11 November 2015

The World’s Most Pointless War


Africa has had a good press this last few years. It deserves it. In most countries life is getting better, and people have more power to work, to spend, to choose. But not everywhere. And particularly not in one country that few know, that fewer have visited, and that today is on fire.

Several decades ago I found myself on a jet plane descending through the pink Saharan dawn towards a country that I knew next to nothing about. With my head full of Descartes, Locke and Wittgenstein, I didn’t know that the Democratic Republic of Sudan was a bizarre African-Arab invention dreamed up by my countrymen. I didn’t yet know that the people who lived there were possibly the most hospitable on earth, as well as being the most self-destructive. I didn’t know that the African half of the country where I soon would be teaching was truly a land apart, a roadless wilderness where civil war had not long ended, and would not long start again. I certainly could not have guessed that Africa’s largest country would eventually break up, that South Sudan would gain independence, or that it would turn out to have a fortune in crude oil on its territory. And I wouldn’t have wanted to know that independence would degenerate into a vicious, genocidal civil war, a fire sparked by the boundless stupidity and selfishness of its leaders. That was all in the future as the wheels touched the Khartoum tarmac, as the doors opened with a rush of parched desert air smelling of diesel, and dust, and mysterious spice.

Sudan became independent in 1956. Already, the civil war between the northern and southern halves of Sudan had begun. The north, a desert country, mainly Arab, mainly Arabic speaking, mainly Muslim, and the centre of power and wealth. The south, a ribbon of forest and grassland and tropical marsh, where hundreds of languages are spoken, and the centre of nothing at all except resentment at the high-handed superiority of the north. The war began as a tiny insurrection and then grew and grew, attracting international sponsors on each side, a war of plunder for the north and inchoate reaction for the south. And then suddenly it stopped: in the early seventies the then President of Sudan, Jaafar Al-Nimeiri, tired of the cost and growing international disadvantage of the war, signed a peace deal that would last more than a decade.

That was the peaceable South Sudan I was lucky enough to see. There is nowhere on earth more atmospheric than the tropical borderlands of the south, with its Nilotic cattle camps wreathed in white smoke, its villages unreachable for half the year or more, its eerie teak forests and ironstone ridges reaching down to northern Uganda and the Congo watershed. There were traders in furs and gemstones who had travelled on foot from Central African Republic and Chad, there were European ivory hunters who looked as if they might have done serious jail time, and a handful of aid agency adventurers with budgets to build miniature empires. Give or take a few details, it could have been any century.

That dream was brief. Fast forward to 2011 when South Sudan became an independent country. Two decades of renewed civil war had cost another two million lives and left the country even less developed than it was in 1956, but even so the new South Sudan was born in a euphoric rush, with a new oil industry worth $4.5 billion a year, and with the support of neighbours and particularly of the United States which had underwritten the independence process. The new president and his deputy represented a coalition of the two big tribal groups that had led the fight for independence, and together their work was the building of a new country from nothing.

But nothing can come of nothing. The new South Sudan never happened. By early last year the government of the brave new state had collapsed into cycle of civil genocide, as the president Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar, and their tribes, fought for power – and in South Sudan power means the power to command oil money. In an account published in Foreign Affairs early this year the journalist TY McCormick reported on a visit to Malakal, the second city of South Sudan and the target of the attacks from the faction that is technically the government. He wrote: ‘We drove past looted warehouses, shelled government buildings, and rows of thatched huts that had been put to the torch. Not far from the obliterated central market, the ruins of a teaching hospital spilled out into the street: smashed vials, soiled bandages, and now-useless medical equipment … The day before our arrival, I was told, staff members discovered a body rotting on the roof of one of the hospital’s annex buildings. While we toured a gutted pediatric complex across the street, I nearly stepped on a skull that was hidden in the grass.”

This is where South Sudan stands today: around 50,000 people have been killed in the fighting that began in 2014, many of them in organized ethnic massacres. Two million refugees have been created. Large areas of the country are close to starvation. How did it happen that South Sudan has become the world’s newest failed state, after so much hope, and goodwill, and tangible support had been poured into the nation-building experiment?

It has been the misfortune of South Sudan to be a screen on which anyone can project their own pre-occupations. Evangelistic promoters of independence saw the Sudanese civil war as a struggle between Muslims and persecuted Christians. The United States government saw it as a sub-plot in the ‘war on terror’. Hollywood celebs treated it as a useful reality backdrop for career enhancement. None of those world-views was very helpful in revealing what had already become apparent well before the moment of independence, the fact that the government of South Sudan was entirely unprepared for the demands of building and running a country.

In South Sudan there was no slow relapse into corrupt authoritarianism. The civil war ended, and even before formal independence the liberation fighters who now had ministerial titles took their opportunity and began the work of looting their new country; they took the ruthless practices of guerilla warfare and applied them to state government. They stole billions in aid money (up to 2014 the US alone was giving around half a billion dollars a year), and above all they stole the ready cash provided by oil. The descent into total corruption was instantaneous, and so complete that outside sponsors took a year or two to grasp that what they had helped to create in this corner of Africa was a pure kleptocracy, a gangster state along the lines of Mobutu’s Zaire, but with the added twist that there were two gangs and two godfathers.

It is highly unlikely that there will be an internal settlement in South Sudan. The recent history of failed ceasefires suggests that both sides are set on a zero-sum strategy of getting all the cash and all the power. The best hope may be for a comprehensive arms embargo (the EU already has an embargo in place). Most of the weapons coming into South Sudan are from China, although it seems that the Chinese may have stopped shipments. A recent UN report suggests there are also Israeli arms in the field, and the UN says the government has recently obtained Russian-made helicopters and tanks, although how these were obtained is not clear (South Sudan has longstanding arms trade links with Ukraine).

The United States has drafted a UN embargo, and is the only party with the interest and capability to drive it through (the embargo is currently on hold after another ‘ceasefire’ in August, although according to the UN both sides are already in breach of the peace deal). The US was the sponsor of South Sudan’s independence (before the Obama administration lost faith and lost focus on the issue), and it must be the sponsor of the peace. Otherwise South Sudan will stay what it is today, a country committing suicide in plain view, and ignored by everyone.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.