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The failed state notion of South Sudan, post secession
Written by Christine Storø (1)

On 9 July 2011, South Sudan officially secedes from North Sudan, becoming an independent country. There are numerous challenges facing the new nation, both internally and externally. This paper tries to examine some of the challenges faced within South Sudan and some of those caused by North-South tensions. The international community is concerned that South Sudan may not be ready for independence due to its high ranking on the Failed State Index.(2) If the insurmountable challenges are not met and changes are not seen on the ground following independence, it may prove difficult for the young nation to avoid being labelled a failed state.


In 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between the National Congress Party (NPC) in the North and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA) in the South, bringing an end to 22 years of civil war.(3) As per a condition of the CPA, a secession referendum was held in South Sudan in January 2011. The referendum was generally accepted as free and fair and credible by international observers and results indicated that South Sudan voted overwhelmingly for independence.(4)

Southern Sudan does not have a dominant culture, but the Dinkas and Nuers are the largest of more than 200 ethnic groups, with their own traditional beliefs and languages.(5) It may be a challenging task for South Sudan to unite all these ethnic groups and uphold relative peace following secession.(6) The mutual enemy found in North Sudan may prove unifying for a while, but this will not last forever. Eventually focus will shift towards internal issues.

Current status

Salva Kiir Mayardit, a former rebel commander, is most likely to become the first President of South Sudan.(7) Kiir is currently Vice-President of the unified Sudan but has, since the peace deal in 2005, focused on ensuring the South’s referendum on full independence.(8) Kiir was a military commander and founder of the southern rebels, the SPLM, and was involved in the early stages of the 2005 peace agreement.(9) He is from the Dinka community, which may be a challenge, as some members of the second biggest group in the South, the Nuer, resent the perceived Dinka dominance.(10) Some also fear that Kiir’s background as a former rebel may bring about a New Sudan no more democratic than the old version.(11) Kiir is an example of a former rebel commander with no formal training or education and lives in a country where neo-patrimonialism and corruption is rife; the South Government is most likely made up of former rebel fighters. The task facing South Sudan is to be able to incorporate the skilled and educated Sudanese needed to rebuild a war-torn country and build institutions. In South Sudan, only 37% of the population has attended secondary schooling.(12) However, the Sudanese diaspora continues to return from abroad, bringing with them skills and education. Although too few in number to drastically alter the current status quo, they could be an integral part in the new independent country’s rebuilding effort.(13)

Secession, as is likely in Sudan, poses major challenges, both politically and financially.(14) Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, argues that it is important for the development following secession to be visible on ground and that both the North and South of Sudan experience economic growth.(15) Despite the rich oil reserves in South Sudan, development since the end of the war has not reached the people on the streets.(16) South Sudan faces insurmountable challenges in the face of secession on 9 July 2011. More than 80% of southerners do not have sanitation facilities and, unlike the situation in the North, boreholes and unprotected wells are the main sources for drinking water.(17) Conflict and poverty have been the main causes of food insecurity in Sudan and South Sudanese are still greatly dependent on food aid.(18) For the time being, the mutual enemy in the North unites the South Sudanese, but improvements need to be seen on the ground soon if unity is to continue after secession.

The challenges facing South Sudan externally

North Sudan and South Sudan agree on the need for a demilitarised zone along the border between the two countries, but only 80% of the border has been agreed upon.(19) Five areas are being disputed and there is also the issue of how security should be upheld in the demilitarised zone.(20)

One of the decisive issues following independence is how North Sudan and South Sudan are to share the oil revenues.(21) Most of Sudan’s oil revenues are found in the South and so far they have shared the income.(22) Despite the South having the greater part of the oil territories, the oil needs to be transported through pipes running through North Sudan.(23) It is not clear yet, how much the North will charge for this transport.(24) This issue may be difficult to solve as South Sudan’s independence considerably downsizes North Sudan’s annual income by as much as 75% of the once united country’s 500,000 barrels per day oil output after 9 July 2011.(25) There has been talk of a transition period whereby the oil revenue will be shared with North Sudan (the South has mentioned three years) but a definite solution has not been found.(26) Mbeki argued that the parties must come to an agreement prior to independence on 9 July 2011.(27)

