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Thoughts on South Sudan

December 24, 2013

News has emerged of the discovery of mass graves in South Sudan, as the country descends into civil war. I thought i’d say a few things after working there in November.

First, the mainstream media coverage has been awful. When the crisis kicked off 10 days ago it was obvious something nasty was afoot, yet the story didn’t make it to the top of websites for the whole week, meriting only a couple of brief reports on the international sections of the BBC and Guardian. On Thursday I saw a confused-looking Beeb anchor mention the conflict briefly on TV. News websites were too busy grappling with the intricacies of the Nigella Lawson case and crap like “Smartphone smackdown: The best (and worst) devices of 2013” (The Guardian). Some outside journalists couldn’t enter the country because the borders were temporarily closed, but that should be no reason to ignore the conflict. News outlets could have used newswires and local reports. Radio Tamazuj seems much more informed than its British or American counterparts.

It was only this week that the story hit the top of the news agenda, after the death of an estimated thousand or more and after tens of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Twitter has throughout been much more useful than the international press, with informed locals sending messages from the capital, Juba, several informed foreign journalists messaging from home, as well as a few people tweeting from the ten provinces. I emailed several of my contacts, all of whom were OK. As my friend Marco pointed out on Facebook, for the Guardian to trumpet their man as the first foreign reporter to enter the country smacked of the same old paternalism that’s afflicted the continent for centuries. Reuters and local media have been reporting on the crisis since well before the arrival of the foreign press pack.

As so often the causes of the conflict were personalised. Foreign diplomats were reported as saying that President Salva Kiir “wasn’t the man they used to deal with” and that his former vice president Riek Machar, with his PhD from Bradford — as if that matters — appeared more power-hungry than before. The international press has paid hardly any attention to the political institutions (or lack of them) that allowed the current situation to develop, or to the international pressures which might have influenced the schism.

And we wonder why newspapers are in decline.

Second, contrary to what the legion of instant experts soon to hit the airwaves will say, nobody saw this coming. I’m relatively ignorant about the country, having only spent a fortnight there (writing about trade policy), so my view isn’t very important, but not one of the roughly 30-40 people I spoke to in the country mentioned the possibility of armed conflict, still less inter-ethnic violence. I didn’t read any analyses saying that widespread inter-ethnic violence was a risk, although my reading wasn’t exhaustive. Most of the people I spoke to rightly pointed to Khartoum as the source of their fears, rather than Dinka or Nuer. Warnings were issued about ongoing violence in states like Jonglei and at the disputed border with the north, not that the crisis would take the current form.

Retrospectively, of course, it’s always possible to build a story which sees ethnicity and armed conflict long bubbling below the surface. Many senior government staff are former senior army officers who have been given their positions as a reward for decades spent fighting for independence, and to stop them returning to make trouble in the provinces.

The South Sudanese who didn’t fight in the war were reportedly less likely to be promoted afterwards. Before 2005 some worked in Khartoum, where they were confined by to the middle ranks of the civil service. A few people suggested to me that Khartoum deliberately sabotaged the government of the South by promoting weak officers to senior posts just before independence. Put bluntly, many didn’t know what they were doing. After the oil was shut off earlier this year government revenues went into decline, which meant that many government employees went unpaid for several months. Their discontent might have stoked the violence.

Europeans and Americans have a tendency to put too much faith in the peaceful conciliation that comes about through democratic processes, and perhaps a naked power-clash like the one currently being perpetrated by president Kiir was always in the offing, particularly in such a new country and after two civil wars spanning 39 years – together said to be the world’s bloodiest, in which 1.5 million died.

Education and guns matter. A country saturated with AK47s was never likely to remain peaceful forever. Denied the right to attend school only a 27% of people are literate, defined by the UN as the proportion of adults over 15 able to read and write a simple sentence. Globally that’s higher only than the neighbouring Central African Republic. A mere 1.7% of people go to secondary school. It’s not patronising to suggest that some people settled scores by violence, not discussion, and that leaders can readily convince the uneducated that the tribal ‘other’ is to blame for their problems.

Health indicators are little better. Of every thousand live births 105 children never reach their first birthday. In Cuba, a global health exemplar, the comparable figure is six. South Sudanese have a fifty-fifty chance of living below the national poverty line, but their poverty-stricken years are unlikely to last because people die at an average age of 42. I suppose that in a new country the window of opportunity for tackling these horrifying social indicators is relatively short, and when people don’t see their lives improving they will look for scapegoats.

