6 August 2012

South Sudan: Whose Great Idea Was This Anyway?


Firstly, it must be noted that the author of this piece has never been to Sudan in any of its manifestations. Neither does he profess to be an arm chair expert, floating opinions and arguments over twitter and viciously trolling opponents.

However, neither does he seek to make an analysis of Sudan's history or politics, but rather to look at how people who have been there, or at least those who write with the air of having been there, are currently writing about Sudan. At present, the focus of commentary in non-specialist publications is weighted towards South Sudan which, owing to the recent one year anniversary of its independence, has invited much reflective analysis on what progress (if any) has been made. This has for the most part been gloomy.

Sudan as a whole has been, for at least a decade, one of the African countries that a bigger-than-average constituency of outsiders have known about, cared about and consistently manufactured humanitarian and political campaigns on (see Save Darfur). Owing to the long-running North-South civil war, which it was hoped had been ‘fixed’ through the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the easily vilified Khartoum-based government and high-profile campaign figures, its has maintained an elevated position in the reporting of African current affairs.

Additionally, a marketable narrative emerged which portrayed the South Sudanese as a subjugated black African (Christian) minority existing under the whip-hand of an exploitative Arab (Islamic) elite in the North. Whilst this narrative is rooted in some truth, and I do not intend to interrogate the complexities of Sudan’s many-faceted layers of internal conflict, what has been interesting to observe is how such analyses have changed or expanded over the past 12 months to more fully integrate South Sudan as a political actor with its own internal problems and divisions.

Free at last

Compared with the euphoria at independence in July last year, any reasonably diligent observer of mainstream reporting on Africa will have noticed that things in Sudan have really gone south, and fast. Some examples: this site’s joint-editor Alex de Waal wrote in the New York Times in January, when the Southern government decided to shut down oil production, that this could be ‘South Sudan’s Doomsday Machine’. Not just a bump in the road, or a minor difficulty, but a threat to the very functioning of the state. It should also be noted that this threat was the product of a decision made by the government of South Sudan (SPLM), which effectively suspended the source of 97 percent of its national budget. A tactic which might reasonably be described as ‘risky.’ Such decisions have serious implications – how were government services as fundamental as health and education to be paid for? To put it mildly, international eyebrows were raised.

In April, The Pulitzer Centre, in its introduction to a special reporting project called Milk and Blood: the making of South Sudan, opined that:

‘to many living in South Sudan, peace feels a lot like war. South Sudan looks like a nation on the map, but in reality is a land with no uniting identity, poor leadership, rampant corruption and violent divisions. It’s also at war with its new neighbour to the north.’

But surely such problems were largely predictable and didn’t suddenly emerge post-independence? Were expectations simply unrealistic? Even De Waal seemed a little surprised: “it all looked so good just over a year ago” he said, opening a lecture whilst Sudanese brinkmanship was probably at its height, soon after the Southern invasion of the oil region of Heglig.  Admittedly, he was referring largely to the diplomatic situation between North and South, the deterioration of which seems to have triggered the current soul-searching over the internal quality of the new regime.

Ellie Kaufman, writing for the Pulitzer Centre, quotes, Princeton Lyman, the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, who in June 2012 expressed hopes that the international community could hold the conflict in its current stalemate:

“If we, the international community, and the two parties themselves can move towards a situation where things don’t get worse, where they don’t stumble back into conflict, and where they can get to more pragmatic decisions and relationships for each other, I think for the time being that’s pretty good.”

Not particularly inspiring stuff – the best we can hope for being that North and South Sudan will stop fighting each other. So how did we get from the optimism of South Sudanese independence to doomsday thinking and a rather tentative clutching-at-straws?

Events dear boy, events

At independence, perhaps not wanting to spoil the party (or reserving judgement,) many commentators and journalists spoke of South Sudan’s ‘challenges’ and ‘opportunities.’ Such language always betrays the fact that whilst a country may have lots of one rather desirable thing (eg oil, gold, young people…) it’s going to be rather difficult turning it in to liberal democracy and the NHS. Richard Dowden however, wrote in a blog post after a visit to South Sudan, that an atmosphere of ‘lackadaisical ease’ hung over Juba’s ministry offices and ‘among the chattering classes’. He pointedly wondered whether the government of South Sudan, the liberators, was actually part of the problem – rather than this simply being the preserve of the evil-doers in Khartoum.

South Sudan’s new government, according to Richard, is ‘largely a list of loyal and long-serving SPLM members receiving their rewards.’ Whilst negotiating the streets of the capital he made the telling observation that:

‘increasingly you have to pull over while a minister’s convoy of fat, dark windowed four by fours roars by, sirens wailing and lights flashing. When this happens the walkers have to jump into the muddy ditch. These smart new roads have no pavements. They are built for the cars of the elite, not for the people.’

The warm glow of liberation could only last so long, and as Dan Large, a writer and analyst on Sudan said to me: “False expectations are being corrected, perhaps, as the circus moves on, but what were folks expecting to begin with: Denmark to be created in a year, complete with nice welfare state?”

South Sudanese academic Jok Madut Jok (now an undersecretary in the ministry of culture) describes his own feelings towards ‘liberation’ after being beaten up by a group of SPLA soldiers – it [liberation] can become a more destructive philosophy when wedded to a reckless militarism and poorly regulated armed forces.

“We liberated it” is now thrown in your face left and right, even if it means taking the liberty to be drunk on the job, loot public property, claim entitlement for a job one is not qualified for, beat or even shoot to kill civilians, over nonsense. Liberators? To what end?

