My essay in literary journal Meanjin:
“In Europe there are shelves of books dedicated to every war, archives full of documents, special rooms in museums. Nothing of the kind exists in Africa. Here, even the longest and greatest war is forgotten, falls into oblivion. Its traces vanish by the day after: the dead must be buried immediately, new huts created on the site of burned ones … History in these parts appears suddenly, descends like a deus ex machina, reaps its bloody harvest, seizes its prey, and disappears.”
Ryszard Kapuściński, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, 1998
Wai is a tiny speck on the map in South Sudan’s Jonglei State. I was travelling with the departing UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos and American actor Forest Whitaker. We arrived in an old Russian helicopter in an area that was sheltering 25,000 men, women and children who had fled nearby fighting. This wasn’t a typical refugee camp, there weren’t rows of tents or permanent structures but a mass of people living on whatever ground they could find, mostly in the open under trees or the occasional mud hut. Women sat with malnourished babies, waiting to receive UN-provided porridge-style food for their children.
The UN’s response in Wai was a remarkably fast operation; a few months before we landed there was literally nothing there apart from cracked dirt. The huge cost of running the humanitarian program countrywide ran to billions of dollars every year, making it one of the most acute internal disasters in the world.
During the hastily arranged community forum in a shady field, Amos told the assembled crowd that she appreciated many of them ‘walking for so many days to get here’. Men and women were dressed in their Sunday best and despite the searing heat, around 45° Celsius, they looked immaculate in ill-fitting and slightly oversized suits. This was rebel territory, the South Sudanese government wasn’t welcome, and the military governor, dressed in a green and white long-sleeve shirt and wide-brimmed hat, politely but firmly told the delegation that his people were suffering from a lack of reliable water, food and shelter. ‘Our children are traumatised,’ he said through a megaphone. ‘They need schools.’
Similar problems existed in rebel-held Ganyiel in Unity State. During a visit organised by the World Food Program (WFP), I saw tens of thousands of men, women and children lining up for not enough rations that had been dropped by C130 planes. Because the area was cursed with swamps and constant flooding, the WFP had to deliver supplies in the few months of the dry season. One local woman, Angela, who had been living in the area for more than a year with five children, gave me a message for her country’s leaders: ‘I’m telling [President] Salva Kiir and [rebel leader] Riek Machar to fight each other with their own hands and stop killing our kids.’
The ongoing troubles were upsetting US Secretary of State John Kerry. After yet another failed round of peace talks in March this year between the South Sudanese warring parties, he chastised leaders who were enjoying luxurious accommodation in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and not feeling obliged to settle their differences. ‘We are well past the point where enough is enough,’ he said. ‘Leaders must put the interests of their people above their own. The violence must end.’
It was a futile call for reconciliation. Although Kerry had announced in 2012 that Washington had helped ‘midwife the birth of this new nation’, America’s desperation for a foreign policy success in Africa had failed shortly after it launched. The world’s newest nation emerged in 2011 with great fanfare, President Barack Obama’s blessing, a huge aid budget and virtually no infrastructure. It was also to be a stinging response to China’s twenty-first-century colonisation of the continent.
After the decades of war between Sudan and southern rebels that killed millions of people, little thought had been given to how a new state would function. In December 2013 conflict exploded between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, causing the death of tens of thousands and unleashing intense fighting between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. America’s leverage over the crisis was limited despite presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama publicly pledging support for South Sudanese independence. A 2015 investigation published in Foreign Policy magazine found Washington curiously uninterested after violence surged in 2013, unwilling to pressure its friends to stop the killing.
I’ve seen the reality of this dysfunction and its devastating effect on civilians. Since moving to South Sudan in early 2015 (my partner is working here with an international aid organisation), I’ve witnessed snapshots of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The figures are startling. More than 2.5 million civilians are at risk of food insecurity, a figure that could rise to 4 million by the end of 2015. The population is around 11 million. At least 12,000 children were taken and forced to be soldiers in the last twelve months. The UN Special Envoy on Sexual Violence, Zainab Bangura, said in 2014 that the number of rapes in the country were the most shocking she had ever seen. On this year’s International Women’s Day, Oxfam head Winnie Byanyima wrote that ‘violence against women has worsened because of mass displacement, and the presence of more men with guns and the impunity under which they are left free to act’.
