The view from the ground.

Making a Country

Southern Sudan's leaders struggle to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors.


View a slide show of Juba, the world’s newest capital, on the eve of independence

On Jan. 9, Southern Sudanese will head to the polls to vote in a referendum to decide whether to become an independent state. Barring massive vote-rigging by the government in Khartoum or a fresh outbreak of war, theirs will become the world’s newest country. Riven by conflict for decades, this land of about 10 million people is among the poorest, unhealthiest, and least educated in the world. Independence would curtail the historic domination of the Arab Muslim north of Sudan over the black, largely Christian south. But conflict lurks — indeed, barely lurks. In 2010, Dennis Blair, then the United States’ director of national intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that among the world’s unstable places in the next five years, “a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”

Southern Sudan has potential. Its area — larger than Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda combined — contains rich lands, ample water, and resources. Sudan’s oil fields are located in southern territory but are not yet free from northern control. Strong cultures and resilience have been fortified by years of war and self-reliance. Since a 2005 peace accord formally ended the civil war, Southern Sudan has had a semiautonomous government. Created almost from scratch, this regional administration had made progress. But if independence arrives, so will new threats of corruption and its close counterpart, instability.

How can this would-be country face up to the scourge of corruption? In 2004, in advance of the peace accord, the Southern Sudanese leadership addressed this very question, and it was my privilege to help facilitate its discussions. Invited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I was impressed by the spirit and resilience of the Southern Sudanese, their frank self-diagnosis, and the need for more than development-as-usual in Southern Sudan.

 What can you do about corruption?

On the second day of my visit, three members of the SPLM’s leadership council grilled me. Governor Deng Alor, of the Bahr el Ghazal region, was a slender 6 foot 6 inches and looked young, maybe 40 years old. Governor (and Commander) Malik Agar Eyre, of Southern Blue Nile state, was about 6’2″ and as boulder-like as a defensive tackle. Commander Pagan Amum was about 5’8″ and on the squat side.

After the courtesies, the three described corruption as one of the major challenges facing the new government. Alor then posed three essential questions. What can be done about corruption? Has any African country ever made progress against corruption? What are the principles behind successful efforts?

I provided detailed examples, and he and the other leaders commented profusely and approvingly. Pagan Amum, who is today the SPLM’s secretary-general, offered a trenchant analysis.

“We are poised for a disaster,” he concluded. “We will have a new government with no experience at governing. Our institutions are weak or absent. There will be high expectations. Hundreds of millions of dollars of oil money will be coming our way, as well as inflows of foreign aid. It’s a recipe for corruption.”

The other two chimed in, often brilliantly. Malik emphasized the importance of institutions to provide law and order, even before some of the development efforts. Deng Alor talked about corruption in procurement. Pagan pointed out that the private sector is often the driver of corruption — what to do about that?

At one point Deng Alor said, “We have a chance to do something remarkable here, to make something new. This isn’t about getting power — it’s about changing things.”

“One hundred and eighty degrees,” Malik added.

The Elephant Is Peace and Freedom

For the first week I traveled around Southern Sudan and met with local leaders, women’s groups, legal experts, and regional officials. Government on the ground was often weak or nonexistent. Consider the case of one deputy commissioner.

We arrived at the district commissioner’s office in the late morning. The front door was made of tin roofing. The anteroom was almost bare, with dinged-up concrete and a dilapidated desk. From there we went to the commissioner’s office, which was now empty. We were told to have a seat while the deputy commissioner was fetched.

The office had no ceiling. The heavily pitted cement walls may last have been painted at Sudan’s independence in 1956. The deputy commissioner arrived. He had gray hair and a short gray beard and was about 6’7″ (he looked a little like a taller Morgan Freeman). He wore a dark-blue denim shirt and pants with white shoes. Although it was morning, his breath conveyed the remnants of recent highballs.

He welcomed us and then turned his gaze to a female USAID official. “Young,” he said.

She smiled and gamely responded, “Yes, the youngest one here.”

The deputy commissioner paused. And then he welcomed us again and launched into a random ramble, from waiting for peace to local troubles in the cattle areas where young people have been fighting. He let forth a blizzard of bromides and generalities, from the need for people to learn to produce, to the need for government to provide basic services such as education, health care, and infrastructure.

At one point he suddenly said, “What if I have a son? He has a cow, and he invents a song for his cow. Then he goes to where the cattle gather and sings this song, and other young men object to the song. Then there is fighting.”

This tale vaporized in a long pause, and then the deputy commissioner resumed at a different place in his memory bank.

“You are welcome,” he said. “We welcome you, and we are sure that your help will be important in enabling the New Sudan to succeed.”

The deputy commissioner, with his maundering and platitudes, is, alas, a familiar figure to me from other developing countries. His propensity for the general over the specific reminded me of something I had read that morning, a speech that was part of “The Draft of the SPLM Policy on Dialogue” — the party’s negotiating platform:.

