South Sudan: The Only Solution

South Sudan:  Time to Think Outside the Box Toward International Trusteeship


Only three years old, the independent nation of South Sudan is in the midst of a catastrophic humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people have become internal refugees. Thousands of others have perished in ethnic cleansing attacks against innocent men, women and children living their normal lives in their villages. There are new reports of several thousand-child soldiers who may be fighting in the ranks of ethnic militias.

The international community, especially the United States, is taking the problem very seriously. Peace talks between the South Sudanese Government, and the main rebel group led by former Vice President Riak Machar, have been going on in Ethiopia for several months under the auspices of the African Union. US diplomats have been doing a full court press trying to bring about a cease-fire and reconciliation. Secretary Kerry has personally gone to the Ethiopian capital Addis Abeba to persuade the warring parties to reach at least a temporary agreement. Despite several cease-fire agreements over the past few months, nothing has changed on the ground in South Sudan, and innocent civilians continue to die in vain.

The major problem with the approach of the romantics trying to manage the South Sudan crisis in the US National Security Council is that they look at that unhappy country as a normal nation undergoing a civil conflict.  They are in full conflict resolution mode. Unfortunately, their view of South Sudan is governed by the memory of a thirty-year guerrilla war between the Arab government in the northern two-thirds of Sudan, and the impoverished Christian Africans living in the south.  The United States under Bush (43) worked very hard to bring about a peace agreement in 2005 that guaranteed self-determination.  The people of South Sudan had a referendum in 2011 and chose to separate themselves from northern Sudan.

The United States Government looked at the independence of South Sudan in 2011 as the fulfillment of a long quest to free the Christian South from the dominant and repressive northern Arab government. Unfortunately, in their joy at the long awaited freedom for the South Sudanese people, the United States Government and many American supporters, overlooked the fact that South Sudan was the least prepared for independence than any other former colonized nation in Africa.

In fact, South Sudan was born a failed state. The Sudanese Government under Arab domination between 1954 and 2005 had done nothing for South Sudan during fifty years of independence from the British.  They put in no infrastructure, no health system, and no educational system.  Anything useful was the work of the Christian churches and NGOs.  South Sudan had no institutions to speak of.

The people who took over power after self-government was achieved in 2005, and independence in 2011, were the guerrilla leaders of the South Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM). Instead of devoting their energies, and considerable oil revenues, to reconstruction and nation building, these warlords settled down in the capital city of Juba and proceeded to loot the treasury.  They lived in $500 a night hotels in the capital and wore $1,000 Saville Row suits, but did nothing to start helping the people of South Sudan begin to escape poverty. They traveled around the world to thank everyone for helping them achieve independence from an oppressive regime.  They were treated as heroes. But at home, they did nothing for the mostly illiterate people of South Sudan.

Needless to say, with so much oil revenue at stake, it took only three years for the leading war lord thieves to have a falling out, with the fault lines following ethnic patterns. The two biggest ethnic groups, among the hundreds living in South Sudan, are the Nuer and the Dinka.  The President of the country is Salva Kir, a Dinka. The rebel Vice President, Riak Machar, is a Nuer. These are the “liberation leaders” who are now in charge of ethnic massacres.

It is time for the conflict resolution managers in the National Security Council to put aside their romanticism about the brave Southern Sudanese people, and start to think realistically. South Sudan cannot govern itself without intensive externally imposed direction.  Even the Belgian Congo in 1960 had more preparation for independence, and that new nation has still not recovered from its original instabilities a half-century later.

South Sudan needs to be placed under intensive UN tutelage until it is capable of true self-government.  There is precedent for this. Namibia, in 1988, needed a period of UN tutelage after breaking away from South Africa with invaluable American diplomatic assistance. And Cambodia, after the fall of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, needed UN supervision for several years starting in 1999.

The search for peace and security in South Sudan is doomed to failure if anyone believes the present ruling warlords have the will or capability to begin building a nation from its present status of zero.