South Sudan: a Lesson to the World in How Not to Build a Nation

Opinion » September 29, 2016 » By Talk of Juba
South Sudan

There is no standard definition of what makes a country viable as a country. What are the materials, the history, the culture, the institutions that allow a territory to grow into a something more than just a geography of resources? What are the building blocks of an accountable and democratic state?

Whatever these ingredients are, we know what happens when they are not present. And nowhere is this lesson clearer than in the case of South Sudan.

Only five years ago, South Sudan was the newest and most optimistic member of the community of nations, a state-building project backed by the goodwill and expertise and cash of well-intentioned supporters around the world.

Today, the country has imploded into a fireball of violence and suffering, an off-the-radar disaster comparable in its scale to Syria (the number of refugees recently passed the one million mark). In other words, the outcome of the project has been as disastrous as its ambition was great. But why?

On the face of it, South Sudan was a country that ought to exist. If any territories had a moral claim to national identity, it was certainly one of them.

True, it is landlocked and poor – hemmed into East Africa north of Kenya and Uganda and south of Sudan itself, the country it separated from in 2011. But poor, landlocked countries can prosper.

The province of South (or Southern, as it was formerly called) Sudan was a colonial-era detail, an unmapped equatorial fragment tacked on to the Arab land of Sudan in a piece of 19th-century power-sharing, and alternately ignored or plundered ever since.

When they had the running of Sudan in the first half of the last century, the British kept the southern territory a land apart. The Arab northerners were not permitted to settle or trade there, and the south shared no part of the infrastructural and economic developments that were rather grudgingly doled out in the north. For six decades the British allowed South Sudan to glide through history in peaceful and secluded poverty, leaving independent Sudan to inherit this hungry province of almost half a million square miles.

With independence from Britain, the history of Sudan’s southern borderlands shifted from neglect to exploitation, and then to war. The northern government in Khartoum dominated the country, but had little interest in and no sympathy for its ill-matched African backyard. These attitudes engendered the first civil war (which ended in the early 1970s), and then the much more violent civil war that broke out in the mid-1980s.

That barely reported conflict cost somewhere close to two million lives, and although the South was never equipped to defeat the armies of the north, most of the destruction was the result of fighting between southern factions. That was a pattern that was to be repeated.

When I lived and worked in South Sudan during the brief inter-war peace, it was like experiencing time travel. Apart from a few details like cassette tape players and plastic flip-flops, it could have been the 1930s. In terms of everyday living conditions, it was more like the 19th century. Outside of a couple of towns, there were no roads, no electricity, no running water, no telephones.

Administratively this was essentially the South Sudan that the British had left behind: the law was still owned by the tribal courts the British had invented, and what central government existed was exercised in the same bare high-ceilinged rooms – and quite possibly from the very same desks – as when the British packed up and left in 1956.

It is a testament to the total failure of the South Sudan independence project that today, after more than five years of self-government and the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and oil money, its infrastructure is even worse. The main towns have been laid waste, many tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than one fifth of the entire population has been displaced.

After a generation-long war fighting for rights that most of the world recognised and supported, the squabbling leaders of the new South Sudan have already gone a long way towards destroying their own country.

What went wrong with this attempt to build a nation out of the ruins of conflict? Was it the curse of oil? Was it greed and incompetence? Was it the sin of colonialism, running down the years? Or was it something amiss in the very project of country-building?

Oil has certainly played a malignant part in turning South Sudan into one of the five most corrupt countries in the world (its northern neighbour, which shares the oil wealth, is also on the list).

South Sudan does not actually have all that much oil in global terms. This year’s BP Statistical Review estimates reserves at around 3.5 billion barrels, which is 0.2 per cent of the world’s oil reserves, or about a hundredth of Venezuela. But in local terms that is still a lot. Especially since South Sudan remains one the poorest countries in the world: if oil revenues are discounted, then per capita GDP is only around $250 a year, and oil is close to cash.

It is true there is no greater temptation to dishonesty than ready cash, but that is only part of the corruption dynamic. Countries with economies dominated by natural resources suffer from a structural flaw, which is that they do not need to tax their citizens. Taxation in anything other than a gangster economy requires a degree of consent, which is usually acquired through democratic representation. Oil states can dispense with consent, which is why despite their high per capita wealth they often remain autocracies.

Competition for oil cash has certainly been the proximate cause of the collapse of South Sudan – recent investigative report has detailed how thoroughly the leadership of the country has looted the oil economy. Yet would an oil-free South Sudan have succeeded?

That is debatable. South Sudan was sent out into the world with an infrastructure deficit that was probably unique, and infrastructure has long been the missing component in development thinking.

Like so many emerging economies, Sudan – before the breakup into two countries – spent much on education. This emphasis was historical: even during the decades of British rule, Sudan was an Arab pioneer in female education, and the school system was greatly expanded. Secondary and university graduates were turned out in volume, only to find that the economy struggled to employ them.

This model – education first, economy and infrastructure second – was reproduced across much of emerging Africa, including in South Sudan. The pattern of conscious under-development of the physical infrastructure was set in colonial times, but reproduced during 50 subsequent years of independence.

With no roads or communications or financial infrastructure, the country had no means of creating a sustainable wealth-creating economy. In the school where I taught we had plenty of Jane Austen on the shelves, but nothing to offer our students in the way of tools for prosperity, or even daily survival.

The poverty these conditions engendered was complete: a poverty of institutions as well as economy. South Sudan had natural resources of every kind, fertile land, and as it eventually turned out, oil. But these are raw materials, and raw materials alone do not add up to a functioning state. They are there to be used, or in the absence of institutions and vision, abused.

The creation of South Sudan probably represents the last gasp of the nation-shaping idea that also brought us the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the removal of Gaddafi in Libya. Independence for South Sudan was promoted by a coalition of US-based entertainment industry celebrities and religious groups who caught the attention of the last Bush administration (characteristically, the Obama White House has shown much less interest).

Perhaps some of these should have known better than to think that a country can be spirited into being out of sweet intentions and wishful thinking. It would certainly be less likely for such a project to gain traction today.

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

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