JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN — There are two main views of what kind of nation the world’s newest country is becoming. The divide reveals much both about the place in question, South Sudan, and about the way the world relates to Africa in general.
Without strong, even fervent support from certain quarters in the West, this long-suffering country clearly would never have attained independence. Yet the question now is whether that support has, paradoxically, become a millstone around the new country’s neck. The enthusiasm of South Sudan’s foreign backers and especially those in Washington may have caused them to turn a blind or at least excessively indulgent eye to grave political problems that could doom South Sudan to the lasting curse of failed nationhood.
President Salva Kiir himself recently revealed that the country’s political leadership had stolen $4 billion in funds that should have been used to create social goods like schools, clinics, and roads. The response from donors has been oddly muted, even though Western sources who have worked with the government have told me this latest scandal may merely be the tip of the iceberg: it came to light, they say, not because of moral outrage from the president, but because of the state’s crushing need for money. Yet last week, just days after this news broke, Hillary Clinton herself called South Sudan a success.
The sense of indulgence is strongly reinforced by the language of foreigners I met in Juba whose agencies, careers, and sometimes personal feelings are deeply invested in the birth and success of this new nation. Thus, even in the face of the huge embezzlement scandal, a senior United Nations official told me that “We have seen very positive movement of resources coming onto the books and being accounted for.”
For good measure, he added that nowhere in the world had there ever been an emergency state-building project with such a large gap between the human resources and administrative structures in place and the needs of the people. “I genuinely think the government wants to put this place on a good track,” he concluded.
The view of intellectuals, independent journalists, and human rights activists in South Sudan’s thin and vulnerable civil society, however, could hardly be more different.
They base their pessimism on ominous signs that go beyond the breaking scandal: the government’s failure to sign on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative; official resistance to even metering oil production, as well as other common transparency measures related to revenue; threats against journalists and failure to pass a strong press freedom law; arbitrary arrests and abysmal detention conditions.