South Sudan,a failed state

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July of this year South Sudan — the world’s newest country — will mark 10 years of independence. Celebrations will be muted, and they should be. South Sudan is by most criteria a failed state.

The two long wars that led to the territory’s separation from Sudan left millions dead and meant that by 2011 this was the least developed place on Earth. Then, in 2013, came the South Sudanese civil war. Fought largely on ethnic lines over four to five years, this killed a further 400,000 people and forced two million of the country’s population of 12 million to flee outside the country, where they still languish in refugee camps. Some 80 per cent of those remaining in country will need humanitarian assistance in 2021, says the UN. Civil servants have been unpaid for months, and education and health are largely donor-financed.

In 2020, Transparency International rated South Sudan (jointly with Somalia) the most corrupt country on Earth. It is also perennially deemed one of the two or three most dangerous for aid workers. In few constructive senses is the government present for its citizens.

Putting aside for one moment the argument that we have a moral duty to help the less fortunate, why should Canadians care? This, after all, is a distant place that poses no geopolitical risk to the world and that is most unlikely to become a terrorist haven. There is oil and mineral wealth, but no Canadian companies are active. Members of the significant diaspora in Canada exert no pressure on our politicians, divided as they are on the ethnic lines that fracture their country of origin.

We should care because, more than any country that has emerged on the world map since the decolonization wave of the 1950s and 1960s, South Sudan is a western creation. The United States was the midwife, with Britain and Norway in close support. But Canada — our government, our church groups, our aid workers, Canadian pilots even — was never far behind. If South Sudan is a failure, it is one we partly own.

Government troops at Akobo, after the outbreak of the South Sudan civil war in Dec. 2013. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Coghlan.

The first time I saw what would become the new country — then a territory in revolt against the detested jihadists of Khartoum (Sudan), where I ran Canada’s tiny diplomatic office — was in 2000. I’d flown north from Nairobi to the United Nations’ logistics base at Lokichogio, just inside Kenya but on the edge of rebel territory in southern Sudan. This was the control center for Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), an innovative arrangement by which the UN negotiated with both Khartoum and the rebel factions for air access into opposition-held territory, while coordinating the aid activities of forty non-governmental organisations.

If you were an aid worker, Loki — as the cognoscenti called it — was the place to be in those years. At dawn a flight of white C-130 Hercules would roar out for the first round of food drops over southern Sudan at locations painstakingly negotiated over months. In the interval before they returned for a second run, you’d hear smaller Twin Otters and Buffaloes buzzing in and out, the Dakota belonging to the Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse and Cessnas with the logos of Save The Children or Médecins Sans Frontières stencilled on their sides.

At the bars and canteens within the UN compound there was serious talk among the young expats of malnutrition rates, of the latest famine predictions, of the upcoming measles campaign — as well as the usual comparing of per diems. There were Canadians everywhere: glamorous bush pilot Heather Stewart — “All-Weather Heather” — was a legend in her own time.

There was no doubt who were the Good Guys and who were the Bad. I eavesdropped on a neighbouring table at Murphy’s (one of several bars within the UN compound) where a visiting American Congressman told of his hopes for his upcoming slave-redemption mission: he’d brought with him a million dollars in cash, raised by church groups in the southern U.S. and, in an encounter to be arranged and mediated by the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), he would meet with Arab slave-traders from the North to purchase the freedom of young boys and girls they had seized. At another, pilots working for a Nordic relief agency were dropping the names of the rebel generals they’d just lifted from one front to another. UN staffers who tried to maintain a façade of neutrality were mocked. This was almost literally a crusade. If you were in any doubt, you might peruse the NGO noticeboards: one organisation openly sought “evangelists.” 

In the air in a Hercules over a swamp-encircled village called Nhial, 1000km north of Loki, my sense of slight unease was temporarily displaced by adrenaline. An airdrop (this one was Canadian funded) is an exhilarating experience. You strap in at the rear door.  You feel the hot wind, the ground rushes past 150 metres below, the aircraft screams into a climb and twelve tons of food roll by you.

What could be more inspiring? Food for the starving — you surely couldn’t spend dollars any better than this. But then I made my way back to the cockpit as we made a final pass to check for accuracy.  The pilot pointed down and off to one side.  The engines were too loud for speech. I could see men in rebel uniform barging their way in, pushing the civilians to one side.

* * *

The diversion of international aid was deeply problematic in the second Sudanese civil war.  It allowed one side a distinct advantage and may well have contributed to its outcome. But blatant behaviour of the kind I saw at Nhial was only part of the story. 


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