Challenges ahead for South Sudan: Politics or Demographics? Research paper

Abstract Politics Continued

(Madison, Wisconsin, USA) – Sudan’s politics that often transcend power struggle, religious and ethnic subjugation, imbalanced resource distribution, fractured geo-spaces, and obviously conflicts, appear to have made a permanent dwelling in almost every Sudanese mind, particularly in the South. No wonder why politics has become such a typical discourse in this population, even in religious domains or festivities. Most notably, the last 6 years have been consumed through intense political discussions about the state of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, alternatively shortened as the CPA, particularly with respect to the referenda in the South and Abyei. As the South prepared to implement one of the fundamental rights stipulated in the agreement, the January 2011’s vote, the immediate political concern bitterly deliberated upon in the population, especially in the periphery, encircled that of security, credibility, fairness, and lucidity of the process. The process generated a set of mixed feelings in the crowd, with some utterly cynical while others remained hopeful. Surprisingly, the voting registration went on successfully and the scheduled voting date, January 9th, rapidly rolled in. In ostensibly astounding records, South Sudanese amassed nearby polling stations the night before, eager for a big day to arrive. The general political climate and the emotions expressed by the voters in the preceding periods of the actual exercise demonstrated what the world would later confirm.

A week following the commencement of the voting exercise, the general outcome was confirmed: South Sudanese have overwhelmingly chosen a divorce over continuing a 55-year old union that evidence illustrates to have not been mutually impartial. Of course, the culmination of the process in an overwhelming secession did not in any way imply a limiting point of politics in the Sudan or South, for that matter. It enticed even more deserving political debates, particularly with respect to the post-referendum phenomena or challenges.

Regularly, resulting voting statistics are being circulated and equally discussed. In terms of stats, contrasts across constituencies are being made. Interestingly, others are interrogating how some particular members of the community have voted. Border issues, especially in Abyei, the proposed debt portioning, and the potential extension of shared southern oil revenue with the north after July 9th this year, add to the larger discourse. In an abstract sense, development and nation building matters, including the developmentally excruciating lack of effective human resource, poor infrastructure, and the many elements of corruption and poor governance, surface every now and then. But the topic that has drawn a great deal of political opinion/attention in the South’s intelligentsia is the name of the nation-to-be. Many names, including South Sudan and Cush, have been suggested or supplied and qualified in a seemingly heterogeneous way. Due to an underlying informal nature of these kinds of political debates, no consensuses are ever drawn, nor expected.

The foregoing narrative theoretically paints an appealing picture of the South’s usual way of thinking. Basically, the paradigm of South’s politics has not shifted, even in the face of an extraordinary, historic accomplishment called secession. As if the future precisely reflects the past, the discourse of political abstraction persists to cloud the most vital items of human development in the South. Little have these recent discussions demonstrated either theoretically or pragmatically what the post-referendum obstacles might be in terms of human needs, and how to mitigate them so as to objectively forge an optimal, timely human advancement in the South. Because of a longstanding political culture, an arguably sizable number of South Sudanese seem to mistakenly view the future in historical prisms. Continua of this lens properly showcase a conundrum of a bewildered distinction between politics and demographics, which essentially requires rectifying. Politics aside, Human progress depends on the society’s understanding of its population needs as well as the measures it employs to meet these particular needs. Note that for purpose of illustration, the term demographics is used; this refers to the statistical data of a population; it doesn’t constitute demography, the mathematical or statistical study of human populations.

A Paradigmatic Shift: A Focus on Demographics

Next phases present discussions concerned with the role of demographics on human economic, social, and political mobility which is inextricably linked to resource distribution, policy-making, and governance—the factors I believe are relatively important in navigating and negotiating progress in a post-referendum South Sudan. Specifically, I focus considerably on population dynamics, or alternatively, the determinants of human resource distribution. That is, nation building in South Sudan may be cumbersome to attain in the absence of knowledge concerning the distribution of human needs as depicted formally in aspects of human mortality, fertility, and migration. These basic demographic concepts are partially ascertained objectively using empirical data from South Sudan.

Population Dynamics and Human Needs

Populations—often aggregated for political and policy interests—are human elements inhabiting certain spaces or territories during a particular time period. According to the 2003 population projections, South Sudan was expected to gain about 4 million persons by the end of 2009, totaling to about 11 million people in the area. Maintaining the annual growth rate of 3 percent, that is, if death, fertility, and migration conditions remain constant over the specified period, and assuming that the South surely did have 11 million persons (which I believe is the case) in 2009, the new nation would expect to increase by an additional 3.8 million people by the year 2019. Obviously, these projections are subject to under- and/or over-estimation, depending on specific conditions of the three important demographic components referenced shortly. But we do get the general idea here, though, as far as the role of a government: to develop plans for future human needs. For ease of illustration and immediate policy relevance, only mortality and fertility conditions in South Sudan are discussed in detail. But due to the ongoing human migration, I briefly attend to the situation of returnees.

