Smothering Love: How the West's South Sudan Obsession Hurts the Country

>Sometimes, money really should come with strings attached.


JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN -- There are two main views of what kind of nation the world's newest country is becoming. The divide reveals much both about the place in question, South Sudan, and about the way the world relates to Africa in general.

Without strong, even fervent support from certain quarters in the West, this long-suffering country clearly would never have attained independence. Yet the question now is whether that support, driven in part by the longstanding struggle between the West and Arabism in this part of Africa, has become a millstone around the new country's neck. The enthusiasm of South Sudan's foreign backers and especially those in Washington may have caused them to turn a blind or at least excessively indulgent eye to grave political problems that could doom South Sudan to the lasting curse of failed nationhood.

President Salva Kiir himself recently revealed that the country's political leadership had stolen $4 billion in funds that should have been used to create social goods like schools, clinics, and roads. The response from donors has been oddly muted, even though Western sources who have worked with the government have told me this latest scandal may merely be the tip of the iceberg: it came to light, they say, not because of moral outrage from the president, but because of the state's crushing need for money. Yet last week, just days after this news broke, Hillary Clinton herself called South Sudan a success.

The sense of indulgence is strongly reinforced by the language of foreigners I met in Juba whose agencies, careers, and sometimes personal feelings are deeply invested in the birth and success of this new nation. Thus, even in the face of the huge embezzlement scandal, a senior United Nations official told me that "We have seen very positive movement of resources coming onto the books and being accounted for."

For good measure, he added that nowhere in the world had there ever been an emergency state-building project with such a large gap between the human resources and administrative structures in place and the needs of the people. "I genuinely think the government wants to put this place on a good track," he concluded.

The view of intellectuals, independent journalists, and human rights activists in South Sudan's thin and vulnerable civil society, however, could hardly be more different.

They base their pessimism on ominous signs that go beyond the breaking scandal: the government's failure to sign on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative; official resistance to even metering oil production, as well as other common transparency measures related to revenue; threats against journalists and failure to pass a strong press freedom law; arbitrary arrests and abysmal detention conditions.

Nhil Bol, the publisher of local newspaper The Citizen, told me that the country's leadership, drawn from the armed rebellion that fought for many years against the north, "knows nothing about accountability. They know nothing about governance. They think the country's wealth is for them. Their only thought is that they spent all those years in the bush and now it is the time to eat."

Biel Boutros Biel, a human rights organizer who led a small and cautious protest march in Juba last week in the wake of the news of the disappeared $4 billion, sounded many of the same notes. Speaking in his tiny, walkup office, over the noise of a small generator, he told me: "people who join liberation movements and stay in power to get rich in Africa is not news. It is happening here, and we have exchanged experiences with people in many other countries where it has happened too. This government will not come out of power easily. They will find a way to hold on, no matter what. And when we have elections, they will be marred by various tactics that will only bring trouble to the country."

Alfred Lokuji, a university professor, said, "even [during the rebellion] commanders were buying property all over the region. Their attitude was 'I am fighting without a salary. I have pushed back the forces of Khartoum.' Today, you see the same thing in the administration. People are put in positions that have nothing to do with their capability. It says, 'I fought for this. Now it is mine.'"

In their enthusiasm, South Sudan's Western backers seem to have disregarded the abysmal record of governance that liberation movements have in Africa once they come to power. From one country to another, successor regimes in nations like Angola and Zimbabwe, to name but two, have walled in their power, created imperial presidencies and drifted into colossal corruption.

Theirs is the paradigm involving what the political scientist Mancur Olson, called the "stationary bandit." Much of the world was once ruled by crude warlords who operated like "roving bandits," he wrote in one influential journal article. As Francis Fukuyama articulated the theory in his most recent book:

At a certain point one bandit would emerge stronger than all the others and come to dominate the society: "These violent entrepreneurs naturally do not call themselves bandits but, on the contrary, give themselves and their descendants exalted titles. They sometimes even claim to rule by divine right." In other words, the king, who claimed a legitimate title to rule, was simply a 'stationary bandit' with motives no different from those of the roving bandits he displaced.

In post-independence African politics, having fought for "liberation" has been interpreted by the winners as conferring divine right. Hence in Namibia, where I had been before arriving in South Sudan, a full 22 years after throwing off South African rule the rolls of people designated as heroes of the independence struggle are fast swelling rather than shrinking, as aging and mortality would ordinarily necessitate. This is because such a designation confers the right to a kind of administrative pillage of state resources: cash, of course, but also free housing, land, contracts and patronage.

What is most striking about South Sudan is that processes that took years or even decades to unfold in other poorly ruled, post-liberation societies are falling into place overnight--even before the country's first birthday, which falls on July 9.

What does this all have to do with the West? Having sponsored the country so steadfastly, people in South Sudan's emergent civil society say that Western backers declared victory and turned their attentions elsewhere, misunderstanding the critical importance of this moment. Questions also arise about how the international banking system so easily accommodates theft on this scale.

Much is made in some quarters about the political advantage that accrues to China in Africa because it refuses to attach political conditions to its aid and investment. Regimes may certainly feel this way, but civil societies are much less likely to do so. In South Sudan, in fact, the major complaint is that the West failed to impose conditions on the country's fledgling leadership when it clearly had the power to do so. These conditions might have included strong press and freedom of speech laws, a powerful independent audit agency, signature of EITI, guarantees for political opposition, a limitation on presidential mandates, etc.

Many here feel that with revenue shut off, due to what many observers have described as a rash and ill-considered move toward a showdown with the north over oil pipeline fees, South Sudan is once again susceptible to strong demands from its Western sponsors. But support for South Sudan lines up well with Western eagerness to see North Sudan fall--it seems unlikely that Western governmental or non-governmental actors would try to rein in Khartoum's southern antagonists.

"South Sudan is going to be a showcase for the international community," said Bol, the newspaper editor. "Why support somebody only for them to become a failed state? Why can't the West learn from its previous mistakes? Why have they supported us and imposed no conditions?"