There are probably a lot of people who can’t remember where they were, who they were with or what they were doing on July 9, five years ago. I remember everything from that day. It was the day when the newest country in the world was born and, along with millions of others, I celebrated this momentous occasion.
But now it’s been five years since South Sudan achieved independence. It’s been five years in which more suffering than ever imagined has been poured out on this country; five years in which so many lives have changed so much that they bear little resemblance to whatever came before. Five years: a long time in an individual’s life and barely a blimp on the canvas of history.
I can’t believe it’s been five years since we stood together and watched the South Sudanese flag being raised for the first time. It was a hot day, even for a country where most days are hot. The weeks leading up to independence were marked by activity – aid workers, conflict junkies and long-term devotees flocked to the scene, journalists arrived from faraway places, diplomats got dressed up, VIP and VVIP passes were discussed, displayed, debated and desired.
For the chosen few, the midwives of independence, the supporters of peace and makers of war, there were seats reserved on the newly erected grandstand. For most South Sudanese, there were celebrations that started late at night and continued for several days. For the rest of the international community, there was a curfew and movement restrictions – neither of which, of course, stopped us from making our way with hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese to John Garang’s mausoleum, amid dancing troupes, cheering crowds and smiling faces. It was the end of a long and brutal war and the dawn of a new peace.
The flag was raised for the first time. The new national anthem was sung. The constitution was read. People cheered. People cried. History was rewritten and an awful past temporarily washed away. What was won had cost so much. I sometimes wonder if there was an indication that the price had been too high. Did we know on that day what independence had cost and what the implications of that would be? The sense of optimism was so great that it was infectious. If self-determination and statehood were going to make sense in Africa, somehow I thought that South Sudan was going to prove it.
South Sudan in 2011 was in many ways the perfect case study for state building in Africa. There was a limited colonial footprint overshadowed by the bitter years of civil war with Sudan. After an African-led, internationally supported peace process, the people who had faced decades of brutal suppression were finally able to decide how they wanted to be governed and by whom. Self-determination was granted through a referendum with the vast majority of South Sudanese choosing to have their own country instead of remaining in unity with Sudan.
People wanted better. And now they had the chance. International funding flowed in, with South Sudan becoming a cause célèbre for some key decision-makers in the US, Norway and the UK, and a blank canvas on which UN agencies could flex their muscles. International goodwill translated easily into cash and well-intentioned helping hands quickly found jobs. Coupled with the oil revenue of the newly independent state and the peacekeeping mission’s expenditure, billions of dollars began to flow.
But outside of the international aid bubble, South Sudan is an environment best characterised by dearth. Food is scarce. Water is scarce. Cool breezes are scarce. Infrastructure is struggling to nonexistent. And the needs are a seemingly endless list, impossible to prioritise and difficult to understand. Within this context, all indicators and baselines are so low that intervention becomes an addiction. Find a problem, we can help fix it. Naïve interventions sought to resolve problems many international staff could not understand and few internationals even tried to.
Because ultimately, we really don’t know how to build states and there’s no course to teach it, no logframe that can explain causalities or context-specific interventions that unlock change. A mammoth international apparatus descended on South Sudan based on the assumption that millions of dollars, multiple university degrees, Land Cruisers, containers, generators and laptops could create enough of a framework around which a state would grow and suitable power relations would be established. It reeked of inequality and arrogance.
Meanwhile somewhere between the co-ordination meetings, report writings, G&Ts, R&Rs, HR issues, field trips, per diems and parties, a different reality was unfolding. A reality for some South Sudanese citizens in which the glow of independence was quickly fading into a violent and autocratic government seemingly hell-bent on explosive confrontations and acting without consequence. Barely six months after independence, the closing of the oil pipeline in January 2012 not only crippled the national economy and collapsed the big tent of patrimony, but was also the first indication of a leadership more reckless than anyone had ever thought. This was the reality that everyone was forced to confront in mid-December 2013 when thousands of people were massacred in the capital city, Juba, and violence quickly engulfed the land.
What we missed was that South Sudan in 2011 was also the worst possible case for state building and it seems almost inescapable now that the fundamental dilemma that sits at the core of her insecurity lies in the very existence of the state. That is not to say that independence was the cause of all the insecurity that has followed. It’s just that the way in which power manifests in a state like South Sudan is more likely to cause violence than peace.
Mark Duffield said it best, speaking about Sudan, although the quote applies equally to South Sudan: “A shrinking resource base and a decline in formal economic opportunity has seen an increasing transfer of assets from the weak to the politically strong. This local transfer is integrated with a parallel regional economy. In the case of Sudan, different aspects of this economy come together in the state where they are controlled and contested by sectarian political interests. It is an inherently authoritarian, violent and disaster producing structure.” A pathological political economy, a violent kleptocracy, as Alex de Waal would say.
It starts with an inconvenient geography that belies centralised control and includes an uncomfortable history, some meddling neighbours, hardened identities and close social ties that manifest as networks of obligation. It is a context in which warriors survive and maliciously intentioned, ambitious people grin with slimy pride. Suddenly, with independence thrust upon the country just six months after the referendum and without the full implementation of the peace agreement, there was so much more to fight for, so much more at stake than ever before. Money. Control. Power. They are called “cycles of violence” because violence feeds off itself. Violence begets violence and there had been decades of violence that still required revenge, avenge and resolve. Greed, fear, mistrust, anger and hatred make excellent comrades in arms.