And people’s lives outside the capital weren’t improving quickly. Economic opportunities appeared incredibly limited in many of the provinces. In Malakal, in the northern state of Upper Nile, I asked one interviewee about the main barriers to trade. In other countries the answer is usually technical, like the cost of credit, difficulties with property rights or delays with customs clearance.

“Electricity,” he said, “and roads”. The entire province – which covers an area seven times that of Yorkshire – contains almost no tarmac apart from a couple of short stretches near the oilfields near the border with Sudan. The state has a wealth of resources: oil; gum Arabic (which is used in fizzy drinks and which the South Sudanese have tried in vain to rename Gum Africa); fertile land but no infrastructure or the ability to exploit those resources apart from sending oil via pipeline to Port Sudan for refining elsewhere. The official border at Renk was closed and almost all goods from Sudan are smuggled.

(Incidentally while in Malakal we met the sister of Pagan Amum Okiech, the Secretary General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, who is currently under detention for allegedly plotting the current unrest.)

It probably goes without saying, but infrastructure is very basic. Most roads are rough tracks. We crossed the only bridge out of Juba, a decades-old military affair spanning the White Nile which looked as if it could collapse at any moment. Lorries were backed up to the river’s edge syphoning water from the river for transport round town in tankers. Our taxi driver said that until last year some had been transporting sewage and water in the same tank, and that sometimes you’d be having a shower and “shit would fall on your head”. He seemed to find this incredibly funny. Until two years ago three was apparently no readily-available good drinking water in the town, although now 25 companies bottle water — affordable only for the middle-class, of course.

The Ministry of Transport compound ironically couldn’t be reached except by a very good four-wheel drive. There are almost no small cars in town, and almost every vehicle seems to be a Toyota Landcruiser, probably not paid for out of a senior government salary of about $1000 a month. The only two good paved roads in the capital run mostly between the government offices and aid agencies. The other routes are via terrible muddy tracks which are best avoided. We sat in  a jam for ten minutes near a three-way junction. Traffic lights are unknown.  Hotels are springing up everywhere, a contrast, I am told, to the pre-independence days when most visitors stayed in tents.

What strikes me as so saddening is that South Sudan will be dismissed by the world as just the latest disastrous African tribal conflict, yet I met a lot of peacable, educated and hard-working people who only wanted their nation to succeed and who were well capable of identifying the real sources of underdevelopment. The explanation is much more complex than just two tribes having at each other. As the traffic jams and new hotels showed, at least in the capital things were booming. Economic growth was so rapid this year that the Economist touted the nation as one of the world’s best-performers. In last week’s print edition it considered South Sudan as a possible “country of the year” but counted it out because of the volatile nature of growth:

Focusing on GDP growth would lead us to opt for South Sudan, which will probably notch up a stonking 30% increase in 2013—more the consequence of a 55% drop the previous year, caused by the closure of its only oil pipeline as a result of its divorce from Sudan, than a reason for optimism about a troubled land.

As an uninformed outsider, if I were to point to one particular cause of the conflict i’d pick out the low level of institutional development. A poor, war-torn country just can’t develop a functional legal system and democracy in two years. Lots of foreigners from rich countries forget that their systems took hundreds of years to develop, often in unspoken, tacit ways. Britain doesn’t even have a written constitution. In any case, writing things on bits of paper is often completely useless. The 2011 South Sudanese constitution is the sort of thing that would give Norwegians wet dreams — and in fact it was drafted with the help of well-meaning European lawyers. It’s full of politically-correct statements about gender equality and human rights, all of which are being resolutely violated.

Civil servants aren’t fully trained, and many are politically appointed or put in place for reasons of expediency rather than because they’re any good at doing their jobs. The state clearly struggled to legitimise itself through monopolising the legitimate use of violence, as students of Max Weber would attest. All of these institutional ingredients need strong long-term international support and funding.

But as the recriminations fly it’s worth remembering that few people, least of all myself, saw the conflict coming, despite the poverty, and despite the poor state of education, health, infrastructure and institutions. It’s probably too soon to start pointing fingers at the UN, or the Chinese, or the Americans, or only one side or other in the political conflict. If the finger-pointers were so wise they’d have said something before the event. What’s obviously crucial in the near term is for the president and Machar to hold public talks aimed at stopping the violence in an effort to stop it getting even further out of hand, and for foreign news agencies to report it properly regardless of Western weariness — and even if it spoils our Christmas dinners.

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