Deaths in South Sudan

Let’s begin with mortality or death for specific groups or ages. According to the 2006 household data, infant mortality rose to 150 per 1,000 births, child 250 per 1,000 populations, and maternal mortality 2037 per 100,000 deliveries (South Sudan Census Bureau and Statistics, 2006). At the national level, South Sudan had the worst mortality conditions than any region in the entire polity, including Darfur. In an Eastern African community context, South Sudan stood atop as well. Compared to the rest of the world, South Sudan’s mortality rates were among the highest, topping the world in maternal mortality rate. Even more striking in recent periods, some of these rates have elevated. For example, in 2008, death rates rose significantly to 360 female infant and 230 male infant deaths per 1,000 births (see Figure 1). The good news is that the maternal mortality rate decelerated to a low 1,666 per 100,000 deliveries in 2008, presumably as a result of recently concerted maternal health campaigns in the region (Mayai, 2011). 


What about state contrasts in human mortality conditions? By use of comparisons, increased understanding about population needs is developed. Again, for illustration purposes, only a few South Sudan states and only crude death rate disparities are utilized. In Jonglei, for example, crude mortality rate was 20.7; in Unity it was 34; in Warrap it was 32; in Western Equatoria it was 48; and in Central Equatoria it was about 9 deaths per 1,000 populations (South Sudan Census, 2008).


As is normally the case in many developing nations, common causes of death in South Sudan are readily treatable. They include diarrheal, infectious, child delivery complications, and parasitic diseases—all of which can be cheaply addressed through existing medical inventions. These health problems are associated with swampy environments, poor sanitary conditions, lack of medical interventions and technology, and inadequate public health campaigns and services.

Births in South Sudan

Births are very important in population planning. In fact, they constitute a large part of population change. Essentially, especially in a developing nation, births are inextricably associated with deaths for the simple fact that newborns compensate for death losses. In South Sudan, death rates, as illustrated momentarily, are considerably high and so are fertility rates. The 2008 census results indicate an average fertility of 4 children per woman of a reproductive age in South Sudan. This rate is as high as 5.3 children per woman in Unity State, with the rest of the states in the middle. Total fertility, however, has also been associated with societal and individual characteristics. Of particular relevance are cultural and economic indicators. Culturally, South Sudan favors big families, with more children and extended ties as prominent ways of achieving this. Precisely, the culture encourages high fertility, putting mothers at health risks associated with births in a medically impoverished environment. Similarly, woman’s paid employment and schooling have negative impacts on total fertility. As opposed to quantity, employed and more educated women opt for quality in children, that is, fewer children. In South Sudan, both employment and literacy rates are comparatively low among women, equally prompting high level total fertility in the region.


An in-migration in South Sudan should concern the South’s government in the next few years. This is so due to the changing geography and citizenship of the country mainly owing to the referendum. In the past 3 years, thousands and thousands of formerly displaced populations, with little or nothing, have returned to South Sudan. As the human numbers soar as a result of in-migration in South Sudan, so do their basic needs.

Why Paradigmatic Shift?

Understanding populations matters because the distribution of resources and government’s future plans for its governed should reflect spatial distributions and needs of human settings for the entire community. This insight is salient in the aspects of human population growth, namely the interplay among mortality, fertility, and migration, as discussed elsewhere earlier.

Earlier, I briefly explicated upon what may account for high death rates in the region. Here I give concrete examples of specific health problems affecting the population. While South Sudan is undoubtedly moving forward, its public health conditions are not satisfactorily improving. Basic public health measures remain poor; health facilities and medical expertise are virtually scant; basic child immunizations, maternal health services such as antenatal care, are unavailable, especially in rural communities. For instance, only a meager 17 percent of South Sudan’s children were vaccinated in 2006, compared to 28 and 59 percent in Darfur and the north, respectively. In the same year, antenatal care data show that only 40 percent of southern expectant mothers received this service, compared to 75 in Darfur. In terms of sanitary conditions, safe drinking water and protected waste facilities are extremely lacking in South Sudan. For instance, 18 percent of southern households reported having a latrine or toilet in 2006, compared to an astounding 62 percent in Darfur. Over 90 percent of southern children were delivered without proper medical services in 2006. Lack of medical and sanitary services elevates death among mothers and newborns alike.

Why is poor health a problem in nation building? Ingenuity and production of goods and services are closely associated with health of a population, research shows. To think and develop new ideas, one has to be healthy. And to operate a farm machine, one must have enough energy to expend. This means that a grossly morbid society produces morbid minds and physically enfeebled workforce, prompting progress ineffective. This reflects the current state of being in South Sudan and may cloud its future inasmuch as the government does not proactively develop sound response measures. The South can develop quite rapidly if it wishes, because it need not invent a thing or two. Let’s take Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries as a model. Racing for world stage, Japan developed laws and institutional measures that ensured mandatory public health and educational services for all individual households. It required every household to have a toilet or latrine, with every constituency provided with health and educational facilities. As a result, Japan surely seized the stage, both in survival and military power.