The facts seem overwhelming, obscuring the human toll of a war that barely registers on the international news agenda. Perhaps it’s too easily framed as just another African catastrophe with no easily recognisable goodies and baddies. The world’s coverage of Ebola was a stark reminder that black lives only mattered when they started affecting the security of white lives in the West. In a time of ISIS, extremism in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and beyond, South Sudan struggles to rise above the daily dose of beheadings, airstrikes and Islamic militancy. But if there is one thing I’ve discovered after years reporting in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran and other places easily dismissed as failing states, it’s that personal tales of resistance reveal far more about humanity than the predictable greed and ignorance of leaders and their political and media courtiers.
South Sudan’s needs are great. Literacy has been stubbornly low for years; around 70 per cent of the population is illiterate, with endemic teacher shortages and poor training of those educating the youth. The Yei Teaching Training College, in the country’s south, is the leading institution preparing the next generation of educators, but the challenge is immense: only one-third of the state’s 28,000 teachers are qualified.
In Wai and Ganyiel the failure of leaders to provide their own people with a viable future was clear. Perhaps it was unsurprising considering the quality of politicians empowered to lead the nation. Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an expert on Sudan, explained in 2014 that the new state
obtained independence as a kleptocracy—a militarised, corrupt, neo-patrimonial system of governance. By the time of independence, the South Sudanese ‘political marketplace’ was so expensive that the country’s comparatively copious revenue [principally from oil] was consumed by the military-political patronage system, with nothing left for public services, development or institution building.
This reality hits me daily. There are few paved roads or street lights, although China recently provided sixty-three solar-powered traffic lights across the capital, Juba. We live in a secure compound. Opportunistic day- and night-time criminal attacks are on the rise. Oil revenues have dived due to the conflict but Erik Prince, former head of private security agency Blackwater, with his new company Frontier Services Group, was hired by South Sudan in late 2014 to help boost output. The government announced in 2015 a wider examination of extracting minerals, guaranteeing exploitation by foreign firms. There’s no accountability for war crimes committed by either side in the conflict since December 2013. Small arms are ubiquitous, with millions of weapons in the hands of civilians and the military.
Although I meet countless locals who long for a peaceful future, disillusioned with corrupt leaders who fail to deliver, I’ve heard nobody question the sense of declaring independence in 2011. I’m sure a similarly high majority would praise East Timor’s 1999 break from a brutal Indonesian occupation. But serious questions should be asked about the ways in which Washington, the UN, the West, African neighbours and global aid groups are today de facto managers of a broken South Sudanese nation.
What do we call a country that exists more on paper and in the mind than reality? Ninety-nine per cent of South Sudanese voted for independence in 2011 and yet its long-term viability is far from assured. It’s one of the ‘fake states’ of the twenty-first century, entities that only survive on life support because of extensive international aid. This is not to deny the rights of people for self-determination and freedom from oppression—the South Sudanese were treated like second-class citizens by their Sudanese neighbours for decades—but to ask legitimate questions about the forces that were marshalled to create it.
The list of backers was long. From actor George Clooney and former Clinton official John Prendergast to American evangelicals and State Department officials. The events of 11 September 2001 spurred on the campaign to back a sovereign and Christian South Sudan; Muslim Sudan had sheltered Osama Bin Laden and was framed as a terrorist-supporting state. Beijing spent the decade cleverly making friends across Africa and mining its resources, investing in infrastructure and arming various conflicts, while the United States was distracted fighting futile wars in the Middle East. President Obama aimed to correct this by hosting an African Leaders Summit in 2014 that claimed to be about improving governance across the continent. US weapons dealers licked their chops at the prospect of new opportunities, seeing business in Nigeria, South Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and elsewhere.
