South Sudan: Engage the Youth in Building Our New Nation

John Youhanes Magok, Executive Director of the Nile Youth Development Actions (NYDA) and author of the book “The Forgotten Youth of a Nation”.
9 July 2021
guest column

South Sudan, the world's youngest nation and an ethnically-diverse country with a population of more than 11 million, celebrated its 10th anniversary on Friday. The country gained her independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Africa's longest-running civil conflict, the Second Sudanese Civil War.

South Sudan covers a land area of 619,745 km² and as a tropical country, it is rich in biodiversity, blessed with favourable weather and spectacular fauna, which together with its rich ethnic make-up crown it as a "Land of Great Abundance and an Eden of Diversity". Its unparalleled ecosystem hosts a variety of unique animal species living in densely-forested areas which are home to creatures found nowhere else. Its climate is relatively warm, with seasonal precipitation in the southern regions and rains in the northern Greater Upper Nile and Greater Bahr el Ghazal regions.

South Sudan is truly gifted, with its uniquely diverse and well-stocked natural resources including rivers, lakes, fertile agricultural land and minerals. Along its northwards journey, the world-famous White Nile forms at one stage a vast swamp called Sudd – a massive solid floating vegetation island.

In the early years of its independence, South Sudan was referred to as "the London of East Africa" owing to its relatively strong currency whose exchange rate with the U.S. dollar topped SSP2.7=$1 before the 2013 South Sudanese Civil War. An influx of traders to Juba city peaked at that time and a flourishing economy earned the country substantial revenue, offering promising prospects for national prosperity.

However, many of South Sudan's natural resources are yet to be fully exploited, offering enormous potential for economic growth in the future. The country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is tied largely to oil exports, which account for 98 percent of total revenues but which have failed to boost the country's other vital sectors. Oil is exported for refining abroad, while Somali traders import fuel into an oil-producing nation. There seem to be no strict laws to regulate and protect the country's vulnerable economic sector in the event of a crisis. For example, an unexpected strike by Ethiopian water tank drivers in Juba in 2013 disrupted the city's water supply, leaving the government with no choice but to bow to their pressure and negotiate with them to restore order.

Foreigners have long controlled almost everything that the South Sudanese use in their daily lives. Ethiopians control the hotel and tourism sectors, Somalis have taken over the fuel market and imports of construction materials, while Ugandans provide us with food and other consumer goods. For their part, Kenyans control the banking and financial sector, while Bangladeshis and Indians provide networking and communications and internet services and Eritreans have the lion's share of electricity supplies.

In addition, the Chinese are developing our physical infrastructure and oil production, while our Sudanese brothers (especially the Darfourins) are importing electronics and other retail undertakings. Simply put, we eat, dress, drive and live in a country where foreigners are the means to our survival.

The people of this new nation are madly in love with the ready meal – that is, the flow of oil generated in a sector that almost everyone dreams of working in, owing to the lavish lifestyles of those already working there.

This unsustainable trend must be reversed by developing other important economic sectors, which would not only contribute to the diversification of our economy but also allow us to manage sectors including agriculture, mining, production and tourism ourselves.

The ethnic diversity I have referred to is reflected in the presence of 64 different groups of people speaking different Nilo-Saharan languages and sharing a rich mix of distinctive traditional cultures and spiritual affiliations. The country's colourful flag bears deep-rooted meanings – black for the people, red for the blood shed during the struggle for independence, green for the agricultural sector and the natural vegetation, white for the peace earned through years of liberation struggles, blue for the waters of the Nile River and a yellow star which stands for hope, unity and the determination of the South Sudanese.

The flag was adapted from the colours of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the country's founding party. Logically South Sudan belongs to all its people from each of it 64 ethnic groups, and the SPLM/A is but a political entity that fought for independence, but there has at times been confusion between state and party. Accordingly, it is important that the nation sets boundaries between political parties and the state, since while all South Sudanese ascribe to one state, not every South Sudanese ascribes to one political party.

All parties are entitled to have an equal opportunity to become the governing party through fair and free elections, and only through democratic processes will the South Sudanese enjoy the fruits of belonging to one state. Its president must reflect the people's choice, the members of parliament should be drawn from each of the country's constituencies and the government must respect the branches of government which espouse the freedom of expression and choice of the nation's citizens.

We cannot underestimate the need for people from all corners of South Sudan to be represented in the legislative assembly and the council of states, and for interest groups including women, youth, the private sector and religious leaders to participate in society. This would dismantle the impression that the SPLM/A owns South Sudan and that its leaders abuse state resources and squander the state coffers.

In July 2011, I was among the excited people waving the flag of independence as we marched to the Freedom Square in Juba to celebrate with tens of thousands of others who were thrilled at the prospect of a new life and a new beginning in a new nation. Only three years later, the joy of experiencing the country's hard-won self-governance was cut short by the ruling party's shortcomings, which ignited a fire within and escalated to devastate the whole country. Millions of people were forced to leave their homes after watching them burnt down and seeing their belongings, including livestock and crops, plundered or destroyed.

Half the population sought refuge in the United Nations Protection of Civilians' sites or fled to safety in refugee camps in neighbouring countries including Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, the DR Congo and Kenya. Others travelled as far as Libya, desperately trying to reach Europe in search of greener pastures.

During the struggle for a new nation, I repeatedly heard the distressing sounds of recklessly-fired gunshots, followed by the dreadful screams of desperate people fleeing their burnt-down villages and running away into the unknown. It was an experience that I would not wish for anyone. Now a similar scenario is playing out, one that is even worse because those enticed into this unending culture of violence and revenge are the young. Few seem worried about the mindless loss of life and collapse of the economy we are living through today.

The task of building a nation from scratch comes at a high price. The South Sudanese youth remain the country's only hope for reigniting a new era of reconciliation, healing, peace, co-existence and sustainable development. Young people – full as they are of enthusiasm, determination and knowledge – offer the nation a wealth of untapped opportunities and potential. They deserve to be heard and heeded by leaders who will engage them in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the nation.

As young leaders of this new and promising nation, let us not lose our hope but look ahead and together break the cycle of violence and persistent poverty. The 2020 formation of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGoNU) was a positive step towards an inclusive and diverse arrangement, but the South Sudanese still crave a fully-functional government that supports the meaningful participation of vulnerable women and youth in governance structures.

The Revitalized Transitional Government is faced with huge challenges – widespread poverty, infrastructure in a deplorable state, a spate of communal conflicts and growing humanitarian crises. These critical problems cannot be solved by a dysfunctional and inefficient government that has operated with institutions still in the making for the last 10 years. There has never been as appropriate a time as this to renew our vows as South Sudanese, to protect and develop our beloved nation. Happy 10th Independence Day to South Sudan.

John Youhanes Magok is the Executive Director of the, Nile Youth Development Actions (NYDA) and author of the book "The Forgotten Youth of a Nation".


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