South Sudan: The Magic 8 Ball Says “Outlook Not So Good”

Posted on July 31, 2011


Way back in May I meant to take an hour or two to write up a post on South Sudan and its impending independence. But then I got on a plan to Kenya, and that trip took several days, and by the time I just wanted to go to sleep so I decided not to write it. There was, at the time, a good deal of action on the border-to-be and I had thought it would be a good time to try to piece together the major actors and incentives for action in the region. After all, the Sudanese split had everyone on edge.

Given Omar al-Bashir’s muddy record with the world after his involvement in Darfur and the decades of bloody war between north and south, given the presence of vital Sudanese oil along the proposed border, I (and many other actual analysts) were shocked by the relative peace and timeliness of the referendum on independence. Everyone was holding their collective breath as the date announced (George Clooney, no lies, hired satellites to monitor the border to track troop buildups to prevent any possible bloodshed via early peacekeeping actions).

The referendum passed without incident. Bashir was relatively bucolic about the whole process. The South Sudanese government-in-waiting was giddy. And then all hell broke loose in Abyei, but that’s another matter. I wanted to write about that, but now I’ll write about this:

Someone asked me in an e-mail the other day, given all that’s happened, what I thought the prospects were for the success of South Sudan. After all, one of the most common sound bites after independence was that this new nation is the most troubled, least developed, poorest nation to achieve statehood in recent history (read: in the modern world order’s era). And the calculus has been, since May, rapidly shifting.

I’d been following this story’s development for a few years (all the more so for Clooney’s involvement—who can resist those eyes?), but I’ve gained a newfound interest and insight since coming to Kenya. On the night of South Sudan’s independence, I found myself invited to a party for the occasion, in part hosted by Baha’i families giddy-drunk on peace and autonomy. But I noticed that there were several South Sudanese expats at the party.

After chatting with these South Sudanese, I found that there’s a good, long history of population exchange between Kenya and South Sudan. Actually, it’s a good story, so allow me one aside that I’ll try to artfully weave back into this larger story—

South Sudan doesn’t have a great historical record, but it’s largely interacted with a region of the world we’ve known throughout history as Nubia. At times the Dinka-speaking (mostly, there are many other languages and tribes) tribes of the South Sudan were part of the larger Nubian culture. But more often than not they were slaves or captives of the Nubians proper, the Egyptians, the British, the Arabs, and a host of others. It was a jannisary-ish process whereby the most talented of the Dinka and other tribes were often conscripted into the service of Muhammad Ali’s Egypt or the Sultanate of Sennar or the British Empire.

During WWI, the British used a gang of conscripted (South) Sudanese Askari Riflemen in their campaigns. After the campaign, they resettled them rather randomly in the fast-growing town of Nairobi on a small, forested hill at the outskirts of the nascent metropolis. But the British never got around to giving them the title to the land, so at independence the Sudanese settlers, fearing nationalist retribution, called themselves Kenyans and named themselves the Nubi tribe (for Nubian). To cement their control over government-owned land and seek their own wealth, they constructed numerous shacks and became unmonitored landlords to countless Kikuyu, Luo, Luyah and other immigrants, extorted as squatters on unregulated land. The hill was called Kibra in their language, now the famous slum Kibera, housing at least a third of Nairobi’s population on less than a tenth of its land.

As I intend to argue in a forthcoming piece, it’s largely these landowner arrangements and the Nubi dominance of the slum that help to keep the area so dreadful. But that’s another matter. What we should draw out of this is that there’s a massive South Sudanese diaspora and with that has come a lack of development and massive brain drain in the long-neglected, long-exploited, long-dominated region.

The area is so underdeveloped, I’m told by people who worked there, that even in Wau or Juba, relatively large cities, by the time of the comprehensive peace agreement between the North and South in 2005, billboards were only just starting to appear, malaria awareness was at a minimum, and banks did not often have the ability to exchange foreign currencies. Another friend, who returned to Juba for the independence ceremony, told me I should not be sad about missing it as there were so few accommodations that he and his group had to stay in a cargo hold warehouse for the duration of their stay. Soft indicators, but not great indicators for a new country’s economy.

Then there’s Abyei. One of the many oil-rich fields that lie directly along the North-South border, it’s become a hot zone. In late May, scuffles between the North and South led to a small war and the deployment of peacekeeping troops after the signing of a ceasefire. The oil fields are extremely unstable politically, ruled by North-South cooperative coalitions with very different ideas about how best to run the fields and manage money flowing forth.

