It’s been a little over five years since South Sudan became a sovereign nation after a long and bloody struggle for independence from its northern neighbor, Sudan.
When it first declared its statehood, the international community was optimistic that the fledgling nation would be a model for other insurgent movements throughout the African continent.
But now, the youngest country on Earth may be on the verge of disappearing entirely, or at least becoming a trusteeship under the wing of the United Nations.
South Sudan, which came into being as a nation in 2011 as a prototype for resolving regional ethnic disputes, is now a moribund state on the verge of total collapse.
Ranked number two on the U.S. think-tank Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index (right after Somalia), the oil-rich, fertile, but desperately poor, predominantly Christian South Sudan flatoutly rejected a proposal last year by the African Union to increase the number of foreign troops in order to secure its capital Juba following violent clashes between warring factions.
But as it becomes ever more obvious that the South Sudanese are unable to entangle themselves from the web of political strife that the country’s independence wove, the idea of a trusteeship is once again being floated.
The country already has 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers struggling to keep the forces loyal to embattled and blatantly corrupt President Salva Kiir Mayardit (who hails from the Dinka, South Sudan’s largest ethnic group) and those pledged to the equally nefarious Nuer opposition leader Riek Machar, from extinguishing one another.
This violence has threatened to upend a brittle foreign-brokered peace accord reached a year and a half ago between Kiir and Machar, who spearheaded a civil war since December 2013 that has led to the death of tens of thousands and further inflamed already-tender ethnic tensions.
Before their nation’s independence, the South Sudanese rebels were united (at least in terms of their fundamental ideology) in their fight against the Arab-dominated central government of Sudan.
But now, the country’s different factions are at one another throats, unable to come to any semblance of political consensus.
At the root of the tensions lie centuries-old ethnic rivalries and an insatiable avarice for oil, the country’s main export, representing the source of 99 percent of its foreign revenues.
By the end of 2013, two years into the country’s newfound sovereignty, large-scale massacres — including the immolation of children, institutionalized gang rapes and the incineration of entire villages — had become commonplace as international observers began to use the phrase “bipartite genocide” to describe the horror.
It is easy to play the blame game in trying to understand what when wrong in South Sudan.
In many ways, it is more of a question of what didn’t go wrong.
Throughout its history, the country has always been an object of spoils for a parade of conquering forces, having been subjugated by the Ottomans, Egyptians, Belgians, French, British and, of course, Sudan.
And since its independence, South Sudan has endured an equally oppressive procession of corrupt and inept leadership.
The foreign architects of South Sudan’s fragile peace process that led to its independence also share part of the responsibility for its current political and economic chaos.
Khartoum only agreed to grant its southern region independence because of persistent high-level pressure from Washington and London.
And once Sudan finally gave in to Western coercion, a war that had been raging between north and south simply transmuted into a brutal civil war that spread throughout the infant state.
The landlocked Sudan, despite its rich oil reserves and having once been the breadbasket of east Africa, is now a dysfunctional dependent state that suckles on foreign aid and well-intended donations of billions of dollars that are almost inevitably usurped and misappropriated by a barrage of grasping generals and local warlords.
In short, South Sudan is bankrupt.
It has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate and 16th-highest infant mortality rate.
At least 70 percent of the women sheltered in government-sponsored camps have reported being raped by the very soldiers who are tasked with protecting them.
Over half its population lives in abject poverty according to United Nations figures, and literacy rates are less than 28 percent.
Oil production has trickled to a near standstill as a result of fighting between the Dinka and Nuer.
And the revenues of what little oil the country does produce are shared with Sudan, which owns South Sudan’s export pipelines.
Sending in more foreign troops to try to diffuse internal ethnic disputes that date back centuries will not help.
Like any newborn, South Sudan needs nurturing, and it cannot mature if it is forced to continue to function under the shot-gun marriage of its equality corrupt and foreign-imposed leaders, who are far more obsessed with doing away with each other than bothering to help their people.
The real problem is that there is no real statesmanship within the world’s youngest state.
The only solution for South Sudan is for an externally brokered peace that is totally devoid of foreign interests and which takes into account the complex tapestry of its unique ethnic fiber.
Ultimately, that peace accord would have to allow the South Sudanese to find their own path to concrete nationhood, if the two sides can put aside their mutual hatred long enough to save their country from disintegration.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.