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November 21, 2018

Resource Control Fuelling Bush Fights

Control over resources fuelling Africa's bush fights

Southern Sudan’s government and rebel factions have finally signed a ceasefire agreement, even though there are widespread doubts whether this will be a stop towards the resolution of the current conflict: In the FT, Gerard Prunier is quoted describing it as ‘a signature . . . will be a formal, face-saving device without practical effect on the ground’. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, George Ayittey argues more generally: ‘Face-to-face negotiations only succeed when factional leaders want peace or are forced to pay a price for the mayhem they wreak -- conditions that have rarely been met in Africa. More often than not, conflict becomes profitable for warlords because it provides them with opportunities to rape, pillage, and plunder natural resources.’

Ayittey is also not convinced that so-called governments of national unity work: ‘But it's not just that unity governments are destined to fail; it's that when they succeed, they amount to blueprints for the joint-plunder of the state. Ministerial and governmental positions are divvied up between government and rebel leaders - invariably igniting bitter squabbles in the process - and then the rent-seeking begins.’

A few weeks ago, I re-read Deborah Scroggin’s ‘Emma’s War’, the story of Emma McCune who came to Kenya and Southern Sudan as a charity worker, and then went on to marry Riek Machar.

She traces Emma’s story against the background of the history of Sudan and the internal conflict between the north and the south. I first read the book around the time when Southern Sudan transitioned to its semi-autonomous status in 2005 and 2006.

Re-reading the book, I was struck by how familiar the events since December sounded, especially the break up between Machar and Garang, and the massacre in Bor. Once you shake off your sense of déjà vu, this is not surprising – the underlying determinants of the country have changed very little.

In fact, Carol Berger points out in an article for the New Yorker: ‘(…) in many parts of South Sudan, peacetime has been more violent than the final years of the war.

The fighting has been along geographic and ethnic lines, with governors and former military commanders building private armies to control their territories.

The instigators of this violence have been the very men whom the international community has supported, from governors of far-flung regions to the President himself. At stake is control over resources, including food aid from the international community and funds intended for infrastructure projects.’

Part of the recent discussion of Southern Sudan was the question of whether the country should actually have become a country in the first place since it was clearly not in any shape or form to run itself as a country. I’m not sure this is really the right way of looking at it: If you remember how very clear the referendum results about secession from the north were, then surely the very clear will of the vast majority of the population must be respected – and it is not as if Khartoum had actually administered the south well. But it is of course true that Southern Sudan lacked the capacities – human, institutional, physical – of administering itself, and the legacy from the past decades of civil war, both with the north and within the south, are a huge obstacle to functional statehood.

Sadly, we just don’t know yet how to create a functional, technocratic, equitable state for the people and, more importantly, by the people: States are not Iike Billy shelves that you pull out of a box and assemble and you can’t start from scratch. If you want to have the people run their own state, then those people will bring all their history, loyalties and conflicts with them.

In the context of Southern Sudan’s crisis, there has been the related discussion whether the country might be served better by a trustee government.

This had been suggested by US officials, and after Iraq and Afghanistan, I think it’s not exactly a bright idea to have the US take on that role.

But apart from this, it’s still a difficult question: Southern Sudan, a country still dominated by military men with bushfighter careers, has so few human resources with the skills necessary to run a civilian state. On the other hand, it’s very easy to accuse anyone arguing in favour of this model of neo-colonialism.

Still: right now, I tentatively lean towards this solution. And not just because of my mum’s tried and tested solution when my brother and I were fighting over something: if you can’t agree, none of you can have it.

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