With readily available technological advances, South Sudan can seize progress in no time by heeding to and properly making use of effectively proven historical models of development. After all, ideas like this are not new. John Garang (1981) in his dissertation or rather a government funded development proposal, for instance, articulated the positive health consequences of the Jonglei Canal. His central argument pertaining to this particular issue was that the Canal project would mitigate health problems in South Sudan through a simple drainage of swampy environments which he considered epidemiologically risky to the populations. I am not advocating for the historic project (Jonglei Canal) itself, but its health model applies to today’s South Sudan, especially among populations residing along the Nile and its tributaries. The idea here is that the southern government may need to identify such populations and develop same or similar public health projects there.

Nearly 60 percent (4.4 million) of the South’s overall population are persons under the age of 20. In planning and policy perspectives, the statistic constitutes a call to provide more educational and employment opportunities for this segment of a population. Less authoritative statistics indicate improved educational enrollments in the South; indeed, this is good news. Still, the quality of education in the South remains poor, with usual narratives in the intelligentsia blaming the government for doing so little to develop the capacity of educational institutions in the area. Unemployment among youths is extremely high (The World Bank 2009). Public universities are under-funded; little or no funds are allocated for innovation and research efforts. Children roam the streets instead of going to school. The significance of investing in a much younger population is nothing less than ensuring a vibrant future for the society. Young people must be effectively nurtured and trained in order to meet future challenges, especially in innovation and labor force. From a demographic standpoint, the government needs to objectively identify young populations and develop policies that prioritize investments in them. That is, without such investments the future of the South is bleak.

What about developing the local economy? Melody Atil of Peace Dividend organization explored forthrightly in her New Sudan Vision’s publication the economic challenges awaiting South Sudan following the referendum. Existing evidence substantially backs her plea. Atil charged that “[l]ong-term growth ultimately involves the accumulation and transfer of both human and technological knowhow,” specifically advocating for an effective promotion of the private sector in the region. Indeed, development or expansion of the private sector is critical in nation building. In its development initiatives in South Sudan, Peace Dividend sponsors local business projects, creating employment opportunities for the locals, particularly in Central Equatoria State. Should the government strengthen these development initiatives? Conventional wisdom has it that the government should. Strong private sector promotes economic growth, which in turn has a significant bearing on the society’s standards of living. To be sure, these sorts of initiatives need prioritizing in accordance with specific population needs and spaces. This means that more employment and business opportunities would need to be created in populations where unemployment is relatively high. For instance, in 2008, unemployment rates in Unity and Upper Nile States were 350 and 410 per 1,000 persons of labor force age. The two stats reflect the underlying need to prioritize business opportunities/plans for the populations according to objective economic indicators, a practice commonly ignored in South Sudan. Bottom line: to develop equitable economies, the post-referendum South Sudan must heed to population dynamics and needs.

More generally, effective development in South Sudan following the referendum requires pragmatic planning. More precisely, consider as a government we are to respond to the health needs of two distinct sub-populations in state A, say, Jonglei. One of these sub-populations has 20 persons and the other has 30. To equitably respond to these needs, the concerned government or authority must first heed to the stats. Normally, a difference in these stats becomes the law of how the tasked agency or government addresses the needs of these populations.


Politics or demographics? The foregoing views suggest the latter. Perhaps the time for abstract politics in South Sudan has passed. Thus, public and business authorities are urged to get a little objective and pragmatic in their development plans. How many people need healthcare is a demographic challenge, though this ultimately turns politics in policy-making realm. Governments and businesses must understand that to build societies one must invest in individuals first. This is optimally done by first understanding human needs and distributions. To invest in individuals means planning on the basis of relative importance of particular needs in a population. The current state of development in South Sudan appears to inequitably stratify the populations. Therefore, it is suggested that more needy populations must receive primacy in resource distribution for an encompassing, speedy development.

Understanding the population requires technical knowhow just as Atil aptly argued in her piece. Demographic analysts and urban and rural planners are needed to provide the governments and businesses with objective insights about human needs in South Sudan. Policy-making that assumes homogeneity in populations can be very ineffective and from which inequality may easily derive. In the post-referendum South Sudan, close attention to population dynamics, such as mortality, fertility, and migration should be of paramount priority, especially in the pursuit of a well-rounded development plan. In contrast, little will abstract politics help address the many population needs South Sudan faces following the referendum era. In short, a willing South Sudan has a chance to join the world’s vibrant societies in a relatively shorter period of time if it adopts objectivity and pragmatic development models.

Augustino Ting Mayai is a doctoral student of Demography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

More Articles By This Author