Abyei is a highly disputed region that is becoming increasingly affected by conflict.(28) The region has seen a series of bloody clashes since January 2011 between Dinka Ngok and the Misseriya.(29) The Dinka Ngok are a southern ethnic group who are permanent residents of the region, whilst the Misseriya are northern nomads who only spends parts of the year in the region seeking pastures for their cattle.(30) Each group suspects and blames the other of using security forces in the fighting and building troops near Abyei.(31) Furthermore, despite the North-South agreement on 8 May 2011 to remove any unauthorised troops from the region, at least four UN soldiers were shot and wounded just outside Abyei in early May 2011.(32)

There are fears that if a solution to the Abyei dispute is not found it could reignite the civil war between the North and the South.(33) The draft version of South Sudan’s interim constitution claims that the Abyei region belongs to the South, whilst President Omar al-Bashir has threatened to not recognise the new state if it tries to claim Abyei.(34) In January 2011, the Abyei region was scheduled to hold a referendum to decide which state to join (North or South), but an agreement could not be reached as to whether or not the Misseriya could vote.(35) In the meantime, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) continue to gather near the border with Abyei.(36)

Another point of contention between the North and South is a disputed election in South Kardofan. Sudan declared that the northern ruling party won an election for Governor in South Kordofan on 15 May 2011, an election the South claims was rigged.(37) South Kordofan, on the border of the South, is the North’s main oil state and holds most of its oil revenue after the south splits.(38) The state is also inhabited by soldiers who sided against the North during the civil war; soldiers who fear they may be targeted in the new North Sudan.(39) Violent confrontations may erupt if SPLM withdraws from the vote as it considered the election to have been tampered with.(40) To complicate matters further, South Kordofan is a strategic state as it borders the volatile Darfur region and Abyei as well as bordering South Sudan. The tension following the announcement of the new Governor may also prove a destabilising factor for the North-South relationship. 

Within the heart of the South Kordofan state, another area prone to conflict exists: the Nuba Mountains. Nuba Mountains may be where the next conflict in North Sudan occurs, as the people of the Nuba Mountains are on collision course with President al-Bashir and his party.(41) The Nuba are often referred to as more of a political or geographical entity instead of a homogenous ethnic group; they follow Islam, Christianity, or traditional religions, but consider themselves very different from the Arab elites in Khartoum.(42) During the civil war, many Nuba fought alongside the SPLA whose aim was to create a secular state where diversity was respected, unlike North Sudan’s wish to Islamise the country.(43) In 1992, a jihad was declared where northern troops and Arab militias were allowed to kill Nuba even those who were Muslim.(44) A ceasefire was signed in 2002, but needless to say, the sentiments towards al-Bashir and his party are still fragile.(45) President al-Bashir said in a speech that as soon as South Sudan secedes, there will be no place for ethnic or cultural diversity in the North, and Islam would be the sole source of law.(46) Statements such as these only lead to further strain on the relationship between the Nuba and North Sudan, as they are not willing to give up their beliefs. This combined with the tens of thousands of Nuba soldiers in the SPLA, who could potentially return home to fight if necessary, makes this region particularly volatile. A conflict in the Nuba Mountains may also destabilise the newly created South Sudan and is thus another factor that needs to be kept in mind.

These areas and issues mentioned above need to be addressed in order to maintain relative peace between the two countries after the independence of South Sudan. Some argue that the relationship between North and South will remain relatively stable as they will be forced into a “modicum of international cooperation” to be able to keep the oil flowing out of Port Sudan; a necessary transaction for both countries and in the interest of the international community as well.(47) International pressure is not enough, however, to keep the two countries from fighting each other. Unless the issues mentioned above are solved, secession may prove difficult and relative peace may be threatened.