These general strategic campaigns are on: General Reconciliation, General Inclusiveness or Participation, General Equity and Geographical Balance, General Appeal for All Refugees and IDPs [internally displaced people] to Return, General Cementing of Unity and General Mobilization and Organization.

To be fair, this piece contained some fascinating points about power and struggle (the jungle) and the abiding need for inclusiveness (the elephant is peace and freedom), beginning with a quote from John F. Kennedy:

Politics is a jungle torn between doing the right thing and staying in office. Whether before or after the formation of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) the SPLM must take the lead to include and involve others outside its circumference in the upcoming government and related posts.

The SPLM ought to view itself like a good hunter who goes to the forest. If he kills an elephant the animal doesn’t belong to him alone. The entire village has the right of taking knives and cutting the meat, though traditionally the hunter retains the prerogative to distribute the leg, neck, ribs, etc. to whosoever he pleases.

Yet it would be totally uncustomary for him to deny inclusiveness, sharing and participation of others in this big meal. The elephant in the SPLM context is the peace and freedoms it shall certainly bring about.

But how to do this? Who knows. The speech concluded with this:

Humans eat real bread not the metaphysical thing called peace or freedom. And so the demand to survive will continue relentlessly until physical needs are met. The damned need for satisfaction by the limited means will persist. This seriously explains how and why General Mobilization and Organization are of paramount importance.

Facing big problems with little capacity, it’s easier to stick to generalities.

What if You’re the Big Fish?

After a week, we had a two-day workshop in the dusty district capital of Rumbek. About 40 local leaders arrived on U.N. transport planes or in trucks and jeeps. We talked about how corruption undermines justice, cripples public services, and perpetuates poverty. We worked through case studies of places that had seen success in improving governance. We talked about a formula: Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability.

The participants worked hard and well. During and after dinner the first night, I moved among several tables and chatted with the participants. They freely expressed their impressions of widespread corruption in the foreign NGOs, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and the nascent agencies of the New Sudan.

The next day, the task became more practical. What should the new government of Southern Sudan do in its first year to avoid corruption? Again, group work, then report back, then a break for tea and water.

At the end we celebrated. As we mingled together in the dusk, we were tired and stimulated, drained and inspired. We ate dinner. Afterward I wandered from table to table. People were talking about government and corruption and the tasks ahead. At one table an elderly official looked at me and said, “What if one has to be the big fish?”

This term “big fish” is one we’d used throughout the seminar. An anti-corruption campaign must catch big fish, not just small fry. Otherwise, people don’t believe anything has changed.

Puzzled, I asked the official what he meant.

He inquired softly, “How did you pay for the drinks you invited us to tonight?”

I paid for them out of my own pocket.

“What if you didn’t have a deep enough pocket?”

Then I got it. His role as a leader creates expectations. He must often provide hospitality or more — help or support or subsistence. Where should he come up with the resources? Unsaid is the add-on: “without being corrupt.”

Others at the table addressed his concerns before I had to. I was grateful because I didn’t have a good answer. At the end of the conversation, all I could manage to say was that there are realities that have to be faced. Like ourselves, our starting points are always imperfect.

I related the story of one leader who had told me that he knew corruption constrained his country, but that his party’s finances were based on corruption. “If I fight this sort of corruption, I will fall, or perhaps even be killed,” he said. “How should I begin?” And I related what I said in response: Have a strategy. Do things in a sequence; don’t try everything at once. Begin with something easy to correct. Then build political support and isolate enemies. Embedded in these themes is a sad message for naive idealists: We have to begin where we are, acknowledging the imperfections in our situations and in ourselves.

I asked the official and the others at the table if that advice shocked them. Does it seem impure? Would it be better to say, “Well, if that’s what expectations are, you can’t do anything”?

They answered only indirectly. I suppose it was too abstract a question, and it was getting late. I said good night to everyone and wandered off to my tent. A partial lunar eclipse added a note of the ethereal to a day of hopes and promises, of self-examination and realities that hurt.

We Can Become a Modern Government or a Kleptocracy.

A few days later, we departed for Kenya, where the peace negotiations were going on between the Southern Sudanese leadership and the Sudanese government. We had another workshop, this time with the SPLM’s top leadership.

After a speech from Chairman John Garang — the future vice president of Sudan who was killed in a 2005 helicopter crash — and a short lecture, the participants considered an imaginary future news story I had written called “Southern Sudan’s great success.” They took turns reading the sentences aloud. At the point where it said that in the future Southern Sudan would be rated one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, someone quipped, “I don’t believe it!” and everyone laughed. At the end of the news story they applauded spontaneously. Then they had their assignment: “What is a chain of events that would get us from now to then?” Three groups were formed, and they dove in. A half-hour later it was time for lunch, but everyone continued working for a half-hour more. They were into it.

After lunch, the groups presented their results: A good start, but heavy on the usual suspects of capacity building and prevention, as if we were creating something from nothing. I gave another lecture, this one on what to do about corruption in key areas such as natural resources, roads, taxes and customs, and credit systems. Then there were questions, which turned into comments, and suddenly into revelations. Commander Pagan Amum opened floodgates with a surprising and impassioned speech.

