South Sudan – a case study in International Intervention

Zach Vertin: A rope from the Sky: the Making and Unmaking of the World’s newest state, 2019

Peter Martell: First Raise a Flag, 2018

The Government of South Sudan: South Sudan Development Plan, 2011-2013 “Realising freedom, equality, justice, peace and prosperity for all”, 2011



South Sudan is a real place which includes grasslands and marsh, gazelle and oil, and Nyakewa – who has three circles of sesame-seed-sized initiation scars on her face – and is sitting with her children near Malakal. South Sudan is also that abstraction of an abstraction: ‘an international intervention’ – perhaps the last of its kind. The first detailed written accounts of the territory come from Egyptian and Sudanese slave raids in the 1840s. They described an area the size of Spain and Portugal combined, cut off from Egypt by 50,000 square miles of marshland, and containing perhaps 200 separate ethnic groups, over 60 languages, and very few kings (the largest peoples – the Dinka and the Nuer – had no supreme leaders.)

When Britain occupied South Sudan in 1899, they began to run the territory through 21 District Officers – Oxford and Cambridge graduates (generally university sports stars) – who did not attempt to develop the country. Instead, they prevented Sudanese officials and Muslim missionaries from crossing the border (on the grounds of ‘protecting’ the local people), and focused on maintaining truces between indigenous clans. Peter Martell gives a flavour of what was involved, from the diaries of one of these officers in 1944:

Today I have been holding a peace ceremony…which will, I hope, prove binding. It has been held on the boundary between the tribes and accompanied by all the traditional ceremony – slaying of white sheep, smearing bodies (including mine) with dung, and spearing the ground.

London chose to bind Southern Sudan, to the very different Northern Sudan, when they granted independence in 1956. The South had only rudimentary government,– and no money (it cost four times as much to administer as it collected in revenue). After independence, Northern Sudan fulfilled the fears of the District Officers by imposing Northern officials, institutions, Arabic language, and latterly Islamic law, on the non-Arab and Christian South – sparking a violent resistance from the South Sudanese clans. The conflicts were sustained by foreigners. Peter Martell’s remarkable interviews with ageing mercenaries and retired spies records how the CIA began funding South Sudanese rebel groups in 1964, and Mossad in 1968. Ethiopia became the central funder in 1984, receiving support from East Germany, the Cubans, and – inevitably – Gadhafi. Ugandan invasions came later.

Such foreign interventions were not really about South Sudan itself. The CIA intended to use the South Sudanese to destabilise a regime in the Congo; for Mossad, the ultimate target was Egypt; for the Ethiopians, Eritrea; for the East Germans and Cubans, it was the US; Uganda’s motives were financial; and Gadhafi was targeting three adversaries simultaneously. Zach Vertin’s description of a single period of three days, much later in South Sudan’s history (‘civilians were tied up and burned alive inside their homes; [and] others were forced to drink the blood of murdered family members. Women of all ages were gang-raped, left unconscious and bleeding. Some were tortured for days in secret locations, others simply disappeared’) – is typical of the obscene horror of the civil wars from 1955 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005.

US sympathy developed through the 1980s, influenced by the South Sudanese leader, John Garang, who presented the conflict as a fight to defend Christians against Muslims, or Black Africans against slavers, deploying different biblical verses, for every denomination of American congregation. After 9/11, US national security officials (troubled by Sudan’s links to Al Qaeda), joined evangelicals (such as Billy Graham junior), and human rights activists (of whom the most famous was George Clooney) in a coalition strong enough to draw in the White House. There was little focus on internal factors such as the cattle-raids between Dinka and Nuer or the culture of cash, crime, and murder that sustained the resistance leaders. Instead, they responded solemnly to Garang’s appeal ‘if the United States could fashion a free, secular, democratic and united society, why not Sudan?”

In 2003 congress appropriated 300 million dollars and in January 2005, US-pressure clinched the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Sudan, which led to the referendum in 2011, (in which ninety-nine per cent of South Sudanese voted successfully for Independence). By this time, billions of dollars, thousands of international development advisers, and over ten thousand peace-keepers, had been deployed to support the world’s “youngest nation.” Zach Vertin describes a moment that echoes so many other interventions: young foreigners dancing in rickety hotels with failing generators and duty-free whisky; Lebanese entrepreneurs packing the crowded flights to Juba; local stalls selling T-shirts ‘emblazoned with logos of American rotary clubs, and high-school lacrosse teams’; and the optimism that foreigners – including Vertin – drew from things such as the roll-out of cell-phone coverage. All this was set against, what Vertin characterises as “a militarized society, a bloated and unprofessional army, deep ethnic fault-lines, economic torpor, financial corruption, a dangerous focus on ‘big man’ politics and the absence of any unifying national identity.”