If South Sudan had retained control of Abyei and the other oil regions, it might have been reasonably safe (although we would have seen a ton of other kleptocratic, rentier issues as the state relied on oil wealth and became unresponsive to citizens who provided it with less revenue). After all, since 2009 at least the Persian Gulf nations had been courting South Sudan with the prospect of development and reciprocation (China would probably hop on that bandwagon soon enough), for preferential access to the development, refining, and shipping of oil through a new South Sudanese governmental-territorial conduit. Even North Sudan was expressing some willingness to pay for access to South Sudanese oil.

But now it’s likely that the fields will remain less active than they could be, their productivity driven down by instability and the specter of border disputes. And at best semi-fallow fields will produce profits that the more powerful north will extort an undue sum from, funneling back less to the South than they should have received. Given that most estimates place oil at 95 to 98 percent of South Sudan’s economy, even a 25 percent cut to their original profit predictions from the fields means a cut in nearly a quarter of the nation’s initial GDP, which is basically catastrophic.

On the intangible front of culture and national character, one thing I was told by a man of Dinka descent was that in Dinka culture, men value inactivity. The respected man is the man who manages to do the least. I don’t put much stock in that and see it as a minor issue, if an issue at all, but there is a larger issue that expands beyond the plurality Dinka people. The nation’s identity is a negative identity—not meaning that the South Sudanese are a moping people, but rather that they have defined themselves in opposition to the North.

As a result, there’s not much of a sense of who the South Sudanese are, except that they are not Northern—hence the choice to take the name South Sudan, not Nubia or some other name. They still define themselves relative to and in contrast to a northern enemy they no longer directly face. This is classic rally-around-the-flag and as the specter of Bashir and the North fades, the South Sudanese, devoid of a real sense of collective identity defined independent of opposition to the North, may find themselves pulled in a thousand directions, leading to much difficulty in forming a functioning and productive government.

And the population’s in store for great initial disappointment. My friend from Juba told me that most common South Sudanese expect independence to magically bring progress—some even seem to think that social services will appear magically (I’ve heard that point echoed by The Economist reporters on the radio as well). The messianic character of independence is about to let down millions, and without well-managed control of perceptions and expectations, without an understanding of what the nation is capable of, without an understanding that dreams and aspirations will take generations, not one day, cooperation and progress will elude the nation at a vulnerable time.

I’d be happy to remain hopeful if the nation appeared to have strong leaders. And the “brain gain” of diaspora citizens returning to the nation to help in setting up infrastructure is heartening. But most people already seem to perceive the South Sudanese government as corrupt (limitedly so, but still). And, well, I’m not sure the nation has its priorities straight. I have to bring up a story I talked about briefly from last August … it’s just too perfect an example to pass up:

Around this time last year the government-in-the-waiting of South Sudan announced (this was in BBC News, so it’s fairly certain) … literally, I’m quoting here, “a $10bn plan to rebuild the region’s cities in the shapes of animals and fruit.” Juba is a rhino, Wau is a giraffe, Yambio is a pineapple, the capital building will be in the rhino’s eye, the Wau sewage plant will be under the giraffe’s tail.

There’s some logic to this, an excuse for urban order and planning, rooting out systemic issues, and expressing national pride by shaping cities like the symbols on their new South Sudanese state flags. And they think it could attract some tourism. But whether that’s the wisest first major project for an extremely poor nation with angry neighbors, discontented citizens, no firm identity, and a massive initial cut to what is essentially its sole (and highly unstable) revenue source, well, that’s your call. To me it seems as if the nation may not have its priorities right.

All that said, I’m not optimistic. And I think the South Sudanese won’t be optimistic for much longer. I want to be optimistic, just like they do. And if it weren’t for the May developments in Abyei and this ridiculous animal cities plan, the sudden slice to oil, I might have found some hope. Gulf development money and oil revenue would have provided a cushion to manage initial expectations and craft a strategy of development, diversification, and identification over the course of a generation, given strong and competent leadership. It was possible. But now I’ve just got so little hope—I see it as a potential spillover zone for the less desirable elements from Uganda and Sudan (which it already is, but probably more so now) and the site of future unrest.

I’ll close this with what may be my favorite sentence that I will ever write:

Thank god for George Clooney and his nifty space satellites, though—without him this could have all been much messier than it already is.

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