The challenges facing South Sudan internally

South Sudan is officially a new country on 9 July 2011, but there are huge challenges facing it. There is a lack of reliable transportation, absence of basic services, fear of an outbreak of violence, widespread poverty, lack of functioning institutions, and corruption to mention but a few.(48)

Current armed insurrections continue to cause problems internally in South Sudan. In December 2010 and March 2011, the North’s SAF carried out a series of bombings in the Southern states of northern and western Bahr el-Ghazal, with the aim of chasing rebel groups form South Darfur.(49) In February 2011, SAF Joint Integrated Unit contingents, stationed throughout Upper Nile to support the peace agreement, fought with one another.(50) Clashes took place in Upper Nile State and at least 50 people were killed in March 2011.(51) An additional concern is a rebellion led by George Athor. A former member of the SPLA during the civil war, Athor inaugurated his rebellion in 2010 when he failed to win the elections for state Governor in Jonglei.(52) Athor claimed he had been cheated out of victory and, despite a ceasefire agreement in January 2011, clashes between forces loyal to Athor and the Southern army broke out in Jonglei in February 2011, resulting in hundreds of deaths.(53) The recent clashes could establish a precedent, thereby encouraging others to take up arms against South Sudan’s new government and further contribute to destabilising South Sudan.(54)

These armed insurrections taking place in South Sudan may be a symptom of and a contributor to weak governance in South Sudan.(55) There are clashes between SPLA and several militia leaders in three out of 10 states in South Sudan.(56) Despite rumours that North Sudan is arming the rebels, it is the lack of inclusive governance in the South that leads to rebels calling out for urgent attention.(57) Furthermore, there has been a lack of inclusive decision-making in the constitutional review process, which is taking place as part of the current transition to independence; this is especially so for the opposition parties.(58) In a country with more than 200 ethnic groups, inclusivity may be especially problematic and an issue that needs to be taken seriously to avoid an escalation of armed insurrections. Inclusion will thus be important to avoid further conflict between inter-tribal and militia versus SPLA post-secession.(59)

The SPLA and the Dinka dominance of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) have been heavily criticised for poor governance and widespread corruption.(60) Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, South Sudan is also making use of the neo-patrimonial mode of governance with oil wealth being distributed from political patrons to client supporters.(61) Disaffected groups and opposition leaders, in fear of derailing the process, did not raise these issues in the run up to the referendum.(62) This may change, however, as suppressed grievances may surface post-secession and lead to intensified intra Southern conflict.(63) South Sudan needs to focus on creating a social contract to be able to build a stable, functional, and accountable state to try and deal with internal issues arising in the near future when the mutual enemy of North is no longer the unifying force.(64)

Another major challenge facing South Sudan is the delivery of basic services such as health care, water, sanitation, and adequate education.(65) An average of 34% of total GoSS spending between 2006 and 2009 went to the military; thus, there is not much left for the delivery of much-needed basic services in a region where 90% of the poor live on less than a dollar a day.(66) 50.6% of the 8.2 million people living in South Sudan live in poverty and despite an increase in oil revenue since the signing of the CPA, results on ground have been few.(67) There is also a need for economic dynamism to make sure that oil revenues are not the only source of income in the future.(68) South Sudan has areas were the soil is naturally fertile, but the country still relies on imports from abroad.(69) Only 1% of new businesses registered in 2010 were related to commercial agriculture.(70)

The challenges facing the Republic of South Sudan are insurmountable and will not be solved easily. With a number 3 ranking, Sudan is not well represented in the Failed State Index of 2010.(71) A failed state can be defined as one which is unable to perform a set of functions needed for a state to be considered a functioning state. These include the maintenance of secure boundaries, ensured protection and security of the population, provision of public goods, establishment of effective governance, and guarantee of law and order.(72) According to this definition, South Sudan is failing within all these areas and, if nothing is done to address these issues, South Sudan will remain a failed state.

Concluding remarks

The internal and external challenges may render South Sudan a failed state even before independence on 9 July 2011. Some of the North-South tensions such as border demarcation, the Abyei region, and oil revenues need to be sorted out prior to this date. There are other issues putting strain on the relationship, but the ones mentioned above are most pressing for the Republic of South Sudan to become a reality. The fragile relationship with North Sudan is beneficial within South Sudan, as it is a unifying force. This effect will not last for long, and the internal challenges facing the new country need to be addressed. Pressing internal challenges such as weak institutions, neo-patrimonialism, corruption, and armed insurrections need to be dealt with.

If South Sudan is to remain relatively peaceful, people on the ground need to see changes by means of improved basic services and access to education. The distribution of the oil revenues need to be used to build institutions and increase general welfare in a country where more than 50% live in poverty. If these issues are not dealt with, South Sudan will remain high up on the Failed States Index and conflict may erupt. Kiir and his Government need to take the internal issues seriously and rid themselves of the neo-patrimonial system if South Sudan is to stand a chance of avoiding the label “failed state”.


