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The Tragedy of South Sudan & the Vultures behind it

As the U.S.'s pet project disintegrates into mass famine, where is George Clooney and other champions of this new nation

March 6

0:00
2017

London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 6 Mar 2017 -

Last week, Hollywood star and activist George Clooney, launched a report exposing financial corruption among South Sudan’s warring elites. The Sentry report is a constructive contribution — documenting state thievery in the troubled nation Washington helped create, and calling for greater action to combat it. But extreme corruption — both financial and political — has been a fixture in the capital of Juba since well before South Sudan’s celebrated birth in 2011.

To most of the world media, it is another sensational story showing African leader wrongdoing. To scholars and South Sudanese, it is a well-known problem. And Clooney and his fellow advocates who campaigned for the creation of South Sudan could be said to share some of the blame.

Why didn’t activists blow the whistle earlier? As Clooney and his colleagues presented their indictments to a room full of journalists, another question hung in the air: Hadn’t they been among the many ardent advocates of South Sudan’s independence and the rebels who championed it? The very guerillas-cum-governors Clooney and the report authors were now censuring—those of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) — were long darlings of the West and the powerful advocacy constituency that shaped American policy in their favor. That is, until 2013, when these exalted men plunged the world’s newest country back into violence.

“None of this is news, George! We have known for a long time and we did not need your two-year-long investigation to learn that the South Sudanese political elite is a corrupt, self-interested war machine,” blogged Rita Abrahamsen, a professor at the University of Ottawa. “The international headlines may laud you for ‘revealing’ and ‘exposing’ the corruption and venality of South Sudan’s leaders, but what I want to know is why did you not speak up before?”

Asked by one reporter if his optimism in South Sudan and its leaders was misplaced at the time of independence, Clooney noted that independence was important in preventing a larger return to war with northern Sudan. He’s right; the critiques that suggest independence itself was a mistake or the source of the country’s unraveling are cheap and misguided.

So, too, are “gotcha” accounts that point a finger solely at the West or overlook the hard policy choices that accompanied every stage of South Sudan’s political evolution. But Clooney also responded, “We were very realistic” about South Sudan’s prospects “from the very beginning.” Not everyone would agree. The Sentry project’s co-founder and prominent activist John Prendergast was likewise asked if international actors bore any responsibility. “The fatal flaw in the international strategy,” he said, was insufficient focus “on the core rot at the foundation of this new government.”

South Sudan’s “violent kleptocracy” stands in sharp contrast against the current fighting. The country is fraying at the seams, yet the people in power are building up their own wealth. An estimated $4 billion is gone since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which allowed for the creation of South Sudan as a country six years later. The money, stolen largely from oil profits, could have helped stabilize the country, according to the report.

But who’s responsible for this collective looking-the-other-way? Why did America’s die-hard SPLM supporters pay so little attention to this awful rot for almost eight years? Why did they ignore not only extreme financial corruption, but the SPLM’s abuse of state power and its abandoning of the democratic principles for which they purportedly fought? The cause of South Sudan was a worthy one, and popular interest helped bring it much needed attention. But what many SPLM supporters fail to acknowledge are the consequences of having adopted the cause with such singularity and zeal.

Over the course of two decades, South Sudan’s American backers coddled the SPLM, embraced a simplified narrative and shaped a policy environment in which criticism was reserved for an undeniably awful regime in Khartoum — the “bad guys.” Criticism of the “good guys,” meanwhile, was either spared or suppressed, and sentiments that didn’t fit this narrative were framed either as moral equivalency or as indirectly aiding the enemy. Ultimately, the buck stops with South Sudanese leaders; they are responsible for the egregious abuse of state resources and the country’s devastating state of affairs.

But an uncritical embrace by Juba’s American friends helped create a moral hazard and reinforce the very sense of impunity that allowed for such extreme financial and political corruption.

Importantly, the United States helped broker a 2005 agreement that ended Sudan’s civil war, guaranteed the South a referendum on independence in 2011, and set up a regional Southern government in the interim. Transitioning from liberation movement to government, especially in a state that barely existed, was always going to be a difficult, and multi-generational, task. It would require solid early decisions on governance, financial management, and political and social reconciliation. Fortunately, South Sudan had ample resources. Washington and its partners, meanwhile, had leverage: If they were going to help deliver Juba’s ultimate independence prize, then Juba should have been expected to uphold its end of the bargain. Instead, during those critical years, the South’s leaders robbed the place blind, suppressed political dissent and flirted with a new North-South war. Though concerns were sometimes raised privately, too often Southern elites were treated with kid gloves.

The plight of South Sudan’s people helped earn the SPLM many supporters in Washington and around the globe. In time, this also meant that the movement’s legitimacy was derived as much from foreign sources as it was from home.

The rebel vanguard was not accountable to the South Sudanese people, but instead to a constituency of Western supporters apparently willing to back them at any price. In time, this partisan allegiance, a simple moral narrative, and a sentimental attachment pushed American policy too far from a balanced center.

In recent days, one champion of the partnership reflected, “We lost objectivity; you can become close to someone but still be a tough friend …we were never a tough friend.” As the United States calibrates foreign policy interventions in divided societies the world round, from Syria to Yemen to Afghanistan, there are lessons to be drawn from America’s unique role in South Sudan.

This is not the end of South Sudan’s story, and it does not have to end in tragedy. Indeed Clooney’s project and other important efforts to support, and partner with, the South Sudanese people should be encouraged. But we should also be clear-eyed about the past. Americans should take a hard look at how the United States became so deeply invested, the righteous singularity with which supporters pursued the cause and the implications of very personal relationships with the Southern rebels-turned-governors. This partnership helped achieve lofty goals of peace and independence, but also helped feed the rot at the core of the new republic.

The lack of attention to South Sudan has resulted in self-interested elites enriching themselves to the detriment of a country in crisis, but critics like Abrahamsen point out that the underlying problems behind the theft and civil war stem from the way many outsiders supported creating the new nation – something Clooney and Prendergast also sought.

A group of activists and politicians had pushed the idea of an independent South Sudan since the Clinton Administration. Prendergast was among the early advocates who supported the idea. The Sudan Caucus, as it was called, succeeded by getting the issue on the agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations.

When it came together, groups fighting against the Sudanese government with varying interests were lumped together. Politics play a major role in the current fighting, according to researcher Mahmood Mamdani. He was a member of the initial independent team that assessed the reasons behind the onset of the civil war in December 2013.

The current situation in South Sudan is the result of the inability of the government to organize itself and the countries and activists, including the U.S., Clooney and Prendergast, who pushed forward a plan for independence. People like Kiir and Machar, who were celebrated as the shining hope for a new country, turned out to be the exact opposite.

“The craving for media publicity was satisfied by simple stories. For a humanitarian activist in a hurry, there was no time for hard thinking and detailed analysis,” said Abrahamsen. “Now you turn around to find that the warnings have come true, that real-life politics is anything but a morality tale: The heroes have turned villains; the morally good and oppressed have become the oppressors, the thieves, the murders and the rapists.”

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