By Moulik D. Berkana
The Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest country, July 9, 2011, with Juba as its capital. On that occasion, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.); Rep. Donald Payne from the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa; Colin Powell, former-secretary of state; and other officials including R. Barrie Walkley, the U.S. consul general, led the American delegation. In December 2011, Susan D. Page was named as the first U.S. ambassador to South Sudan. Carved from the southern quarter of Sudan, this landlocked country, slightly smaller than Texas, has experienced strife and bloodshed during its first decade of existence, but opportunity and hope still abound.
The road to South Sudan’s independence from Sudan was long and frequently marked by violence. Sudan’s independence in 1956 included a provision that the southern part of the country would have inclusion in the political process. Two civil wars, from 1955-1972 and again from 1983-2005, laid bare tensions between the north and south, exposing fault lines along geography, religion, resource-sharing, and ethnicity. This gave rise to the “lost boys”—Sudanese youth who fled conflict, trekking great distances to camps in neighboring countries. Some sought and were granted refuge in the United States, while others were recruited as child soldiers. After independence, some of these youths returned as adults to assume leadership roles in the new country.
The United States played an instrumental role in South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, with advocates from within the U.S. government, civil society, and religious organizations joining forces to support the new country. A 2011 referendum resulted in 98 percent of the population favoring independence from Sudan. The years after independence witnessed growing pains as the roots of democracy struggled to consolidate in a fragile social ecosystem. Ethnic and political tensions boiled over into civil war in 2013 and 2016, resulting in an estimated 383,000 people killed, two million civilians internally displaced, and another two million refugees fleeing South Sudan.
Most of the major fighting factions agreed to the 2017 Cessation of Hostilities, with the principal political groups signing the 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan. That agreement established ambitious benchmarks for the transition to a democratically elected government, professionalization of security forces, transitional justice, and rule of law, including transparent financial management. Full implementation of the peace agreement is a critical U.S. priority. Yet more than three years later, many essential provisions remain unimplemented, leading to growing popular frustration, while intercommunal and subnational political violence continues.
Oil accounts for 98 percent of South Sudan’s revenue. However, the labor force remains overwhelmingly agrarian, with an estimated 80 percent of the labor force involved in agricultural pursuits, including cattle raising. Unpredictable weather cycles, including droughts and floods, exacerbate the challenges of subsistence agriculture, and more than half of the population is deemed “food insecure” by the U.N. This young country is mirrored in its demographics: an estimated 70 percent of the population is under age 30. The embassy seeks to expand outreach to youth through the Young African Leaders Initiative and is designing several other initiatives to reach young people. Engaging the country’s youth is important as illiteracy in South Sudan remains high, and the country has the largest proportion of out-of-school children worldwide. Other embassy programming priorities include training journalists and supporting civil society organizations through a small grants program.
Christianity and traditional African religions are the majority faiths, with adherents to Islam estimated at seven percent of the population. English is widely spoken, as are some 60 indigenous languages and “Juba Arabic.” Among countries worldwide, South Sudan ranked tied for 185th (of 189 countries) on the U.N. Development Programme’s 2020 Human Development Report.
The U.S. commitment to the future of South Sudan began in 1978, when USAID set up a field office in Juba to oversee development work in what was then known as southern Sudan. After the closure of USAID operations in the early 1990s because of attacks on the local staff, a French non-governmental organization rented the office compound, while the International Committee of the Red Cross leased and cared for the property. By the early 2000s, the program in Sudan, based in Khartoum, was among USAID’s largest. In 2005, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement signaled a détente in hostilities between factions in the north and south of the country.
With the reopening of the office and residential compounds, a U.S. consulate was established in Juba that became the embassy when South Sudan gained its independence in 2011. Today, Embassy Juba is engaged on the full range of diplomatic, development, and humanitarian issues to support U.S. interests in a stable, prosperous, and democratic South Sudan—as part of the United States’ broader interests in the Horn of Africa. The work is challenging and potentially dangerous. Juba is designated as both a hardship and danger post. Since 1992, 10 U.S. government personnel have been killed in violent incidents in Sudan and/or South Sudan, including seven USAID staff and three embassy guards. More than 120 humanitarian workers have lost their lives in that period.
Thanks to dedicated regional security officers, the embassy mitigates risks to enable the important work of diplomacy to continue, not only in Juba, but across the country where humanitarian and development work is most critical. “Flyaways” on small aircraft allow staff to monitor activities outside Juba, including implementation at project sites, and to meet with stakeholders. Because most of the country does not have an integrated or passable road system, these flights are the most efficient and safest way to travel to remote locations throughout South Sudan. During a flyaway in October 2021, for example, embassy officials visited Yambio to oversee dissemination of U.S.-funded COVID-19 vaccines and to review the latest efforts supported by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
The four U.S. government agencies at post—State, Defense, USAID, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—support Mission Integrated Country Strategy goals related to protecting U.S. interests, consolidating democratic gains, making effective use of humanitarian assistance, and promoting sustainable development.
The U.S. Defense Attaché Office (DAO) advises embassy leadership on the complex dynamics of the country’s formal and informal military and militia organizations. It is the embassy’s primary liaison with military commanders and the South Sudan military. The DAO’s mission supports peace, democracy, and diplomacy, and is ready to support in crisis situations. The DAO also facilitates implementation of the Defense HIV/AIDS Prevention Program through medical testing, treatment, and sustainment to the South Sudan People’s Defense Force.
Since 2011, the United States, through USAID, has provided $5.6 billion in humanitarian aid and $1.8 billion in development assistance, making the United States the largest single donor to the South Sudanese people. With a focus on South Sudan’s five poorest states, USAID prioritizes humanitarian assistance, water, sanitation and hygiene, health, democracy and governance, economic growth, and education assistance to households and communities to bolster resilience and reduce the need for emergency responses. Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has provided nearly $200 million to South Sudan, targeting infection prevention and providing logistics and training of health providers.
The CDC is an important partner of the Ministry of Health in South Sudan, spearheading the national response to the HIV epidemic through PEPFAR. Since 2008, PEPFAR has provided $285 million to support the national HIV/AIDS service delivery, providing uninterrupted anti-retroviral treatment to more than 35,000 people living with HIV/AIDS across three high-prevalence states. CDC also worked on Ebola preparedness efforts, and since early 2020 has focused on COVID-19, with the CDC country director serving as the incident commander for the pandemic response in the country. In September 2021, the United States donated 152,950 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to South Sudan through COVAX.
Currently, the residential compound is home to more than 80 American staff. Reflecting its historic role managing Juba facilities, USAID is the primary International Cooperative Administrative Support Services provider. The compound is dotted with tukuls, structures modeled on the traditional round houses indigenous to East Africa. The tukuls serve as common spaces for eating and meeting, as well as recreation. A billiard table complements basketball and volleyball courts, and a pool and gym round out the list of amenities for residents. Residences are shipping containers remodeled as modular apartments complete with a living area, bedroom, kitchenette, and bathroom. Security conditions dictate advanced planning and coordination of the off-site movements of personnel, who must adhere to a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Although the initial post-independence enthusiasm yielded to a harder set of protracted realities, the future story of South Sudan remains open-ended. With international partners continuing to press for the full implementation of the Revitalized Peace Agreement and elections planned for 2023, there is hope and guarded optimism. The United States has invested and sacrificed a lot to help forge South Sudan. Although the aim is a difficult one, there is every reason to continue supporting the goal that South Sudan will become a stable, self-sufficient democracy at peace with itself and its neighbors.
Moulik D. Berkana is the public affairs officer at Embassy Juba.