Youth in South Sudan The Present Political Context

 “To the youth of today, I also have a wish to make: be the scriptwriters of your destiny and feature yourselves as stars that showed the way towards a brighter future.”

— Nelson Mandela, 9 July 2008

On the 9th of July 2011, following decades of civil war, South Sudan gained independence from Sudan. Currently, South Sudan is one of the world’s most impoverished nations, ranking among the lowest in numerous socioeconomic classifications and health indicators. Moreover, little is known as to whether South Sudan has a history of full range development or a functional private sector through which an entrepreneurial ethos can easily advance.

Consequently, despite 72 per cent of the population being under 30 years old, serious youth concerns remain unaddressed in South Sudan. Instead, the government has taken imprudent actions that test the country’s volatility; ignored impending dilemmas to socioeconomic and political development; and failed to include the youth in its agenda. Post-independence, South Sudan’s government should have guaranteed the youth a safe, healthy, and productive transition to adulthood; such intervention would have enabled their participation in peace-building, good governance and social cohesion. The government’s failure to do this kept South Sudan from realizing its millennium development goals by 2015. It has, also, kept South Sudan far from achieving internal security and will likely hinder the country’s achievement of its sustainable development goals by 2030.

Throughout the history of South Sudan (or pre-independence southern Sudan), South Sudanese youth have established constructive morals. The moral development of South Sudanese youth largely occurred in the context of an armed struggle against the colonial and Khartoum regimes from 1955 to 1972. More specifically, this development began during the first rebellion, the Anya-nya I, and continued even until the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement of 1972 that granted semi-autonomy to the then southern regions. The youth contributed to the struggle, not only through military involvement but also through student union advocacy and community sensitization.

The Addis Ababa agreement eventually failed and, in 1983, under the leadership of late Dr John Garang, the southern Sudanese launched another armed struggle. This struggle continued until 2005, when a comprehensive peace agreement was signed in the Kenyan town of Naivasha. This agreement called for a six-year period under one Sudan followed by a referendum on southern independence. In 2010, the people of southern Sudan overwhelmingly voted for secession and, a year afterwards, South Sudan was born.

Given their active role in both civil wars, wartime advocacy and the referendum, the youth contributed significantly to the independence of South Sudan. The youth had a constructive role and, through social action, sought to involve themselves in the affairs of a nation characterized by inequality, injustice and captivity enforced by the North’s despotic regimes. Changing the narrative and direction of South Sudanese political discourse was another crucial role the youth of South Sudan played in reshaping their fates from colonial and subjugating powers, to liberation.

Post-independence Context

Since the historic recognition of South Sudan as the 193rd country of the United Nations and the 54th country of the African Union, the context for South Sudan’s youth has considerably changed. No longer directly facing colonial powers, or Sudanese rule, since December 2013, the South Sudanese youth have been immersed in the conflict between South Sudanese president, Silva Kiir, and the former vice president, Dr Riek Machar.

The political turmoil between the South Sudanese head of state and his deputy emerged over intra-party issues and competition over military and financial resources. In 2013, the conflict erupted into a nation-wide civil war. Various analysts have argued that the conflict is partly a leadership crisis, partly an ethnic struggle. For how relations between the president and his deputy turned into a militant resentment within so short a time, Hilda Johnson provides a plausible explanation, in that perhaps the liberation struggle was a victim of the independence curse. Furthermore, Amel Aldehaib notes the undesirable roles the youth played in supporting the interest of elites. In service of selfish elite interests, young men and women were mutually hoodwinked into ethnic frames of thinking. Nevertheless, one could wonder as to what factors in the twenty-first century could motivate the youth to follow leaders based on a tribal entity. Two spring immediately to mind.

Firstly, traditional contexts whereby social structures are designed to ensure allegiance to leaders within tribes, especially the literate leaders, reduce the likelihood of young people directing their loyalty to the nation instead of their ethnic group. Indeed, a considerable number of South Sudanese youth found themselves trapped between favouring ethnic/tribal identities and adhering to the principles of nationalism. Amid negligence from the state, or weak governance structures, patriotism among citizens further became a questionable and secondary choice.

Secondly, existing records currently suggest only 27 per cent of South Sudan’s population aged 15 years and above are literate. Education, Nelson Mandela once argued, “is the most powerful weapon which can be used to change the world”. For the world’s youngest nation, therefore, high rates of illiteracy insinuate a fundamental challenge of inhibiting the general population’s ability to challenge elites, who thrive on promoting personal or tribal interests over national interest. Such elites ensure the youth are armed, and incentivize the youth to prioritize elite interests. Identity politics is common in the northern and eastern horn of Africa; furthermore, rival political differences are often exacerbated by structural violence amongst tribes. This was the case in 2013 following the schism between the president and his deputy.