But South Sudan also had some advantages. The Sudanese government had conceded South Sudan almost all the country’s oil fields, leaving it, unlike the Afghan government, with an impressive income stream. This revenue – more than 2 Billion dollars a year – was so great that the nation became technically, almost overnight, a middle income country. The lack of US political or economic self-interest in South Sudan may – as Vertin suggests – have led to less rigorous policy analysis, but it meant that there was less suspicion and opposition to the US presence. American soft power was rich and deep – John Garang had studied in Iowa and Georgia,  his rival, Riek Machar was married to an American, Manute Bol the tallest Basketball player in the NBA was South Sudanese, hundreds of US churches supported thousands of projects on the ground, and Congressmen such as Frank Wolf had strong friendships with the South Sudanese leaders. Furthermore, US economic power in relation to South Sudan was perhaps greater than has ever existed between two states. In 1900, when Sudan was a British colony, per capita GDP in Britain was possibly seven times higher than that of South Sudan. Per capita GDP in the US in 2011 was two hundred times higher, and its overall economy, six and a half thousand times larger.

It was shocking, therefore, how quickly things went wrong. In 2012, the South Sudanese closed their oil refineries, and then invaded Sudan to capture an additional field. They did so in the mistaken belief that this would put pressure on Sudan. Their actions, however, wiped out all their government revenue, sucked them into a spiral of high-interest debt, and forced the US to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to make up the shortfall in government finances. In 2013 US intelligence was surprised again when the South Sudanese President declared war on the Vice-President killing thousands of civilians from the Vice-President’s ethnic group in a single night. American diplomats tried to force peace-deals through a cunning combination of charm, pressure and leaks to the BBC; the US Secretary of State made daily calls to the satellite phones of rival leaders.  But none of the deals lasted. The South Sudanese President told a blatant lie to President Obama in their first meeting, continued to wear the Stetson hat that he had been given by George W.Bush but hung up the phone, when the ex-President rang to plead for peace.

The central blame for the catastrophe lay with the South Sudanese elite. But the US was in John Kerry’s words ‘the midwife’ in the birth of the new nation – its principal advocate and funder. And the US and international strategy in South Sudan –encapsulated in a development plan, written under the chairmanship of the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the aid agencies of the US, Norway and the UK, and published in the name of the South Sudanese government in 2011 – was grotesquely detached from reality. It proposed, for example, that the  President, who had made his 12 year old son a 25 per cent share-holder in a government contractor; or the minister who had just withdrawn 30 million dollars for ‘office equipment’ in a single month, would make: “evidence-based decisions on mobilisation, equitable allocation, and efficient management of resources”, develop “responsive and inclusive policies, based on transparent processes” and drive “professional, ethical and efficient service delivery.”

Unreal words had real consequences. Hundreds of consultants were flown to Juba to realise these objectives, which underpinned hundreds of development programs and channelled billions of dollars of development aid. Field officers – who spent their days charming warlords, resisting bribes demanded by local government, and debating how much food aid to allow militias to steal – were expected to foster “accountability, transparency and zero tolerance for corruption”. By 2013, education project leads were tasked with rolling-out the new Education Management Information System, “to deliver updated data, improved management capacity, and allow for a modernised payroll system”, while begging government-supported militia not to burn primary schools. Meanwhile, Washington and its allies, continued to insist that peace would come from ‘a regional solution’, led by leaders in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda, despite the fact that these leaders were pessimistic, reluctant to engage anyone except the elite, and often profited from the ongoing conflict.

The intervention in Afghanistan allowed two and a half million more girls to go to school, health indicators to significantly improve, and millions of refugees to return home – all in the face of a fierce Taliban insurgency. In South Sudan, by contrast, after the intervention, people got poorer, less educated and less healthy, about a quarter of the population fled the country and 350,000 people lost their lives between 2012 and 2018 – under the continual supervision of over ten thousand UN peace-keepers.

No city in Afghanistan resembled what I saw in Malakal, in 2017, after it had been captured, lost, and recaptured twelve times by rival militias. On either side of the boulevard, the houses lay in fields of weeds, their roofs stripped, every stick of furniture gone. The single market in a truck park, held sacks of sorghum, cassava, groundnuts, and plastic toys, but hardly a customer.  Six years earlier, the population of Malakal was a hundred and fifty thousand people. Now there were at most six thousand. Contemporary historians scorn the idea that British cities collapsed, immediately, after the departure of the Roman legions – arguing that the unravelling of urban life is always a more gradual process. Malakal suggested otherwise. As a British Minister in Malakal, in 2017, I wasn’t worried about how to realise the strategic objectives of establishing “clear fiscal rules which will underpin prudent fiscal management, and strengthen expenditure control”. Instead, I was worried about the South Sudanese government request for us to rebuild the same building, which the US had funded in 2005, the Japanese had rebuilt in 2013, and the South Sudanese government forces had razed to the ground in 2015.

