted, and South Sudan has failed to fully resolve a number of outstanding issues with the Republic of Sudan, from which it seceded in 2011.

Independence was supposed to resolve one of the world's longest-running conflicts, while redressing some of the worst abuses ever committed by an African government. But less than a half decade later, South Sudan is dealing with some of the biggest challenges that a country can face, as well as the likelihood that those problems will get substantially worse.
It's legitimate to ask what South Sudanese Independence has actually achieved, especially with the existing state system under such strain elsewhere throughout the greater Middle East. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant (ISIS) has framed its blitz through Mesopotamia as a repudiation of the Sykes-Picot pact (the post-World War I-era demarcation of colonial borders in the Middle East) and everything it represents: the external imposition of borders, and imported concepts of republicanism and statehood. Iraqi Kurdistan seems better positioned for full independence than at any point in its history. But South Sudan's rough first few years suggests that there's some inherent value in keeping existing states together, and that dissolution actually creates as many problems as it solves.

This approach to the value of South Sudanese Independence is myopic, though. Civil wars and famines are horrible events, but they are also temporary. Independence is theoretically permanent, as are the responsibilities it demands and the opportunities it offers.

With that in mind, South Sudanese independence was a just solution to a cascade of historic wrongs. Independence rejected the strictures of the existing state system to place a long-disenfranchised people in charge of their own destiny. It was rare evidence that the world's biggest problems could be met with solutions that were equally massive, incredibly risky - and, inevitably, fair.

Some background: South Sudan became independent in 2011 as the result of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a decades-long civil war between the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which fought on behalf of Sudan's non-Arab and mostly non-Muslim south, and the Arab and Muslim-dominated Sudanese government in Khartoum.

The conflict killed as many as 2.5 million people and was the second protracted post-independence civil war between Sudan's north and south, regions that were yoked into a single country under British colonial rule and were never really governed in anything resembling an equitable manner. They were two very different and mostly separate places, joined only by the Nile River and the particular needs of London and Khartoum - the latter of which fought to avoid a more general breakout of multi-ethnic yet Arab-ruled Sudan, and later to retain the South's oil wealth. Notably, the leader of the SPLM during the peace negotiations did not want the south to become an independent nation, and supported a more general Sudan-wide democratization push. The National Congress Party in Khartoum, a nominally Islamist regime headed by perhaps the worst dictator on earth, made sure that the 2005 peace agreement wasn't the roadmap for a democratic "New Sudan" that it was originally intended as being.

But under the treaty, the South got to vote on an independence referendum in 2010. And thanks to a combination of understandable southern cynicism towards the possibility of a nationwide solution to Sudan's problems, and U.S. pressure on Khartoum to allow a greatly neutered peace process to creep forward, the South was allowed to secede. It became an independent state on July 9th, 2011.

The major practical accomplishment of independence is that it makes re-escalation of the north-south conflict - which was a hot war for the better part of the past fifty years - an international rather than internal issue. If Khartoum wants to go to war against the south, it must do so as a coequal state, at least in the eyes of international law and the broader global community. Gone is the possibility of pseudo-genocidal policies inflicted from Khartoum. This alone is a success.

More importantly, independence forces both societies to deal with their own issues independently of the other's needs and influence. In reality, there has been plenty of aggression and mutual meddling between north and south since 2011, with both governments likely supporting rebellions within the other's territory, and feuding over oil revenues and the demarcation of a still-disputed border.

But the impact of independence has still been profound. In the north, ongoing ethnic conflict and stagnant quality of life have triggered occasional bouts of Arab Spring-style protests in Khartoum in the years after the country's breakup. Sudanese wonder how their leadership could bring the country to the point where its most resource-rich third was allowed to secede. They wonder at the national-level failure that the schism between North and South represents. Even the regime has admitted that independence has forced the country to consider a new mode of self-definition: just before the South seceded, dictator Omar Al Bashir announced that he was considering declaring Sudan an Islamic state after the split. Even this seems like an oblique admission that independence is moving Sudan towards an internal reckoning that even its oppressive government realizes it is badly in need of.

And in the South, independence has required Southerners to face the worst aspects of their recent history. The current civil conflict is a replay of an internal schism that led to a rash of ethnic violence in the early 1990s. National reconciliation and national are now closely intertwined. Then there's the issue of reforming the government, which largely consists of former guerrilla fighters and has a military rather than political character to it. These are huge problems, but at least they're problems that the south is empowered and indeed forced to solve on its own - problems whose solutions aren't being going to be dictated from somewhere else.

Three years ago, Juba, Khartoum, and the international community reached an ambitious resolution to a costly historical wrong. It wasn't inevitable, and the motives of all sides were never entirely pure. It was risky, and its consequences haven't been entirely positive.
But it happened. It was a rare instance in which fairness won out over ease. It forced two countries into a national-level self-reckoning that might otherwise have been permanently and tragically delayed. Even with famine and warfare looming, this is worth recognizing and perhaps even celebrating.