Throughout history, groups of people have caused the creation of increasingly sophisticated versions of what we would now call the nation-state. Through conquest, discovery or political agitation, tracts of land have been carved out, leaders and laws decided upon, and focuses for allegiance and cooperation been brought into being. It is only in recent times, however, that new liberal democracies, with universal suffrage and separation of powers, have been established from scratch - Israel is the standout example, established via a blueprint in 1948. More recently, we saw the new nation of South Sudan established in east Africa in 2011.
The rarity of these new, liberal democratic nations is illustrated by the speculation in the media and elsewhere that a newly independent Scotland would have a lot to learn from three-year-old South Sudan. The inference is clear: Establishing a fully functional government and the apparatus of the state is a phenomenally difficult task.
For South Sudan, the genesis of its birth was half a century of civil conflict which pitted those who identified with the Muslim-Arab north of the country against those who identified with the Christian-African South. Supported by the international community - with particular encouragement from the USA, UK and Norway - a referendum on independence was followed by a transitional government and a free-and-fair general election. Both the independence referendum and the party-political elections were considered by international observers to be unusually straightforward and free of interference by the standards of the developing world. They were also noteworthy in another regard: Current President Salva Kiir Mayardit was elected with 93 percent of the vote.
This gave him quite a mandate - and he needed one. The cessation of hostilities with the north did not guarantee the end of violence in South Sudan. The country is a vibrant patchwork of cultures and traditions that have not always seen eye-to-eye. President Kiir's job number one was to drive national unity to ensure the peace that would allow his government to establish itself and begin to catalyze economic success and development. To do this, he reached out to representatives of all tribes and factions in the country and appealed for a strong commitment to the nation of South Sudan - a manifestation of victory after long years of bush war, embodied in the country's new constitution and symbolized by the country's new flag.
Most observers say that President Kiir did a good job of this. He declared a "big-tent" strategy which brought representatives from all factions into government and he appointed Riek Machar - a fellow bush-fighter with whom the President "had a history" - as vice-president. Unfortunately, the peace that this brought lasted only until December 2013 after which, South Sudan found itself with a rebel army in the field under the control of ousted Vice President Machar with associated mass killing and mayhem, which in turn disrupted agriculture, threatened a man-made famine and stalled the economic, and infrastructural projects that the government was banking on to drive prosperity.
For long-time observers of South Sudan the news of the political upheaval, fighting and the failure (so far) of peace talks, came as a deep disappointment. South Sudan is not a well-developed country - infrastructure is limited (there are few roads or hospitals), though the country has significant potential. It has oil and minerals and is the most fertile land in East Africa (one of the reasons President Kiir has prioritized investment in modern agricultural machinery and resources). Development programs have ground to a halt in areas affected by the fighting and, naturally, the government has been forced to focus on the security situation at the expense of its development plans. This is bad news for the people of South Sudan.
As the Secretary of State told me on Wednesday in the House of Commons, there are estimates that the number of refugees in the region might rise to more than 700,000 by the end of the year, and 1.5 million are at risk of food insecurity.
Moreover, the Secretary of State also confirmed to me by way of a written answer, that £42.5 million has been committed by DFID for support to refugees in the region through UN agencies including UNHRC, UNICEF and WFP.
Despite vocal support from US Secretary of State Kerry and from elements within British government, the type of comment we are seeing in the western media and elsewhere has given many of us cause for concern. Despite President Kiir's extraordinary electoral mandate, the basic probity of his government, and his efforts to drive prosperity in South Sudan, much of the reporting we have seen has sought to draw a moral and political equivalence between the elected government and the rebel forces. By any measure this is a betrayal of the tradition of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and, most importantly, of the people of South Sudan.
This characterization has gone hand-in-hand with idea that the conflict is somehow a 'natural' consequence of tribal antipathies. This is hugely over-simplistic and is demeaning to the people of South Sudan. We should remember that all cultures and traditions in South Sudan fought alongside each other in our struggle for independence, and all participated in the elections which brought in the current government.
It is time we in the west were more vocal about our support for the legitimate government of South Sudan and stopped being mealy-mouthed in our references to it. The peace talks sponsored by (IGAD) must be allowed to succeed and there must be compromise, but the west must be unequivocal in its support for the legitimate government of President Kiir in fulfilling the mandate given to it by the people of South Sudan. South Sudan has the right to be treated by the international community as any other liberal democratic republic - a sovereign state; to do otherwise is at odds with international law and a rejection of all that we, who live in prosperous, stable and safe liberal democracies, stand for.
The Rt. Hon. Sir Tony Baldry MP is Co-Chair of the All-Party Group on Sudan and South Sudan. He is also a former chair of the Commons Select Committee on International Development.Suggest a correction