Ahead of peace talks to resolve horrific violence in South Sudan, which has claimed more than 1,000 lives in under three weeks, Gadet Koang Deng proposed an unconventional solution to the young country’s chronic instability. “We should be under United Nations supervision for at least 10 years to teach our police to be proportionate, our army to behave,” Deng, one of 200,000 South Sudanese displaced by the fighting, told a New York Times reporter.
It’s a recommendation international mediators calling for “national reconciliation” would do well to heed. As negotiations get underway in Ethiopia, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment for Sub-Saharan Africa. The painstaking formation of South Sudan in 2011 ended one of the longest civil wars in history, which raged for decades within Khartoum-led greater Sudan. The Bush and Obama administrations, which played a leading role in that effort, long feared that tensions over oil resources would drive Sudan to strangle the infant state to its south. Now, instead, strife within South Sudan threatens to wipe out the diplomatic and political achievement of creating the new nation in the first place.
As many observers see it, the near-civil war in South Sudan stem from that old African bugaboo: tribal enmity: Government troops loyal to President Salva Kiir, who hails from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, are vying for power and greater representation with rebels supporting the dismissed Vice President Riek Machar, who belongs to the second-largest ethnic group, the Nuer. But South Sudan’s disorder cannot be pinned entirely on ethnic differences, just as the solution to the crisis must involve more than persuading the Dinka and Nuer to form a “national unity” government that ostensibly transcends tribal divisions.
Rather than assuming that South Sudanese suddenly cannot get along because of ethnic differences that were submerged for decades during a nationalist drive, concerned outsiders would do better to examine the terms and conditions under which South Sudan gained independence. The pertinent question is this: Should the country take a step back in sovereignty now in order to take a more sustained step forward in the future toward rule of law and effective self-governance?
By this, I do not mean to question the splitting of South Sudan from Sudan. Those who oppose the process of rewriting old colonial borders so that large nations like Congo, Nigeria, and Sudan become more nimble, democratic, and decentralized may cite the mess in South Sudan to justify sustaining dysfunctional African states at any cost. The international community, for instance, has spent enormous sums maintaining the territorial integrity of the Congo, even though the country’s borders were drawn during the great “scramble for Africa” a century ago—and even though its regions, notably Eastern Congo, are themselves large and diverse enough to constitute nation-states.
Far from being an isolated case, the emergence of South Sudan could serve the as impetus for the creation of new African nation-states, drawing inspiration from Europe, where several small nations have successfully formed in the past half-century (and with Catalonia and Scotland now agitating for self-rule from Spain and Britain, respectively, more small European states could be on the way). As I wrote in The Atlantic when South Sudan achieved independence in 2011, Africa may suffer from what the distinguished Africanist Pierre Englebert calls a “secessionist deficit.” In such diverse cases as Somalia, where three separate governments administer the country on the ground, and Nigeria, where a violent separatist movement in the Muslim northeast has taken root, the lives of ordinary Africans could be improved by creating smaller nation-states that better reflect geographic and demographic realities.
The best justification for rethinking South Sudan’s sovereignty is the country’s lack of an experienced and effective political elite. Massive corruption in the Kiir government has translated into billions of aid dollars being looted by leaders or (probably to a lesser extent) shared along ethnic lines as a form of political patronage. In 2012, Kiir himself accused government officials of looting $4 billion and (pathetically) asked his colleagues to return the money. Instead of building desperately needed infrastructure and providing crucial services, the South Sudanese government has done little to meet its people’s needs. An assessment by two Brookings Institution scholars in December was blistering. “It is apparent,” they wrote, “that South Sudan, two years after independence, is yet to establish legitimacy as a state with a functioning government that can keep its people safe and provide services to them.”
The solution to these problems is not to send in more peacekeepers to Juba and Bor, or hammer out a power-sharing agreement between the warring parties. Or rather, not only to do these things. The response to South Sudan’s turmoil should be crafted with a set of policy tools that were popular in the 1950s but have been used only selectively in recent years. I am referring to the process known as “trusteeship,” whereby a newly independent nation is granted special forms of assistance and special constraints on sovereignty. In some cases, the former colonial power sought to administer the trusteeship, and in other cases an international coalition or the United Nations did so for a defined period of time. Something along these lines succeeded in the West African country of Ghana, where the British colonial authorities ceded sovereignty to the government of Kwame Nkrumah in stages, culminating in full independence in 1957.