Gerard Prunier, quoted in an article for Foreign Policy (more on which later) described South Sudan as having a “government of idiots” who are “rotten to the core.” This assessment came shortly after Prunier had resigned as an advisor to the SPLM. Prunier, a long-time academic and commentator on the Horn and Central Africa, seems on the whole to be thoroughly disillusioned with the entire Sudan ‘project.’ He wrote, in an earlier New York Times op-ed, that in Sudan ‘we’ should ‘give war a chance,’ it being ‘a lot better than waiting around for a negotiated peace that will never come.’ He also touched on an argument that has been increasingly in evidence of late:

‘The American-sponsored Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 was supposed to cure Sudan’s endemic conflict, but it used the wrong medicine.’

Whilst Prunier is making an argument that extends beyond South Sudan concerning, in his words, ‘ the one-third of the Sudanese people — the African Muslims’, now battling the North Sudanese government in a ‘de facto alliance with southern Christians’ – it is the nature of this analysis that I am most interested in. This being the argument that the so-called solutions for peace were not the right solutions. Did ‘we’ back the wrong horses? Reconcile ‘ourselves’ to talking to the wrong people? And who do we mean by ‘we’ anyway?

The Washington Wonks

Alan Boswell, writer of the aforementioned Foreign Policy article The Failed State Lobby thinks he has the answer. This being, that it was a small group of influential US-based activists, including John Prendergast of the Enough Project. But isn’t this all starting to sound like something of a conspiracy theory, tinged with a hint of anti-Americanism? Cynical journalists crowing at failure, pleased to see people who tried to do something fall on their own swords?

Boswell’s piece is damning on the new state and its swiftly enriched leaders. He describes South Sudan’s first year of independence as being ‘a disaster by all but the lowest of standards.’ Admittedly, even John Prendergast’s Enough Project found it difficult to say anything positive about the one year anniversary in its July 9th post, finally settling on the fact that ‘one marker of progress could be found in the minutiae of the day, in particular, the level of organisation of this year’s ceremony.’ An example of straw-clutching at its most creative.

Rebecca Hamilton, a former lawyer and author of Fighting for Darfur (a book about public activism over the ‘other’ Sudan conflict,) also picked up on the state creation story with her piece, The wonks who sold Washington on South Sudan. Hamilton is noticeably more sympathetic in her narrative than Boswell. For example, on the ‘celebritisation’ of Sudan activism, Boswell treats the entry of George Clooney (brought in by Jon Prendergast, who has something of the film star about him already) with some suspicion – ‘[he] has made Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir something of his own personal white whale,’ says Boswell, whilst Hamilton refers to Clooney simply as ‘an advocate for the cause’, which is certainly true, but does not seek, in Boswell’s style, to analyse the products of this advocacy. Prendergast himself described the regime of Omar el-Beshir as ‘too deformed to be reformed’ – a neat turn of phrase indeed. We can probably hasten a guess as to where Clooney gets his ideas.

Boswell argues that Clooney’s money, which has in part been used to fund a satellite service ‘that publicly spies on Sudan’, does not deliver the same level of scrutiny to South Sudan’s forces. From this statement it is easy to extrapolate the broad tenor of Boswell’s argument: South Sudan was the creation of a bunch of romantics, some of them well-informed but misguided, others simply guided by the misplaced advocacy of the Sudan specialists. But is this true, or fair? Bec Hamilton notes:

‘South Sudan is primarily the creation of its own people. It was southern Sudanese leaders who fought for autonomy, and more than two million southern Sudanese who paid for that freedom with their lives.’

But whilst the liberation struggle undoubtedly forged a national spirit in Juba, it is still necessary to have support in Washington to actually change the lines on the map.

The ‘wonks’ at the centre of the diplomatic effort for South Sudanese independence seem to recognise the state’s current difficulties, but remain convinced that independence was the right thing to push for. Ted Dagne, Ethiopian-born, and perhaps the key advocate for South Sudan amongst Hamiliton and Boswell’s Washington Wonks (he worked at the US Congressional Research Service), states that: ‘All the other issues are minor once you have your sovereignty.’

It is certainly harder for the world to ignore South Sudan now that it has a seat at the UN. But with sovereignty comes responsibility, and the question which seems to be at the centre of much commentary right now is whether South Sudan has demonstrated sufficient responsibility as an independent state to justify the statehood granted to it by its international supporters.

Hamilton argues that it is actually the ‘unresolved diplomatic issues [which] have come back to haunt the region.’ The ‘issues’ are those associated with oil, border delineation and SPLM cadres seemingly abandoned in the rump state of Sudan North, as detailed earlier by de Waal. In this assertion Hamilton would seem to find some common ground with the increasingly cranky Gerard Prunier – the CPA being an ineffective medicine, which did not provide the necessary conditions under which a peace could reasonably be expected to hold. Despite agreement having been reached on paper, warfare between North and South Sudan remains structural.

De Waal, quoted by Boswell, also says that US backing of the South has made the SPLM ‘reckless…They think the rules don’t apply to them.’ Not an attitude most would welcome when coupled with  a determined army, disputed border and a lot of oil.

Still not Denmark

South Sudan is not Denmark, and may never be. Perhaps expectations were too high, or perhaps it was always likely that the country would be put under much greater scrutiny after its independence. Whilst Ted Dagne may argue that sovereign states are much harder to ignore, this would seem to swing both ways. As a sovereign state you have fewer excuses. More journalists write articles about your internal affairs. More papers print op-eds by experts (disgruntled or otherwise). Greater scrutiny is paid.

South Sudan is still, to a great extent, defined in the media by its relations with the old existential enemy – the government of North Sudan. But now it seems that more commentators are seeking to approach South Sudan on its own terms, whether this is a good thing for the country, I’ll let you be the judge.

Magnus Taylor is Managing Editor, African Arguments Online.

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