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 percent 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 afterward, 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.
There is literature exploring the motivations behind youth participation in violence and
livelihood decisions more generally, which has relevant analysis for understanding the situation of youth in South Sudan. For example, Hilker and Fraser’s (2009: p.5) review of youth exclusion and violence in fragile states found a number of approximate factors that, given underlying conditions of exclusion, can lead to the mobilization of specific individuals and groups into violence. These include recruitment, coercion, and indoctrination into groups; gender inequalities and socialization; identity politics and ideology: charismatic leadership and organizational dynamics: trigger events.
The insecurity does not allow young people to concentrate on farming, trade, fishing, and related activities. The absence of an effective government and policing works to encourage
elders to provide arms for youths: “There is no effective governance by the government. Some elders have become part of the problem, women too in that they encourage cattle raiding both to support livelihoods and to collect dowries.” The tribal forces are manipulated by higher-level political actors who have turned those governance structures into instruments of war, based on ethnicity, in their quest for power and control over land and resources.
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.
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 programs 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 programs 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.
Whatever contributions the youth of South Sudan make, positive or negative, will have significant impacts on what the future holds for South Sudan.
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, the government needs to be more determined in providing an enabling environment for the youths to achieve more. For instance, some of the students studying in other countries preferred to stay in those countries rather than coming to South Sudan based on the fact that there are resources in those countries that can enhance their online learning.
Unfortunately, the government has failed to harness the demographic dividends of the youths and instead of investing in the students who are the human capital and leaders of tomorrow in South Sudan, the government decided to pay deaf ears to their concerns.
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 the 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 peacebuilding and national development.