The Socioeconomic and Political Challenges Facing the Youth in South Sudan

In recent years, economic performance in South Sudan has continued to worsen due to wars, a drastic fall in oil production, and a drop in global oil prices. South Sudan is an oil-dependent country, with oil accounting for almost 98 per cent of the total exports, 60 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), and more than 95 per cent of government revenues as of 2016. Amid these trends, the government has been unable to raise the required resources to finance peace-related costs and normal budget activities.

At a policy level, the South Sudanese youth report suggests a reviewed youth policy was due for publication in 2012. However, the policy document currently available [online] was published before independence. There should be a National Youth Policy document that recognizes youth as a resource that can benefit the country. Such a policy document can be expected to address issues affecting young people and detail strategies that would provide the youth with prospects to realize their potential.

Key Imperatives for the Youth in South Sudan

Whatever contributions the youth of South Sudan make, positive or negative, will have significant impacts on what the future holds for South Sudan. That said, and South Sudan’s current political atmosphere notwithstanding, South Sudanese youth can still play the following decisive roles:

Advocating unity and diversity. South Sudanese youth need to advance unity in diversity for healthier social cohesion among their country’s 64 ethnic groups. Some of the worst examples of disharmony grounded in a deeply rooted abhorrence occurred in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It was when groups of armed youth attacked unarmed ethnic groups taking refuge in the United Nations protection sites of Bor and Malakal, killing and wounding several.

In South Sudan, abhorrence among the youth is at its peak. The head of UN peacekeeping called the attack a ‘dangerous precedent’. It seems most youths have taken ethnic dimensions resulting in a sensitive political atmosphere. To achieve ethnic development, unity and diversity, youth groups can forge associations amongst cultural subgroups aimed at disseminating shared values, culture and traditions, and promoting peaceful co-existence and good governance.

Promoting dialogue, and engaging in peace-building initiatives. South Sudanese youth require more dialogue among themselves to effectively counter the prolonged decades of wars and tribal wrangling that has mangled the political shape of the country. This makes the youth part and parcel of the ongoing political discourse. Dialogue promotes peace-building and reconciliation amongst alienated ethnic groups. The youth can play vital roles in peace-building and conflict resolution by sensitizing communities on the values of peace, diversity and good governance. Currently it remains a challenge for South Sudanese youth to choose dialogue, reconciliation and peace-building agenda as a replacement for violence and aggressive approaches.

Promoting literacy and civic education. Sensitizing the public on the importance of peace and the drawbacks of war are principal roles the youth can execute. South Sudanese people are divided along ethnic lines, and the gaps widen so long as the conflict persists. Closing these gaps requires a new vision to empower and engage the youth in various aspects. As argued by many, the first precedence is education that will render the young people capable of changing and developing their country. For instance, innovative youth service programmes developed to match the skills of the youth with employment opportunities would lower unemployment and criminal or violent activities such as cattle raiding and armed robbery. Also, such programmes would reduce grievances, and motivation to join the armed rebellion. Instead, the youth would be encouraged to participate in the infrastructural and broader economic development.

Engaging in civil society programmes. Youth-led civil society organizations such as the Upper Nile Youth Development Association (UNYDA) have the potential to address economic, social and political challenges in ways that are accessible to people at the grassroots level. The UNYDA supports communities to handle current and past violence, and develop their social fabric.

Investing in vigorous political practice. South Sudanese youth can change their country’s narrative of corruption, patronage and clientelism by robustly and collectively engaging in matters of national concern, and by inhabiting the political vacuum created by self-centred leaders. Despite the importance of youth participation, the youth must recognize their leadership capacity, and must mitigate their limitations by educating themselves. Furthermore, to foster socio-economic and political development, the youth can push for reforms that will safeguard transparency, accountability, and good governance.

The youth are instruments of transformation. In South Sudan, young people have the potential to shape political discourse. They can be agents of peace and reconciliation, and a force for economic development. The better roles the youth play, the better what the future holds for them and their communities, is. However, more efforts are required in areas of peace-building and reconciliation to mitigate the deepening political crisis that has long shaped South Sudanese society. Much is required for sustainable youth engagement in civil society and for a substantial participation of young people in politics to occur. The government needs to develop policies and avail resources to not only protect the interest of young people but to also safeguard their participation in peace building and nation development

  • Joseph Mogga

    This is a candid freeze-frame of the youth landscape in South Sudan. Mr. Wani has captured the context, depth and nuance of the fluidity of youth activism in the world’s newest nation as it negotiates post-independence mired in conflict and elite competition.

