It’s time we all owned the failure of South Sudan

South Sudan will celebrate ten years of independence this summer. It’s in bad shape and we’re partly to blame.

By: /
1 June, 2021
Sunset at Nasir, South Sudan, 2103. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Coghlan.

In July of this year South Sudan — the world’s newest country — will mark 10 years of independence. Celebrations will be muted, and they should be. South Sudan is by most criteria a failed state.

The two long wars that led to the territory’s separation from Sudan left millions dead and meant that by 2011 this was the least developed place on Earth. Then, in 2013, came the South Sudanese civil war. Fought largely on ethnic lines over four to five years, this killed a further 400,000 people and forced two million of the country’s population of 12 million to flee outside the country, where they still languish in refugee camps. Some 80 per cent of those remaining in country will need humanitarian assistance in 2021, says the UN. Civil servants have been unpaid for months, and education and health are largely donor-financed. In 2020, Transparency International rated South Sudan (jointly with Somalia) the most corrupt country on Earth. It is also perennially deemed one of the two or three most dangerous for aid workers. In few constructive senses is the government present for its citizens.

Putting aside for one moment the argument that we have a moral duty to help the less fortunate, why should Canadians care? This, after all, is a distant place that poses no geopolitical risk to the world and that is most unlikely to become a terrorist haven. There is oil and mineral wealth, but no Canadian companies are active. Members of the significant diaspora in Canada exert no pressure on our politicians, divided as they are on the ethnic lines that fracture their country of origin.

We should care because, more than any country that has emerged on the world map since the decolonization wave of the 1950s and 1960s, South Sudan is a western creation. The United States was the midwife, with Britain and Norway in close support. But Canada — our government, our church groups, our aid workers, Canadian pilots even — was never far behind. If South Sudan is a failure, it is one we partly own.

Government troops at Akobo, after the outbreak of the South Sudan civil war in Dec. 2013. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Coghlan.

The first time I saw what would become the new country — then a territory in revolt against the detested jihadists of Khartoum (Sudan), where I ran Canada’s tiny diplomatic office — was in 2000. I’d flown north from Nairobi to the United Nations’ logistics base at Lokichogio, just inside Kenya but on the edge of rebel territory in southern Sudan. This was the control center for Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), an innovative arrangement by which the UN negotiated with both Khartoum and the rebel factions for air access into opposition-held territory, while coordinating the aid activities of forty non-governmental organisations.

If you were an aid worker, Loki — as the cognoscenti called it — was the place to be in those years. At dawn a flight of white C-130 Hercules would roar out for the first round of food drops over southern Sudan at locations painstakingly negotiated over months. In the interval before they returned for a second run, you’d hear smaller Twin Otters and Buffaloes buzzing in and out, the Dakota belonging to the Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse and Cessnas with the logos of Save The Children or Médecins Sans Frontières stencilled on their sides.

At the bars and canteens within the UN compound there was serious talk among the young expats of malnutrition rates, of the latest famine predictions, of the upcoming measles campaign — as well as the usual comparing of per diems. There were Canadians everywhere: glamorous bush pilot Heather Stewart — “All-Weather Heather” — was a legend in her own time.

There was no doubt who were the Good Guys and who were the Bad. I eavesdropped on a neighbouring table at Murphy’s (one of several bars within the UN compound) where a visiting American Congressman told of his hopes for his upcoming slave-redemption mission: he’d brought with him a million dollars in cash, raised by church groups in the southern U.S. and, in an encounter to be arranged and mediated by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), he would meet with Arab slave-traders from the North to purchase the freedom of young boys and girls they had seized. At another, pilots working for a Nordic relief agency were dropping the names of the rebel generals they’d just lifted from one front to another. UN staffers who tried to maintain a façade of neutrality were mocked. This was almost literally a crusade. If you were in any doubt, you might peruse the NGO noticeboards: one organisation openly sought “evangelists.” 

In the air in a Hercules over a swamp-encircled village called Nhial, 1000km north of Loki, my sense of slight unease was temporarily displaced by adrenaline. An airdrop (this one was Canadian funded) is an exhilarating experience. You strap in at the rear door.  You feel the hot wind, the ground rushes past 150 metres below, the aircraft screams into a climb and twelve tons of food roll by you.

What could be more inspiring? Food for the starving — you surely couldn’t spend dollars any better than this. But then I made my way back to the cockpit as we made a final pass to check for accuracy.  The pilot pointed down and off to one side.  The engines were too loud for speech. I could see men in rebel uniform barging their way in, pushing the civilians to one side.

* * *

The diversion of international aid was deeply problematic in the second Sudanese civil war.  It allowed one side a distinct advantage and may well have contributed to its outcome. But blatant behaviour of the kind I saw at Nhial was only part of the story. 

“The problem — more easily visible in hindsight — was that we were effectively running the place.”

Wherever I went on the ground in rebel-held territory, there were well-intentioned internationals delivering western-funded health, sanitation and education projects. These programs were, I was happy to report to Ottawa, conscientiously administered and effective. The problem — more easily visible in hindsight — was that we were effectively running the place. The rebel SPLA were freed up simply to fight. There was no need for them to provide any services for their people. The “khawajas,” white people, would do that; we’d been doing it since 1983. 

What if we had called their bluff and said, “Look after your own people”? Wouldn’t that have shortened the war? Probably not. The rebels had little sense of responsibility; hundreds of thousands would have died, and within a few months CNN coverage of starving babies would have forced us back in. 

Peace finally came in 2005, thanks largely to a deeply committed U.S. administration, supported by allies. There was, however, a major flaw in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the fighting.