“Our discussion has talked about preventing corruption, and we have been pretending that we have a clean slate. But I want to say right now that we are already corrupt. In fact, we are full of corruption.”

Pagan paused. The room was dead still. Pagan started illustrating.

“Let me give you an example. I led a delegation on a trip to Khartoum and got $30,000 for the expenses and so forth. I paid for the travel and the hotel and all of that. I gave $300 to someone with a health problem. Now, after the trip I have $5,000 left over. No one asks me about it. That is the way we are. But then, watch this. One day a colleague in the SPLM is after me for something else. He is angry with me, and then he raises the question in front of others, ‘Whatever happened to that $30,000?’ and I become furious with him. ‘How dare you ask me?’ I say. And this is our attitude, after all the war.”

Pagan condemned this attitude, using himself as the first object of criticism. He went on to describe how SPLA commanders get money in unorthodox ways and how they are not accountable for what they do with it. Lax or absent systems lead to corruption, Pagan said. People who collect revenue may think, “Well, I’ll take a little for myself. Then, since no one asks about it, next time I take a little more, or even all of it, and no one ever asks.”

Pagan is a brilliant talker — a winning combination of storyteller and analyst. He concluded with a challenge to his colleagues to clean up their collective act. I thought to myself: If outsiders said these things to this group, they’d be rejected and condemned. But Pagan’s speech opened windows of recognition.

Governor Deng Alor confirmed Pagan’s description, giving his own examples. The SPLM’s No. 2 man, Riak Machar, added his voice in agreement. Then Pagan concluded, “We really have two choices. We can become a modern government, with free markets and open borders and democracy. Or we can become a kleptocracy, where everyone steals. There is no middle position.”

The discussion took off. One leader asked: What will become of commanders used to autonomous authority when peace leads to rules and accountability systems? I was stunned at the boldness of his question because many of his listeners were these very commanders. Then someone got even bolder. Most SPLA leaders should be decommissioned, he said. Could they be given a kind of pension-in-advance and some other help in setting up a life outside the military? How could the movement shift from a wartime, ad hoc system of governance to one that might make possible their dreams?

The tone had shifted decisively, too — from the analytical and declaratory mode to confession and commitment.

At a subsequent meeting in Nairobi, we discussed again that scenario of future success for Southern Sudan.

Southern Sudan’s security will be bolstered by its allies, including the United States. Most SPLA leaders will be pensioned off and be helped to engage in farming and small businesses. Many ex-soldiers will be soaked up in public works and private economic activity.

People will enjoy ample communication with their leaders. Oil revenues will be transparently “locked up” in a special account on behalf of the people, audited from outside by international agencies and so to speak from below by a council of nongovernment leaders.

Excellent pay and oversight will create a cadre of highly qualified top officials. Government will be lean. No one will have to steal to feed his or her family.

Finally, people will perceive that everyone is accountable under the law, including their top leaders.

And Now?

That was almost six years ago. Now Southern Sudan is poised on the brink of independence. The challenges there are not (just) incremental ones — not just a few more roads and a few more agricultural rehabilitation projects. There is the cardinal challenge of building effective self-government. What will it take?

Pagan was right: Economic policies that emphasize openness and competition are crucial. And the participants in the 2004 workshops were right to emphasize capacity building and fighting corruption. These steps are not easy, especially in places like Southern Sudan.

But the new government and its foreign friends should also give emphasis to recommendations from our workshops.

Separate the army from government and involve former SPLA leaders in productive economic activities. Demonstrate to citizens that things have changed and they are benefiting — in particular from oil revenues and international aid. Put the fight against corruption at the center of creating a new government. Create a core of qualified, well-paid government leaders. Demonstrate that impunity is over by frying some big fish, including from the SPLM itself.

Southern Sudan faces enormous challenges, but the leaders I met were frank about the difficulties and creative about the keys to success. If they keep the heat on, they can do their people proud and make the first few years of the newest and perhaps most problematic country in the world a model for others to follow.

<p> Robert Klitgaard is a university professor at Claremont Graduate University. His eight books include Tropical Gangsters, Controlling Corruption, and High-Performance Government. A monograph version of this article, with photographs, is available here. </p>
Read More On Economics

More from Foreign Policy

The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.
The USS Nimitz and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and South Korean Navy warships sail in formation during a joint naval exercise off the South Korean coast.

America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose

Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.

A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, during a demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. People sit and walk on the grass lawn in front of the protester and barricades.

The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy

The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.

Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.
Biden dressed in a dark blue suit walks with his head down past a row of alternating U.S. and Israeli flags.

Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now

In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.
U.S. President Joe Biden is seen in profile as he greets Chinese President Xi Jinping with a handshake. Xi, a 70-year-old man in a dark blue suit, smiles as he takes the hand of Biden, an 80-year-old man who also wears a dark blue suit.

Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet

As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.