If the development strategy read like a fading mission statement found in a new space colony, whose occupants have all been killed in an alien attack, this was partly a reflection of how little we knew. Hardly one of the 12,000 soldiers and policemen posted by the United Nations – from sixty nations including Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Romania, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea – or the thousands of development consultants who worked alongside them, had spent a single night in a rural house, or could complete a sentence in Dinka, Nuer, Azande, or Bande.

The US diplomat Zach Vertin was one of the exceptions – a testament to the seriousness, sense of purpose, and focus of the best American officials in the age of intervention. We might have done better with more Vertins. His eight years in South Sudan, from 2009 to 2017, took him to almost every province, and allowed him to develop relationships with hundreds of South Sudanese, and his modest account conceals the courage he displayed in meeting enraged militia; or challenging a criminal government. His is a rare record of how an intervention is communicated in detail to policy-makers – in his case to everyone from John Kerry to George Clooney (who he briefs over a flurry of vodka tonics in a Juba bar, until Clooney moves on to a story about Walter Cronkite doing a striptease).

Vertin is scrupulous in avoiding any straightforward solutions, and he is very sensitive to context- combining his analysis of each chapter in the last thirty years of South Sudanese history, and his essays on border lines, conflict in Jonglei state, corruption, or oil exploration, with interviews with senior leaders. And as we get closer to the present he focuses not just on key weeks, but key hours in the politics of South Sudan. The US Government was very lucky to have him as their policy adviser.

But Vertin’s account also suggests how much even the best foreigner observer can fail to capture. It is not simply that Vertin gives too much of the book to interactions between American diplomats and the South Sudanese elite (and little to other international players – such as the Norway, the UK and the UN – or South Sudanese women). It is also that he never really brings rural culture to life. He is characteristically scrupulous in recording that “today a single cow can fetch 300 dollars in a rural area…the high-sticker price has also made cattle a driver of violent conflict. Cattle-rustling  -in which young men steal herds from a neighbouring community – is a rite of passage but it is not simply for show.” And he quotes Duop, a Dinka man saying “…an ox is like a bank account…filled with thousands and thousands of dollars…it is just like a teenager getting a sports-car in America” – but so much is missed in this description.

The rural communities of South Sudan, and the Nuer, in particular, are among the most famous subjects of anthropological research in the world, largely due to the influence of Evans-Pritchard  – Vertin’s distant predecessor, paid by the British authorities in the 1940s. Compare Evans-Prichard’s precision and rhetorical flair:

From the colours, their distribution, the shape of the horns… a young man takes…his cot thak, his ox name… …It is the name of this ox that a man shouts out in war, hunting, dancing, leaping and in sacrificial invocations and by which, in one form or another he is addressed by his peers; though it is long-departed.

He composes poems about his ox and sings them to it and he gets a small boy to lead it round the camp in the morning or evening as he leaps behind it chanting poems…He makes tassels to hang from one of its horns, and he loves to see it toss the tassel in the air with a sweep of the neck. Should the ox die he is downcast; and should he die it must be sacrificed at his mortuary ceremony…

Nuer society today is, of course no longer the society described by Evans-Prichard – not least because of decades of Kalashnikov-enabled conflict, and the experience of millions in refugee camps outside South Sudan. But equally a Nuer or Dinka relationship to an ox is quite unlike an American attachment to a corvette or a Mustang. And if Vertin does not adequately explore these issues, the  the strategy for South Sudan ignores rural reality almost in its entirety. It solemnly claims to be based on a careful study of context and conflict, but in its 400 pages, for example, there is one reference to ‘clan’, but 125 to ‘accountable’ and accountability; one reference to the ‘church’ (which delivers many of the key public services across the country), but 141 to ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’. ‘Gun’ appears twice, ‘governance’ 180 times; the words Nuer and Dinka, ox or oxen do not appear at all.