(1) Contact Christine Storø through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict & Terrorism Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Semp, P., ‘Down a long and difficult road’, Open Democracy, 22 March 2011,
(3) Carpenter, S., ‘South Sudan: reflection on a fragile state’, Open Democracy, 22 April 2011,
(4) Ibid.
(5) ‘South Sudan: Rebel Athor claims Oliny as new ally’, BBC News Africa, 7 March 2011,
(6) Ibid.
(7) ‘Profile: Southern Sudan leader Salva Kiir’, BBC News Africa, 5 January 2011,
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Semp, P., ‘Down a long and difficult road’, Open Democracy, 22 March 2011,
(13) Ibid.
(14) Hege Opseth, ‘Stridsspørsmål i kø’, Bistandsaktuelt, 15 May 2011,
(15) Ibid.
(16) ‘Profile: Southern Sudan leader Salva Kiir’, BBC News Africa, 5 January 2011,
(17) ‘South Sudan: Rebel Athor claims Oliny as new ally’, BBC News Africa, 7 March 2011,
(18) Ibid.
(19) Hege Opseth, ‘Stridsspørsmål i kø’, Bistandsaktuelt, 15 May 2011,
(20) Ibid.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) ‘Sudan declares north party winner in key state vote’, Reuters, 15 May 2011,
(26) Hege Opseth, ‘Stridsspørsmål i kø’, Bistandsaktuelt, 15 May 2011,
(27) Ibid.
(28) Ibid.
(29) ‘Sudan: UN peacekeepers attacked in Abyei’, BBC News Africa, 11 May 2011,
(30) ‘Sudan: UN peacekeepers attacked in Abyei’, BBC News Africa, 11 May 2011,
(31) Ibid.
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34) Ibid.
(35) ‘Sudan: UN peacekeepers attacked in Abyei’, BBC News Africa, 11 May 2011,
(36) Carpenter, S., ‘South Sudan: reflection on a fragile state’, Open Democracy, 22 April 2011,
(37) ‘Sudan declares north party winner in key state vote’, Reuters, 15 May 2011,
(38) Ibid. 
(39) Ibid.
(40) Ibid.
(41) ‘Sudan: Could Nuba Mountains be next conflict?’, BBC News Africa, 10 May 2011,
(42) Ibid.
(43) Ibid.
(44) Ibid.
(45) Ibid.
(46) Ibid.
(47) Carpenter, S., ‘South Sudan: reflection on a fragile state’, Open Democracy, 22 April 2011,
(48) Semp, P., ‘Down a long and difficult road’, Open Democracy, 22 March 2011,
(49) Carpenter, S., ‘South Sudan: reflection on a fragile state’, Open Democracy, 22 April 2011,
(50) Ibid.
(51) ‘South Sudan: Rebel Athor claims Oliny as new ally’, BBC News Africa, 7 March 2011,
(52) Ibid.
(53) Ibid.
(54) Ibid.
(55) Carpenter, S., ‘South Sudan: reflection on a fragile state’, Open Democracy, 22 April 2011,
(56) Carpenter, S., ‘South Sudan: reflection on a fragile state’, Open Democracy, 22 April 2011,
(57) Ibid.
(58) Ibid.
(59) Semp, P., ‘Down a long and difficult road’, Open Democracy, 22 March 2011,
(60) Carpenter, S., ‘South Sudan: reflection on a fragile state’, Open Democracy, 22 April 2011,
(61) Ibid.
(62) Ibid.
(63) Ibid.
(64) Ibid.
(65) Ibid.
(66) Ibid.
(67) Semp, P., ‘Down a long and difficult road’, Open Democracy, 22 March 2011,
(68) Carpenter, S., ‘South Sudan: reflection on a fragile state’, Open Democracy, 22 April 2011,
(69) Semp, P., ‘Down a long and difficult road’, Open Democracy, 22 March 2011,
(70) Ibid.
(71) ‘The failed states index’, Foreign Policy, 2010,
(72) Jones, B.G. The Global Political Economy of Social Crisis: Towards a critique of the ’Failed State’ Ideology. Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 15(2).