The party to which power was handed on a plate — the SPLA — was dominated by the Dinka ethnic group and was far from representative of the country-to-be. But the supposed pragmatists in Washington and other western capitals won out over carping academics and “experts.” A deal was signed, the fighting ceased, and independence was in due course euphorically celebrated. Oilfields would give the new country the highest GDP per capita in the region, we told each other. Then we most of us went home. The job seemed to be done.

For a (very) short time, all went well. The oil money — at US$100 a barrel — poured in. But when I returned to South Sudan as a diplomat at our new office in Juba in 2012, it was painfully evident nobody in the new government had any significant experience of administration of any kind. The few from the diaspora who had returned to offer their services were brushed off with a scornful question: “Where were you when we were fighting?” 

All that money wasn’t going anywhere useful. “It’s our time to eat” was the cynical catchphrase, as funds disappeared in a morass of corruption and to maintain the rag-tag, bloated and idle army. Donors still present in Juba were aghast when nothing constructive happened.

One day, I suggested to the minister of health that he should try to get more money from his treasury than the paltry 1.2 per cent allocated to his sector in the national budget. He shrugged as if in sympathy, then said: “But you see, Mr. Nicholas, when I go to the finance minister, he says ‘Don’t worry. The donors will pay. They always do.’”

This was while the government was spending its own money buying helicopter gunships. We were being subjected to the same kind of blackmail as under Operation Lifeline Sudan, years before. As the president succinctly and without apparent irony put it to a top visiting U.S. diplomat: “Well of course you can suspend your assistance.  But, you see, that won’t make any difference to me.”

There was one promising development. Donor governments laboured with the Juba administration to develop the “Compact”: a mutually agreed, prioritised set of objectives and benchmarks that would tie aid dollars to matching input from the Government of South Sudan. Following countrywide consultation, the first draft of the Compact listed internal reconciliation as the top objective, with disarmament/demobilisation of the armed forces in second place.

But Canada was among the very few to consider funding reconciliation projects. They were too “touchy-feely” for most. And nobody seemed prepared to contemplate disarmament.  The cost would run into the billions of dollars, and a large part of the program (the redevelopment of a small professional army) would in no way qualify as “aid” — making funding it a tough sell for donor populations.

There was a more serious problem on Juba’s side: the government was unwilling to float the currency so as to allow donor dollars to attain real purchasing power. A well-connected few in cabinet were making a financial killing out of the artificial controls.

It soon all became moot. In December 2013, the massive, poorly integrated army split on largely ethnic lines, old rivalries were renewed, and the civil war in South Sudan began.

The international aid community briefly evacuated at the outbreak of conflict, but then returned in greater force than ever. The Canadians came back, too, staffing NGOs and UN offices. Juba is now also home to Canada’s largest contingent anywhere of UN peacekeepers (a rather modest ten soldiers). In many ways we’re back to where we were when South Sudan first became a country, but with none of the optimism that existed then.

* * *

“Diplomats and aid workers are very bad at learning lessons.”

What’s to be done now? Diplomats and aid workers are very bad at learning lessons. We rotate in and out for laughably short periods. Two years after the civil war in South Sudan started, I was the only diplomat on the ground who had been there when it began. I spent a lot of time explaining things to new arrivals. That’s the first, painfully obvious lesson: study the history, listen to the experts, don’t repeat the old and documented mistakes.

The second lesson is this: as long as outside donors are pouring money into the country (Canada gave $98 million in 2019–2020), we have to hold the host government — which we are effectively propping up — to account.

We need to know where South Sudan’s significant oil revenue is being spent and why more is not going to services. This is not an intrusive demand. Such transparency is stipulated in the agreement between the government and rebel factions that finally ended the South Sudan civil war in 2018.

More delicate but equally necessary is a reckoning for the atrocities committed by all sides in nearly sixty years of war in this land. The government has committed to a hybrid (i.e., part South Sudanese) court but drags its feet. The pressure point here should be the African Union.

But it shouldn’t all be lecturing. The international community procrastinated fatally in not pushing reconciliation and demobilization, which were priorities identified in the Compact by South Sudan’s people and government. Both must be addressed now. In so many places, we avoid long-term development commitments in favour of short-term Band-Aids (food out of planes). South Sudan demonstrates the folly of this approach.

An airdrop at Nhial, South Sudan, 2015. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Coghlan.

A progressive and fair means of moving ahead now would be a revised Compact: the Juba government matches our dollars, and we together implement programmes we all agree are a priority, with verifiable benchmarks.

It will be rightly said that ultimately there is only so much that we, as outsiders, can and should do here. If South Sudan is to succeed, it will not be as a neo-colonial project; it will depend above all on the South Sudanese demanding better things of their current feckless leadership.

But even here history says there is a challenge we must take up. Lokichogio was the spiritual home of the white saviour. We thought we were doing the right thing, even when there were unintended negative consequences. But delivery of western aid today needs to be not just for but by South Sudanese. As host to one of the larger South Sudanese diasporas, Canada perhaps holds a largely untapped reserve of expertise here.

Is a renewed international effort of this kind doable?  It’s precisely because of South Sudan’s geopolitical insignificance that it ought to be. South Sudan is not a Syria-like cockpit for rivalry between the great powers. There is no nefarious hidden hand of Iran, as there is in Yemen. And unlike Afghanistan, this is not a breeding-ground for terrorists. There are natural resources sufficient to sustain the country, but not so great as to merit covetousness from abroad. The South Sudanese are by and large liberally minded and pro-western. A re-boot should be entirely feasible.   

It may require U.S. leadership, which is what got everyone involved in the first place. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the UN, knows the region well. Samantha Power, the new head of the United States Agency for International Development, led a United Nations Security Council mission here in 2016. And President Joe Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Molly Phee, served here as ambassador. So there is some hope.

If the signal comes to re-engage, Canada should be as receptive as we were the first time around. But we need to learn from the mistakes we made then and do better.  

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