Such a lack of understanding of oxen can have consequences. If policy-makers were surprised when revenue – which they expected to be invested in buildings – was spent on oxen, it might have been because they did not realise that a Nuer ox was not simply another material possession. Again, if the international community exaggerated its ability to force peace by threatening the Kenyan bank accounts of South Sudanese leaders, it could be because they could not quite believe that some leaders valued their oxen, and local status, more than their foreign bank accounts. And if the international disarmament policies intensified violence, this could be because they had not understood the practice of paying hundreds of armed boys to guard oxen against raids from neighbouring clans. (The disarmament of one in that case, just gave another clan a raid).

But the basic flaw of the intervention was not ignorance. Because the fundamentals were impossible to miss. Any foreign diplomat or development specialist – newly arrived in the country – would have been able to tell you that South Sudan’s political leaders had succeeded in stealing 12 billion dollars of oil revenue, in six years. They might not know whether Jonglei province was marsh or desert, but they knew that previous commitments to education, and infrastructure had been flouted, and the money diverted into private bank accounts. They might not know whether there were any elephants left in the country but they knew that almost every leading figure in the government was associated with, or had personally presided over, massacres.

Yet these same international officials could sit solemnly at their desk, the following day, explaining how men they perceived as murdering gangsters would preside over:

results-based international capacity development support strategies; mapping baselines…improving the design and effectiveness of assistance mechanisms (including development of lessons learned and best practices); ensuring a broad systems approach…coordinating regular monitoring and evaluation…and supporting the work of the Budget Sector Working Groups.

This was not ignorance. Nor were the officials sniggering as they wrote. If their words had no relationship to the reality of South Sudan, this was not because they were naïve; nor because they were cynical; it was because they were writing as they felt they should write. Academics had validated these concepts of ‘capacity-development’, and ‘base-lines’, ‘accountability’, and ‘sustainability’. Such words were embedded in countless other strategies, required in grant documents, and frozen into the mission statements. And the officials felt better suited and trained to write about accountability than about the Nuer.

Similar problems occur at home. But at home, officials at least come from the culture they describe, speak its language, and report to its government.  There is a limit to the claims they can make about a school at home, in the face of local teachers, parents, inspectors and journalists. But who is going to expose claims about the future of South Sudan? In an international intervention, a tapestry of aspirations and equivocations – self-referential, self-justifying and self-deceiving– can provide an almost perfect portrait of the fantasies of Western bureaucracies, and almost no accurate picture of the situation on the ground.

There could, of course, have been a different strategy. People with deep country experience, like Zach Vertin, could have been promoted and asked to explain what they could not achieve, with limited time. We could have drawn lessons from the fact that the same health program, with identical resources, could produce flourishing clinics in Ethiopia, while in Nigeria it resulted in no sheets, medicines, or patients; or that the education program which produced successful students in Rwanda, resulted in Malawi in 85 per cent of children unable to read after seven years in school; and accepted that health and education programs would be even worse in South Sudan than in Nigeria or Malawi. But still perhaps give money to the Catholic clinics and schools which were working reasonably well in the province of Equatoria.

We could have focused on protection, rather than development – not on making something new happen, but on preventing something worse. We might not be able to create civil society, but we could improve protection for civilians on the perimeter of a UN camp – through tough conversations with UN commanders, and a determined focus on maintaining drainage ditches. We might not be able to prevent food aid from being stolen by militias, but we could still provide food to their victims. We might not be able to build a state, but we might be able to stop some of the killing. And in some areas, we could even have worked with communities to slow the extermination of endangered species and habitats – and perhaps even saved fragile cultural heritage.

But to do any of these things well (and all of them are unbelievably difficult things to do well), we would have to unlearn decades of anxiety about such programs, which are perceived as “sticking-plasters”. We would have to stop lacerating ourselves about humanitarian support being ‘unsustainable’. And resist the temptations – natural in a war-zone – towards an insistent and unresponsive optimism. (An optimism that leads even Zach Vertin to propose that an NGO-employee, turned armed Nuer rebel commander, could be a symbol of hope.)

And we would have to work out how to justify such objectives. Could we write in a strategy that there was hardly a state to speak of, that the ministers were war-lords, and that almost all the money had been stolen? Or that the very best case scenario was for South Sudan in five years’ time to be a bit more like Afghanistan and a bit less like the Central Africa Republic? What would the media make of such statements? Or the politicians? Would the public spend their money on such a thing? Particularly when it was painfully obvious that many of the problems were caused by the South Sudanese government itself? Could we justify the lives that would be lost pursuing such apparently small and unsustainable gains?

Little wonder then that instead of listing patiently, and unflinchingly the practical steps to provide protection, humanitarian assistance, and some modest programs in health and education, the international community too often clung to a fantasy that South Sudan could be magically transformed through the ritual incantation of international development theory.

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