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January 17, 2019

Can Big Brother Keep The Lid On Southern Sudan?

Salva Kiir Mayrdi
Salva Kiir Mayrdi

I just spent a bit of time in the Motherland, in my shags. Partly because it was long overdue, and partly because it was my mum’s birthday, a big round one that I couldn’t, wouldn’t miss, even if I had to trek through Sudan.

It was lovely: Hotter than Turkana, more stima than you can shake a stick at (and when I was sunning myself on the deck outside, I looked up at the roof and smiled at the solar panels, and marveled at how German construction was so fantastically accurate and standardized).

I loved the lingering, long long summer evenings when the light fades away so slowly – on several evenings, I set off for my one-hour run at 9pm when it was still perfectly light, past the fields, through a forest stretch, and then through the other part of the village and back along the main road past more fields and across an Autobahn bridge. On my last evening run, I noticed the full moon already hanging pale against the lavender evening sky.

 And I found time to read properly. More than one book, more than bite-sized chunks. I finished Tom Holland’s Millenium about Christendom around AD 1000 (which reminded me oddly of Kenya: lots of little fiefdoms, perennially fighting each other while arranging ever shifting alliances, plenty of attempts to regain control over the whole territory that is then lost again, and cunning warlord conversions to Christianity because being a Christian that gives you a respectable cover to then murder and plunder more than you had before. In the name of the Lord!). I raced through one of the Thursday Next sequels, and then read Robert Klitgaard’s Tropical Gangsters II.

 Klitgaard is a governance expert and in this book, he narrates different work assignments – Nicaragua, Bolivia, Equatorial Guinea.

It’s a light little book (figuratively speaking – I read it on my Kindle), a bit bloggy. When I read the Southern Sudan section, I was struck by how charmed he seemed by the people.

This is something I had noticed time and time again ever: Southern Sudan seems to have some kind of magic that works to enchant visitors. I’ve heard the ‘Ah, but the people!’ many times.

In this chapter, Klitgaard describes a visit to Southern Sudan in 2004 to provide some input on governance planning for the impending semi-autonomous status of the country (or half country back then).

 This included workshops with officials to discuss governance issues and how corruption can be prevented or fought. A tool that Mr Klitgaard likes to use is a fictional newspaper article from the future, describing a sort of best-case scenario, and then he asks his workshop participants to work out suggestions how they could take the country to this scenario.

 For Southern Sudan, this included ‘coverage’ of how the country managed its oil wealth wisely and build competent institutions that were able to invest competently and respond to the population’s needs. I suspect Mr Klitgaard is a naturally positive person because my instant reaction to this was: ‘When pigs fly.

Or hell freezes over. Whatever comes first’. Two years into Southern Sudan’s independence, of course we know that it was an unrealistic scenario – entirely unsurprising, too, given the enormous challenges: We still simply just don’t know how to build a state, or rather a competent state with competent institutions.

In Southern Sudan, this had to be started almost from scratch, in a huge country with barely any infrastructure, very limited education in the population that was left, and a history of war in the north, but also intra-Southern civil war and ethnic fragmentation.

 Just as I was getting ready to leave Germany, Southern Sudan’s president Salva Kiir had sacked his vice president Riek Machar as well as his top negotiator with the north, Pagan Amun.

And the entire cabinet for good measure, too. Machar and Amun are both political heavyweights who had spoken about their plans to challenge Kiir in the next presidential election.

Southern Sudan has had plenty of ethnic and political tensions over the past two years, exacerbated by northern-sponsored rebel groups – but still just about kept it together.

 Will this be the spark to (re?)ignite local conflicts? Local revenues had been under enormous pressure when the South decided to cut off oil production, and now the north in turn says it will not let any oil through as long as the south supports rebels.

Without money, there is even less in terms of competent public services that the country can provide, and the lack of cash also makes it more difficult to keep restive military personnel together. Can pressure from the ‘international community’ keep the lid on this volatile situation?

 There is an EAC angle to this, too: with Khartoum now obstructing oil flows, the case for an alternative exit route for Southern Sudan’s oil becomes stronger– in principle a good fit with the recent agreement between Kenyatta and Museveni on the pipeline for crude oil through northern Kenya.

Except that a potential new civil war in Southern Sudan creates a bit of a tricky environment in which to construct a pipeline connection through the country.

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