Humanitarian Imperialism? All but Forgotten, South Sudan Unravels

A man waves South Sudan's national flag as he attends the Independence Day celebrations in the capital Juba, July 9, 2011. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese danced and cheered as their new country formally declared its independence on Saturday, a hard-won separation from the north that also plunged the fractured region into a new period of uncertainty. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya (SOUTH SUDAN - Tags: SOCIETY)

On July 9th, 2011, South Sudan became the world’s newest internationally recognized nation. This was partly the result of a strange alliance of Hollywood celebrity, Christian missionary zeal and NGO activism, as well as the interventionist wings of both of the United States’ major political parties.

The new country, along with the western Sudanese region of Darfur, which remains in the hands of the northern Republic of Sudan, had become a rallying cry for well meaning people in the west who cheered the vote. In the end, the decision of the South Sudanese and diaspora voters on independence was overwhelming at 98.8%.

After the celebrities who pushed for the vote had patted themselves on the back for freeing the country from domination by the north, most turned their attention elsewhere. The UN and a host of NGOs poured into the country, expanding aid operations. These aid workers, especially those affiliated with the UN, have come in for heavy criticism for living in air conditioned comfort in well-stocked bases while internal refugees struggle to survive outside of their compounds.

The added bonus for western politicians from the independence vote was separating Sudanese president Omar al- Bashir from the resources of the south, including most of the country’s oil. The Islamist leaning government in Khartoum, primarily run by politicians and military men of Arab descent, had been on western security forces’ hit list for many years.

This was due not only to their treatment of their own citizens, especially darker skinned Christians and Animists, but also for giving asylum to Salafist extremists including Osama Bin Laden, who lived in the country for five years until he was expelled in 1996.

There is no question that the Sudanese Republic treated the southern provinces with a mixture of neglect and outright brutality and that racism and religion played a big role in this. Still, the future country had divisions of its own that were glossed over in the celebrations of this rare victory for western ‘humanitarianism’.

It’s interesting to note that Dr. Joseph Garang, leader the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which later became the new country’s army), who died in a helicopter crash that some have called suspicious in 2005, wanted more autonomy for the South within a united Sudan.

Still, there was a great deal of hope when the country became independent because it had abundant resources and arable land to provide for its people. American policy makers, including US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, optimistically extolled the young nation as another step in the march towards western democracy in Africa and claimed the lion’s share of the credit for the country’s secession.

One can’t help but be reminded of how we were told that toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq would spread democracy across the Middle East, another optimistic prediction that has only borne poisoned fruit.

A History of Violence

Whether by accident or design, South Sudan is now awash in weapons, especially small arms. It’s also been destabilized by an on again off again rivalry between its President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President, Riak Machar, that led to civil war in 2013. Machar has fled the country twice, most recently he was handed over to the government of the DR Congo by UN peacekeepers on August 18th.

President Kiir is Dinka and Machar is Nuer, the first and second largest tribal affiliations in the country, respectively. There are also more than 75 other tribal or ethnic groupings vying for influence in the central government but most are being shut out as Kiir entrenches a presidential system that concentrates most of the power in his hands.

The new country was also ripe for interference by both regional and great powers. Uganda has sided with Kiir, while Ethiopia, desperate for a share of the country’s energy resources, is thought to support Marchar. In two years of fighting, halted for a short time by the peace process that has once again broken down, between 50,000 and 300,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.

South Sudan has also become another front in the global rivalry between the United States and China. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their main dispute in South Sudan is over oil.

Thomas Mountain, who lives in Eritrea and has been reporting on South Sudan since its independence, has shown that several documents released by Wikileaks in 2009 clearly establish that the CIA was funding Machar’s forces, perhaps to counter those in the government who favored a closer relationship with China, he believes this funding continues to this day.

The Chinese oilfields in the country, the only ones it controls in Africa, have made that rising power a strong ally of President Kiir. During this slowly unfolding crisis, while the US and its allies have tried to cut the flow of oil and convince the government to replace the revenue lost with aid money, China has given $8 billion to Kiir’s government and brought in 1,000 of its own soldiers to secure its investment.

The United States also has troops nearby, across the border in Uganda, where they were stationed as part of another ‘humanitarian’ mission, taking on Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, a story that the western media seems to have completely forgotten about.

Besides profiting from a weapons trade that increases the likelihood of violence, every year of South Sudan’s existence the United States has provided a waiver to the country so that it still receives aid even though child soldiers are widely used by the government, rebels and assorted militias. This should be illegal as the US passed a law, the CSPA (Child Soldiers Prevention Act) in 2008 clearly forbidding the country from dealing with countries that engage in this practice but the yearly waivers for South Sudan have been a constant of the Obama presidency. They were also approved by noted child welfare advocate Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State.

On top of this, UN peacekeeping operations have proven untenable, with multiple atrocities occurring under their watch. While this is often explained as the result of the country’s size, troops that have been given the authority to use force to protect civilians have refused to do so on multiple occasions.

In the latest example of this, on July 11th, soldiers believed to be rogue elements of the army attacked a residential compound popular with aid workers called Terrain in Juba. A worker at the compound later told the Associated Press that between 80 and 100 uniformed men broke into the compound, “They were very excited, very drunk, under the influence of something, almost a mad state, walking around shooting off rounds inside the rooms.”

The soldiers proceeded to beat and rob those they found inside. Many women were raped, some multiple times. A South Sudanese reporter, John Gatluak, a Nuer, easily identified by tribal scars on his forehead, was murdered. Repeated calls to UN peacekeepers, located just up the road, resulted in no action and eventually South Sudanese security forces intervened to end the siege.

Other Paths

It’s very easy to see the looming disaster in South Sudan with the benefit of hindsight, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for ways that things might have been done differently. From its creation, the country became an executive system with almost dictatorial powers held by the president, and Kiir, like most leaders, has done his best to expand them. All the while, he’s been forced to play the dangerous game of trying to appease both China and the United States..

What if a different system of government, more interested in spreading real democracy locally had been put in place, empowering people to develop their own areas? A confederated system, similar to the Swiss model, might have helped to alleviate tribal and ethnic tensions, while aid money, which seems to have helped the South Sudanese people very little, could have been better targeted to the needs of the country’s diverse communities rather than lining the pockets of politicians in Juba.

In the country itself, there have been calls for a federal system closer to the American model with some autonomy for states and clearly delineated powers for the federal government, as well as checks and balances on executive power (it was originally thought that such a system could prevent the split between north and south). A federal system would also allow some measure of autonomy for different groups, at least at the state level.

Before any changes can be made to the country’s governance, the country will need to find some way to disarm. It may very well be that the trade is so profitable to a number of countries, including Israel and the United States, that halting it will require the effort of those who pushed so hard for independence in the first place; perhaps George Clooney is available. It should be obvious to all but the most obtuse observers that the free flow of weapons in South Sudan also endangers nearby countries in an already unstable region

While there was a lot of talk about the rights of women at the dawn of independence, South Sudanese women have been subject not only to the murder and displacement doled out to all of the country’s citizens, especially minority groups, but widespread sexual violence, most of it coming at the barrel of a gun, regardless of who’s holding it.

A South Sudan that can’t guarantee basic rights to its citizens isn’t worthy of celebration, let alone international recognition. The people of South Sudan have fought and suffered for so long that they deserve to be more than a chess piece in a US/China great game for control of African resources. The country needs options for a real political future, free from strong men beholden to foreign powers and corporations and free from the violence that been a routine part of life in the country for far too long.


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