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Battered By Civil War, South Sudan Falters Toward 3rd Birthday


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Three years ago this was the sound of freedom being celebrated in the world's newest country.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

BLOCK: South Sudan was celebrating its first independence day, July ninth, as a newly formed nation. Their independence was hard-won after decades of war with Khartoum in the north. The two sides signed a peace deal in 2005, and six years later the people of southern Sudan went to the polls and voted for independence by a margin of 99 to 1. At the time the optimism was palpable, but it didn't last long. By December of last year, South Sudan had descended into its own bloody civil war. EJ Hogendoorn is with the International Crisis Group. He's deputy director of their Africa program and travels regularly to the region. Thanks for coming in.

EJ HOGENDOORN: My pleasure.

BLOCK: And why don't you explain the roots of this Civil War in South Sudan which is broken down, as I understand it, largely along ethnic lines. Who's fighting whom?

HOGENDOORN: Well, the conflict really started kind of as a political struggle between Salva Kiir, the president, and Riek Machar, the former vice president. Salva Kiir comes from the Dinka community, and Riek Machar comes from the Nuer. Basically what the conflict boiled down to was a struggle over who was going to be the next president, and on the 15th of December a fight broke out within the presidential guard in Juba that quickly just generated into this civil conflict.

BLOCK: The numbers, even in just these few months of fighting - seven months or so of fighting - are really striking - more than a million South Sudanese displaced - over 10,000 killed. When you go there now do you see the signs of civil war everywhere? What's visible?

HOGENDOORN: Well, it is quite staggering. I mean obviously I wasn't able to travel to all of South Sudan, but I certainly was able to go up to Bor which is one of the regional capitals. It was essentially razed to the ground. All the major buildings had been gutted, looted, burned. And it is going to be a long-term reconstruction effort if and when they are able to arrive at a peace deal that all sides can live with.

BLOCK: And there's a lot of concern right now about famine.

HOGENDOORN: Yes. Unfortunately what's happened with the displacement is that people weren't able to plant, so they are not going to have food that they can harvest. It is increasingly difficult to truck in food now because there is a rainy season that essentially makes all the roads impassable. And while people aren't starving now, essentially what most people fear is that within a month or two they will start.

BLOCK: One of the things that South Sudan was seen to have going in its favor when independence came was resources - arable land, vast oil reserves. What's happened to all of that promise and all of that wealth that was supposed to help keep this country afloat?

HOGENDOORN: The promise is still there. Unfortunately, the wealth was squandered. It is believed that more than $4 billion was essentially stolen by political elites over the last couple of years.

BLOCK: $4 billion?

HOGENDOORN: $4 billion, yes. And much of that money, of course, could have been spent on the development of infrastructure in South Sudan that would've then allowed the South Sudanese economy to diversify. The biggest problem, really, for South Sudan was that 98 percent of its government revenues were being supplied by the oil industry. All that money, of course, is now being diverted to the war effort or to the government's war effort, and all the services that people were expecting are no longer there.

BLOCK: I wonder, Mr. Hogendoorn, as you look back three years to the birth of this country, could you make the argument that there was too much optimism about South Sudan in the beginning - not enough realism, maybe, from governments including the U.S. government about the difficulties that this state would eventually face?

HOGENDOORN: Well, certainly you can say that in hindsight. I think, in all fairness, a lot of South Sudan's partners were aware of the challenges. What they had been doing for several years was urging South Sudanese politicians to implement the reforms they felt were necessary to try to make government more accountable and transparent and to focus more effort on providing services to people that people had expected after independence. For a number of reasons that didn't happen. It is a real shame.

BLOCK: Mr. Hogendoorn, thanks for coming in.

HOGENDOORN: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's EJ Hogendoorn. He is deputy director of the Africa program with the International Crisis Group. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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