  • Theogene

    This is an informative piece, Denis. I like the way you present facts, historical evidence and the suggestions you propose for the recovery of S. Sudan. However, I find no suggestion on the real roots of the problem. You seem to portray the nation as a failure and the youth as the victim of the system. This may seem an attractive view given that the youth have no political authority to enforce Justice-rule. The youth suffer the most and to the advantage of a minority elite. As you say 72% are youth. So, how many youth die in armed conflict? How many youth loose their families in the hands of the youth? I tend to think that the youth are not victims of what’s happening. The youth are cooperating in their own victimisation. I am not here to just condemn this youth. But I want to say that the youth are guilty of what is happening. It is important that we stop telling ourselves that we are victims. We must take responsibility and apologize for our wrong doing. From there, we will have the energy and the passion to fight those who exploit us.

    • Denis

      I am copying and pasting a comment by Mogga Joseph Eluzai on 5th April 2018:

      A rather blunt observation, Theo. Indeed, the youth share the blame for their victim status. The verdict for the whole of Africa is clear: if the youth choose to be passive and ahistorical now, they will spend their retirement in victimisation instead of celebrating Africa’s transformation. Africa’s youth have been pivotal in the struggle against colonial rule and apartheid. Somalia’s first post-independence leadership came from the Somali Youth League. In South Africa, Mandela was just about 26 when he set up the youth wing of ANC. By contrast, youth in Rwanda and Sudan took part in the gruesome spectre of genocide and Jihad . We are all familiar with the Niger Delta young people who have agitated over their region’s marginalisation in Nigeria. This last line brings me to the point where we must understand that Africa’s post-colonial state leadership has worked to undermine the rise of merit and institutionalism through entrenching poverty, ethnicity and mediocrity. In all these orgies, our political elite have sacrificed the youth on the altar of their greed for power. Poverty has ground our young people to a halt where many are dying younger today than 50 years ago;countless can’t access quality education or productive economic opportunities. Only 6% of Africa’s young people are attending tertiary education compared to a global average of 26%. Inspite of making up more than 40% of Africa’s productive workforce, our young people account for 60% of the continent’s unemployed masses. It is, therefore, easy to lay the blame at the doorstep of the youth if we don’t acutely digest the historical and political setup of our continent. Our leaders are in it for personal rule and personal gain since power has come to mean crude shorthand for state wealth. No wonder, millions of our youth are leaving Africa at worst or finding solace in European football fan-tribes at best . The issues are systemic and endemic. Inter-elite competition in Africa is ruthless and rudderless. It sucks up the young along ethnic and sectarian lines. Given the carefully watered down stock of education holding sway in Africa, our political elite have made sure that the youth are barely educated to challenge their grip on power. Instead, the small bundles of skills we have picked up at school are expediently used to try and salvage our families from poverty as a matter of top priority. Fewer young people in Africa spearhead thought beyond the confines of their daily bread. That is how the elite keep us busy. As we toil away at subsistence, the sun of prosperity is setting on our youth. The following morning, the cycle starts again…. Denis M. A. Wani

  • Joseph Mogga

    A rather blunt observation, Theo. Indeed, the youth share the blame for their victim status. The verdict for the whole of Africa is clear: if the youth choose to be passive and ahistorical now, they will spend their retirement in victimisation instead of celebrating Africa’s transformation. Africa’s youth have been pivotal in the struggle against colonial rule and apartheid. Somalia’s first post-independence leadership came from the Somali Youth League. In South Africa, Mandela was just about 26 when he set up the youth wing of ANC. By contrast, youth in Rwanda and Sudan took part in the gruesome spectre of genocide and Jihad . We are all familiar with the Niger Delta young people who have agitated over their region’s marginalisation in Nigeria. This last line brings me to the point where we must understand that Africa’s post-colonial state leadership has worked to undermine the rise of merit and institutionalism through entrenching poverty, ethnicity and mediocrity. In all these orgies, our political elite have sacrificed the youth on the altar of their greed for power. Poverty has ground our young people to a halt where many are dying younger today than 50 years ago;countless can’t access quality education or productive economic opportunities. Only 6% of Africa’s young people are attending tertiary education compared to a global average of 26%. Inspite of making up more than 40% of Africa’s productive workforce, our young people account for 60% of the continent’s unemployed masses. It is, therefore, easy to lay the blame at the doorstep of the youth if we don’t acutely digest the historical and political setup of our continent. Our leaders are in it for personal rule and personal gain since power has come to mean crude shorthand for state wealth. No wonder, millions of our youth are leaving Africa at worst or finding solace in European football fan-tribes at best . The issues are systemic and endemic. Inter-elite competition in Africa is ruthless and rudderless. It sucks up the young along ethnic and sectarian lines. Given the carefully watered down stock of education holding sway in Africa, our political elite have made sure that the youth are barely educated to challenge their grip on power. Instead, the small bundles of skills we have picked up at school are expediently used to try and salvage our families from poverty as a matter of top priority. Fewer young people in Africa spearhead thought beyond the confines of their daily bread. That is how the elite keep us busy. As we toil away at subsistence, the sun of prosperity is setting on our youth. The following morning, the cycle starts again….