When we think about democratic backsliding, we tend to think about nations that have existed, in one form or another, for a reasonably long time — Russia, the United States, Venezuela, etc. It’s only natural — democratic backsliding isn’t necessarily a quick process, and it has a tendency to creep up on countries that have dealt with democratic issues in the past. That being said, democratic backsliding can strike any nation, regardless of its age or its history. There is perhaps no better example of this than the newest nation of them all — South Sudan.
Established in 2011, South Sudan’s existence has been defined by (mostly ethnic) violence. From 2013 to 2020, the nation underwent a civil war that saw mass human rights abuses, including the killings of journalists. The ending of the civil war led to some hope that conditions in the nation would improve, but so far, this has not been the case, at least not for democratic backsliding.
On March 1, 2022, Human Rights Watch revealed that South Sudan had imprisoned two critics of the government, Abraham Chol Akech and Kuel Aguer Kuel, in 2021, and that they have been detained since then with no sign of any upcoming trials or other legal proceedings. This is not new behavior for the nation — indeed, South Sudan has a history of unlawful detentions and denials of fair and speedy trials. These are troubling reports, to be sure — but do they constitute democratic backsliding? I argue yes — not only are they indicative of overall democratic issues within the nation, but on their own, they represent a repression of dissent that is very common in other nations that have struggled with backsliding.
Before diving more deeply into how South Sudan’s imprisonment of government critics constitutes democratic backsliding, it would be best to provide more information on said government critics. Abraham Chol Akech is the leader of Kush International Ministries, and is a self-declared prophet. He was arrested for proclaiming that the president and Vice President of South Sudan would be removed from power by July 9. To this date, he has yet to be brought to trial, or to be given any information about when his trial might be.
Kuel Aguer Kuel is associated with the People’s Coalition for Civil Action, a group of reform activists, and was arrested for co-creating and signing several declarations associated with that group calling for peaceful protests, with the eventual goal of getting the current government to step down. Like Akech, Kuel has not received any information on when he will be going to trial, and his attorney claims that his health is deteriorating in prison. It is clear that both Akech and Kuel are being stripped of their rights by South Sudan. What, then, does this have to do with democratic backsliding?
One of the key elements of democratic backsliding, as defined by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is the “readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media”. Included within this element is the taking of legal action against “critics in rival parties, civil society and the media”. Of course, this is not the only way that democratic backsliding occurs, nor should it necessarily be seen as the benchmark for whether or not the process is occurring.
For example, another key component Levitsky and Ziblatt identify is the “rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game”, an element of democratic backsliding that there is less evidence South Sudan is partaking in. This is not to defend South Sudan, or to absolve it of its actions, but rather to suggest that cases of democratic erosion are often more complex than they seem to outsiders, and as a result, can be difficult to diagnose. Individual examples that may seem like evidence of democratic backsliding, troubling as they may be, may not be sufficient to make an overall case for a country as a whole, as Lust and Waldner suggest.
That being said, we can combine South Sudan’s prior history with its current events to make a more thorough conclusion on the status of its democracy. As previously mentioned, South Sudan is more or less defined by ethnic violence and civil war, and has seldom known peace in its short lifetime. Violence does not necessarily in and of itself constitute democratic backsliding, but it can be indicative of other trends associated with the phenomenon. So, too, can South Sudan’s repression of critics be linked to other nations of a similar nature that have experienced struggles with democratic backsliding.
The question, then, seems to become how long a nation has to exist for democratic erosion to occur. At the time of writing, South Sudan is ten years old. Sure, it has been a consistent ten years for the country, but is that enough to judge it by? Most other nations that have struggled with democratic erosion have lengthy and complex histories with the topic, while others deal with types of democratic erosion that take many years to manifest. This does not absolve South Sudan, but it does make the nation a bit more difficult to analyze
What does this all mean for the status of South Sudan? Overall, it seems clear from the research that has been done on democratic backsliding, and from the history and current events of the nation, that democratic backsliding is occurring, even if the extent of this is debatable. The arrests of Akech and Kuel do not denote this in and of themselves, but are certainly symbolic of it overall, and make it clear that a close watch needs to be kept on South Sudan for further undemocratic activities and evidence of democratic backsliding.