And so it’s been a bad couple of years. There really are no words for the depth of suffering that has been meted out on South Sudanese communities across the country and I’d never presume to be able to treat an individual’s pain with sufficient respect. But it is not unknown – just read here, here and here. And remember that numbers are numbing. Put faces and pictures to the data. Imagine 220,000 people living in UNMISS bases for 2.5 years. Think about 220,000 faces going through their everyday lives and personal moments living in conditions like this:
Aerial view of Malakal Protection of Civilians Site, 22 February 2016. The darkened areas are burned zones following an attack on the base by government aligned forces on 17 and 18 February 2016 that targeted the areas occupied by ethnic Nuers and left more than 40 people dead and 100 injured. The peacekeepers guarding the site were unable to deter the attack. No one has been held accountable for the flagrant disregard of international law. (Credit: UNHAS).
Imagine the millions of people who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, members of their families and have fled on foot into far off neighbouring lands, unsure when or if they’ll ever make it home. Just imagine. Five million people are facing food insecurity. And by that, I don’t mean they’ll be missing a meal or two. For some people, it will mean relying on the ever-too-little food aid rations until the next harvest season could perhaps deliver some relief – that is if insecurity, displacement or climate change don’t yet again prevent people from planting and harvesting. Thousands of other people will be eating leaves, wild fruits and water lilies to survive – today, tomorrow and probably every day for months to come. And of course, it is no surprise that disease loves South Sudan. Pestilence keeps a summer home there.
It is said that South Sudan was cursed in the book of Isaiah. In Chapter 18, there is a prophecy against the land of Cush which reads: “Woe to the land of whirring wings along the rivers of Cush… to a people tall and smooth-skinned, to a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers… This is what the Lord says to me: ‘I will remain quiet and will look on from my dwelling place, like shimmering heat in the sunshine, like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.’ For, before the harvest, when the blossom is gone and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he will cut off the shoots with pruning knives, and cut down and take away the spreading branches. They will all be left to the mountain birds of prey and to the wild animals; the birds will feed on them all summer, the wild animals all winter.”
With further reading though, there is talk of salvation and a rescue from the darkness through paying “homage to the Lord”. Now I’m not usually the Bible quoting type, but I do believe in homage, and the notion of being deferent to a power that is meant to bind us all finds reverence in me. Because the only way for people to be better to each other is for people to see each other as the same. What hurts you hurts me. Suffering is indivisible. You may be able to shutter yourself from its direct glare, but its existence is unavoidable.
And somehow that’s what took me to South Sudan so many years ago – actually it was another me altogether, for some things in life leave you changed forever. I never thought of myself as a white saviour going to rescue our African brothers and sisters from themselves. Perhaps that was there, but our own history as white people in South Africa obscures such grandiose thoughts. I believed that international actors could help, that money well spent would give people a chance at a better future, that plans well thought out could deliver change.
I’m not so sure any more. There are many things that have been lost since 9 July 2011. Optimism has given way to cynicism; enthusiastic idealism to stark, uncreative pragmatic realism. Unified national identity was lost to violent ethnic divides. Personal and narrow interests won over humility, humanity and the good of the people.
Jok Madut Jok, a South Sudanese academic and activist, posted this on his Facebook page – “We’ve gone from big dreams, aspirations and expectations all the way to just praying for the bare minimum in our lives. We’ve gone from the high days of independence euphoria to mourning the death of our freedom, to crying over our lost dignity and pride as a people. And now it’s just enough if we survive another night and wake up to face another day, heads held high by what’s left of exhausted neck muscles. What to do, South Sudan. Happy fifth anniversary, my battered country. You are a mother that gave birth to useless children. If I’m your child, a true one, I should have been able to come up with the solutions to your ailments, so useless I’m, we are.”
My view is limited to being delivered from the bubble of the international community providing emergency aid and development inputs. Without a doubt, South Sudan’s leaders plunged her people into the current situation. But we had the money, skills and ideals that were meant to prevent that from happening. If all the effort led only to war and we accept with humility that coming from the outside, we cannot build peace, then we need to think far more carefully about what our role is and how we can fulfill it. We too are useless.
This is a dilemma not only for South Sudan. Interventions in Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and so many other places suffer from the same problems. The UN system is prone to protect governments, gerrymander the levers of power and hide behind fences as inaccessible to ordinary citizens as their technocratic language, constant obstacles to delivery and general lack of spine are. International NGOs are prone to inefficiencies, unhealthy competition, overly technical and ambitious programming and constant staff changes that undermine continuity, learning and improving. Donors have their own agendas, which will always trump local interests when it really counts. And all of these contradictions and problems pour out into the intervention context. Along with our good intentions came all of our personal, professional and organisational baggage.
So where to from here? Throw in the towel? Call it a lost cause? My sense of humanity provides the only relief for my cynicism. We have to address the suffering. It cannot and will not be ignored. South Sudan’s leaders have to see it; citizens have no choice but to; and for want of a world that is a better place, we have to, too. So let this day be a reminder of our collective hopes and dreams. Let this day provide pause to consider how much we have and how much we could all lose.
My wish for South Sudan on her fifth birthday is one of peace, of course. But it is probably far simpler than that. My wish for South Sudan is the same as it is for South Africa today – to remember that there was a time when you saw each other as brothers and sisters committed to the project of peace. Remember that you are one and what you do to one you do to all. My wish is for people who are suffering today to know that there are people around the world who are thinking of them, praying for them and working for them and with them to make the world a better place for us all. You are not forgotten and you are not alone. DM
Photo of Juba on Independence Day 2011 by ENOUGH Project via Flickr.
"Don't gobblefunk around with words." ~ Roald Dahl