Thursday, September 8, 2016

South Sudan: the Stillborn State

Great beginnings and then tribal warfare.  It takes goodwill to create a working state and none of that is present here.  Economic advancement simply becomes impossible and any talent must leave.  this makes it completely unsustainable.   You certainly cannot throw money at it.

This is all a failed ex British colony and that came about because there was very little government put in place under the British and not enough trained talent once they left.  Large swathes of this country needs to be brought under some form of benign foreign control with zero attachment to ethnic groups.  

A rising middle class can work together.  Given enough time that middle class will establish a real country.  It is not even too hard.  Yet the umbrella must also exist.

South Sudan: the stillborn state

The creation of South Sudan has brought war not peace—those who divide Syria should take note

by James Harkin / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine 

Soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) prepare to withdraw from Juba in February in accordance with the terms of a peace agreement between the government and the opposing signed in August 2015 © SAMIR BOL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

“This is a rich country, like Europe. What went wrong?” In an anarchic refugee camp in South Sudan, hundreds of miles from the capital Juba, an old man named Francis singled me out. United Nations helicopters zoomed above our heads, almost drowning out his voice. Passing us in the mud alley, young children carried buckets of dirt on their heads to plug up holes in their makeshift homes, while others played in the trenches of dirty water that ran like a grid through the camp. The smell of sewage was unbearable.

South Sudan is the newest country on earth. It was hoped that its creation in 2011 would bring stability and peace. But these ambitions have not been realised and in the sprawling camp, Francis was trying to make sense of what had happened to him and to his country. After 25 years of living in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, he had decided to return to the south, where he was born. There, rather than a welcoming homeland he found a brutal sectarian war. He fled, ending up near the city of Malakal in a camp under the protective shadow of a UN military base which, he said, made him feel “like I am in jail.” But if he went back to where he had lived in South Sudan, “All of my belongings would be stolen, and I would be taken to a corner and killed… It’s my own brother in South Sudan who could shoot me in the back of the head.”

Map illustration by Chris Tilbury

As Syria, torn by civil war, heads towards a division of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines, we should study the example of South Sudan. It is a parable about the peril of dreaming up fragile new mini-states as a response to problems within troubled old countries. South Sudan is not so much a failed state as one that never truly came into being; it was born dead. Before 2011, Juba was a garrison town built out of mud huts and plastic sheeting. An influx of money remade it overnight into a Potemkin capital. Now construction has come to a halt, and the more sheepish non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have gone home. The run of half-built empty buildings give the city an eerie quality. When the place was flooded with cash, the President could at least buy his way out of trouble. But there are 745 generals in the South Sudanese army, and 28 regional governors to pay for—and no money left in the kitty.

Five years ago, and before partition, the attractions of a new country were clear to many southern Sudanese, for whom decades of war with the northern government in Khartoum had become a way of life. After gaining independence in 1956 from joint British-Egyptian rule, Sudan collapsed into a mire of internal conflict. Omar al-Bashir became president after a military coup in 1989 and introduced an Islamic legal code and a single-party state. His divisiveness led to war between the Muslim, Arab-dominated north and rebel forces led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the largely Christian south. The United States, which regarded the al-Bashir government as a sponsor of terror—it once offered a safe haven to Osama bin Laden—backed the south. Much of the international pressure for an independent South Sudan arose from the intention to weaken al-Bashir. The president stood accused of human rights abuses, especially in the western area of Darfur, where an uprising was brutally suppressed leading to accusations of genocide.

There “floated a large half-submerged paddle steamer,” symbolising South Sudan’s parlous state 

©James Harkin
In a referendum in January 2011, 98.83 per cent of the south’s population voted for independence, putting their faith in an internationally-brokered peace agreement and a government made up of SPLA veterans. In a fanfare of hope and goodwill, and under the watchful eye of the “troika” of the US, the UK and Norway, South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation state. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese like Francis returned to their hometowns and ancestral lands in the south, many of them travelling by barges and paddle steamers because of the absence of working roads.

But the peace was short-lived. In December 2013, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir accused his Vice President Riek Machar of plotting a coup and the government fractured; Machar was forced to flee into the bush in his pyjamas. South Sudan is made up of 64 different ethnic groups and the battle between the two camps quickly took on an ethnic dimension. President Kiir’s loyalist SPLA was dominated by the Dinka, and it launched a brutal offensive against the faction led by Machar, a Nuer. In the ensuing civil war, nearly two million people—one fifth of the population—have been displaced. Six hundred thousand have escaped to neighbouring countries and in desperation, it is estimated that between 46,000 and 100,000 have fled to eastern Darfur, the site of one of the region’s worst humanitarian crises.