Washington still sees Africa through the prism of its ‘war on terror’, training, arming and assisting local militaries with hideous human rights records. These inconvenient truths haven’t stopped the Pentagon spending billions of dollars on establishing a network of unofficial bases from Burkina-Faso to Kenya and Uganda to Djibouti. American journalist Nick Turse has found evidence of US military involvement in forty-nine out of fifty-four countries in Africa through its AFRICOM network (based in Stuttgart, Germany, because no African nation would host it). That’s imperialism in anyone’s language.
South Sudan is a small piece of this largely unreported puzzle. Washington had high hopes for this African friend, imagining a new state that would be a beacon of energy independence and democracy in the heart of the continent. But this exclusive relationship turned to dust with China’s economic domina-tion of the region, including massive investment in the oil sector. South Sudan is just one nation in a long list of African countries that will, in time, be a market for China’s manufacturing products. More than a million Chinese nationals have called Africa home since 2001, moving there to build new lives and businesses. Chinese colonialism is happening but so far with a (mostly) calmer and kinder face than the US variety.
The rise of ‘fake states’ in the modern age is a symptom of the NGO-isation of whole countries. Take Palestine. Countless billions have flowed into an artificial entity that doesn’t exist in a way that other states do. A corrupt and bloated Palestinian Authority (PA) shows how the occupied have willingly serviced the belligerent occupiers. After decades of ‘negotiations’ between Israel and the PA, all the Palestinians have to show for it are more than 600,000 settlers on occupied territory. This arrangement is the perfect way to avoid serious negotiations towards statehood because the Americans, Europeans and Australians continue to pump money into a system that everybody knows keeps the surrounded population barely above water. Which is exactly the point. Israel destroys Gaza every few years, ‘mowing the lawn’ in local lingo, knowing that naive international NGOs and other countries will rebuild what’s been lost. Meanwhile Palestinians are further away than ever from independence with an extreme Israeli government in place.
This is not to condemn all NGOs, many of which provide vital humanitarian assistance. But have international agencies inadvertently (or deliberately?) created a system in which areas are deemed ready for sovereignty—Palestine, Iraq or South Sudan—but then live at the whim of aid donors and international monetary funds? One journalist in Juba tells me that many aid workers and some reporters are secular missionaries with a belief that they can improve people’s lives through their work.
I’m not solely blaming the West for South Sudan or Palestine’s failures—the people of both countries have influence and agency—but does the creation of ‘fake states’ contribute to the disempowerment of locals and inhibit their ability to positively affect their own countries? Many South Sudanese tell me they routinely feel powerless to shape the direction of their new nation, cut out of decision-making processes by an opaque system that rewards cronyism. It’s hard to imagine a secure future when warring factions and entrenched interests continue to fight over the spoils of war. President Salva Kiir has not stood for election since independence in 2011 and in March 2015 his parliament granted him a further three-year term.
It’s the civilian populations who suffer most. The excitement of South Sudanese sovereignty brought a marvellous moment that should be cherished. Palestine will one day be free. Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will eventually break away from occupation. But who will pick up the pieces and how long will they stick around? I’ve seen the effects of a corrupt and bloated UN bureaucracy in Haiti that refuses to take legal responsibility for introducing deadly cholera to a nation that hadn’t known the disease for a century. The people there were already suffering from a devastating 2010 earthquake. State-building is a slow and painful business that can’t be left in the hands of the UN or private contractors. After centuries of brutal colonisation the West is hardly best placed to lecture others on good governance without acknowledging its own bloody legacy.
The resilience of people living in the most abject poverty should give us pause to reflect on populations who barely flicker in our consciousness. Donating to an aid group when a catastrophe hits isn’t enough to absolve us of responsibility for the work being done in the name of humanitarianism. South Sudan, Palestine, Iraq and Syria aren’t nations to be patronised or colonised. Their citizens deserve health, sustainability and peace with real and lasting independence.