In South Sudan’s civil war, atrocities have been carried out on all sides. Civilians have been massacred, fighters have been burned alive, hanged from trees or suffocated in shipping containers. Amnesty International has uncovered cases of sexual slavery, gang rape and castration and found evidence that some people had been forced to engage in cannibalism. Ugandan Army helicopters, working with the SPLA, are believed to have used the same barrel bombs employed by the Syrian regime. In March, a UN report accused the SPLA forces of adopting a “scorched earth” policy in burning civilian villages, and of allowing its soldiers and allied militias to rape women in lieu of wages.

“South Sudan is broke. Its GDP in 2015 was just over $9bn and according to the World Bank, 58 per cent of the population lives in poverty”

Children carry dirt in buckets to remake their homes

In March, the UN’s High Commissioner of Human Rights labeled South Sudan “one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world,” yet noted it was “more or less off the international radar.” One reason for that is because attention has moved on to Syria. But at least 50,000 civilians have been killed in South Sudan, a figure which, as the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has pointed out, is comparable and might exceed civilian deaths in Syria during the same period.

The analogy with Syria, a country I have reported on for the last five years, is instructive. As that conflict drags on, analysts talk more about splitting that country. After all, they say, it’s already happening: the Kurds are quietly carving a mini-state in the north, and Islamic State holds sway over much of the eastern desert. Syria’s neighbour Iraq is also effectively three rival enclaves. Yet, as South Sudan shows, dividing countries into a series of mini-states defined by ethnicity or religion is dangerous. Borders are not easily defined; even if they could be, their creation tends to trigger migration, as ethnic or sectarian groups head for their assigned home. Worst of all is the jockeying for position among warlords, who see newly-built states as vehicles for power and patronage.

On 9th July, South Sudan was due to commemorate five years of independence. Modest celebrations were planned, but on the eve of the anniversary, fighting broke out at a checkpoint. In just a few days, hundreds of soldiers were killed and thousands more civilians were forced, like Francis, to take cover in UN bases, some of which were subsequently strafed with rockets.

The White Nile snakes through Juba, passing the Afex Riverside Resort, a hotel compound that, save for its guards, would not be out of place in Ibiza or Hawaii. The Afex is popular with international workers—NGO types, embassy staff and UN employees—who travel in and out of the capital. When George Clooney came to South Sudan on a humanitarian mission, he stayed there too. I visited in May and foreigners were swapping insider information in the bars and dining areas. In the river, directly opposite the Afex, floated a huge and half-submerged paddle steamer. To the regulars its presence was too obvious to mention, and so no one did.

A few weeks before I arrived, a new “transitional government” had been unveiled in the capital amid massive pressure from international backers. Machar had returned with hundreds of his militia to be sworn in as Vice President again—he was replaced as Vice President at the end of July by Taban Deng Gai, a move which Machar has suggested was illegal. More cynical observers suggested that this had less to do with peace than with ensuring that foreign aid continued to flow. President Kiir’s first act was to ask the international community for more funds; in an interview with Foreign Policy, Machar grumbled that the US was dragging its heels in providing military aid.

Although it has a huge amount of natural resources, South Sudan is broke. Its GDP in 2015 was just over $9bn and according to the World Bank, 58 per cent of the population lives in poverty. Oil accounts for 60 per cent of its total economic output. But, unfortunately for the most oil-dependent economy in the world, the country is landlocked and hampered by a costly pipeline deal with the Khartoum government. Foreign investment has dried up; the collapse of the South Sudanese pound has sent prices soaring and made wallets as thick as bricks. The ingredients for Afex’s bar menu—pizza and nacho dishes washed down by Kenyan beer—are, along with almost everything else for sale in Juba, flown in from other countries. Even in the capital the roads are deep with potholes and in the rainy season they fill up like little lakes. Carjacking and theft, most of it perpetrated by pro-government soldiers who haven’t been paid, is common. South Sudanese don’t seem to like the brigade of do-gooders who have descended on their country. At the airport a visa costs $100. To be formally registered as a visitor requires three further informal payments, made to faintly hostile government functionaries.

As the conflict ricocheted around the country, more ethnic groups have become involved. The camp that I visited was four kilometres outside Malakal, South Sudan’s second city. In February, fighting broke out in the city that left upwards of 25 people dead and more than a hundred injured. Tension had been brewing since the Shillouk, a group that had been loyal to the SPLA government, switched sides and threw its lot in with the rebels. Backed by militia from Malakal city, a force of Dinka fighters attacked ethnic Nuer and Shillouk, many of whom ran for the UN base, injuring themselves on its razor-wire fence in the process. The battle lasted 48 hours and was fought with guns and grenades as well as clubs and wooden spears.

By the time I arrived three months later, hitching a ride in a UN World Food Programme plane, locals and humanitarians were still sorting through the wreckage. Around 40,000 people live in the camp in buildings made of mud, corrugated iron and plastic sheeting, almost all of whom have been there since December 2013, when hostilities began. Most came from Malakal city, having travelled south from Khartoum to be part of the experiment in nation-building. Many of them lost their entire families in the fighting that followed. Conditions are terrible. One old man in an open-necked shirt was sitting on a blue deckchair, watching a huge moat of water. In a different situation he would have been sunbathing; here, he looked as if he had lost the will to live. Like almost everyone else I met, he thought that South Sudan was a good idea that had lurched into tribalism. A firm supporter of the SPLA when it was a rebel army, he now placed the blame squarely on President Kiir. He also said that he did not trust the UN peacekeepers, who he felt had abandoned them.

Malakal has changed hands a dozen times during the civil war, and is now back under the control of SPLA government forces. Almost all the Nuer and Shillouk I met in the camp told me they were afraid to go into the city. But it also became clear that the trigger for the fighting had been an attack by Shillouk on two young Dinka, who were beaten up on their return from the city.

Rachel, an elegant 57-year-old science teacher and a Shillouk, was perched on a bench outside the container where she works with western humanitarians. The fighting inside the camp, she told me, was down to the government’s decision to divide South Sudan into 28 new states, which meant that Malakal county would become the province of the Dinka. Shillouk like her would have to cross the river to collect their salaries in a different municipal area. It amounted, in her view, to gerrymandering and a blatant grab for power. “Our land is being taken and given to Dinka.”

Rachel regretted that South Sudan had become a country, but she sounded more sad than angry. The new state was the brainchild of “global people, American and the UN. We could not have done it on our own.” A Presbyterian and one-time rebel activist, Rachel had no love for the Islamic government in the north, but she had had enough. “I am not optimistic. I have the idea to go back to Khartoum,” she said. People she knew had already escaped to the north by canoe. Her son was already in Khartoum, and she had begged him not to return.

The President of South Sudan Salva Kiir.

The morning before I flew back to Juba, I persuaded a driver to take me into Malakal city. Many of the larger buildings had been burned to husks, and armed men with SPLA badges roamed the streets. Yet it remained a functioning city. A well-appointed mosque was still standing, and a nearby market was underway. Some of the traders were sleeping in the mid-morning sun. One Shillouk woman told me that she had experienced no sectarian trouble, though another I met returned to the refugee camp in the evening (the Shillouk women I spoke to in the camp insisted that only those who were married or connected to Dinka could safely remain in the city). A Dinka cafĂ© owner complained that those who stayed in the camp were only doing so because they wanted free food and medical treatment. “If the UN and everyone left,” he spluttered, “I promise you they would all be back here [in Malakal city] in three months.”

The former Vice President, Rick Machar 

Returning to Juba, I tracked down a journalist who had been briefly detained by the SPLA government. The intimidation of independent media is common—a few days before, two journalists were arrested over an article they had written about a general—and when I showed up at the agreed place he phoned me and redirected me to a pitch-dark, empty restaurant nearby. “You never know who is listening,” he said. I’d expected him to rail against the venality and authoritarianism of his president, but instead he criticised South Sudan’s international supporters. “We got an independent country, but all things still pass through Khartoum.” He wanted to see the UN and the NGOs gone as soon as possible. His new country, he lamented, had been “hijacked by countries with their own interests.”

His complaint reminded me of those Syrian activists I’ve met. Castigating the work of shady NGOs working for the British government and the actions of the US State Department, a young rebel once angrily told me that “our revolution has been hijacked.” Like many in South Sudan, Syria’s rebels have been left distrustful of the motives of their foreign backers, and resenting international interference in their country’s indigenous revolt.

A British Embassy official in Juba told me that the relationship between international powers and the South Sudanese government was “like a parent-child thing” of chivvying local leaders into greater responsibility. Yet the errant behaviour of a child surely reflects on the parents who created it in the first place. The official admitted to me that there was simply no strong national identity in South Sudan and, in its absence, “people identify with their tribe.” The UK’s commitment to making the country work continues—300 British soldiers will go to South Sudan this year, in non-military roles to support the country’s sparse infrastructure.

There’s a popular joke among South Sudanese about a young boy throwing a tantrum in front of his parents, who struggle to appease him. He is offered food but declines. Then his parents dangle a toy in front of him, but he isn’t happy with that either. Eventually it becomes clear—he has set his heart on having a new state.

In an otherwise rising continent, South Sudan looks like a white elephant. Its most lasting consequence may be to weaken the states around it, and perhaps the entire region. “There is a risk,” said the British Embassy official, “that South Sudan fragments and becomes another Somalia.” It is also possible that it will be brought back from the brink by another round of money and politicking. But if so, to what end and for whom?

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