The Old Guard Are Killing the World’s Youngest Country
South Sudan was born amid great hope but has since descended into war. It will take a new generation of leaders to make it a successful state.
WAAT, South Sudan—“Jeck,” a voice calls from inside the mud-and-thatch hut. I recognize the pronunciation of my name—it’s close enough—and the voice. “My friend, Jeck,” the man says again. Ducking and then emerging through the door of the hut is a handsome face atop a large angular frame. At 6 feet, 8 inches tall—with broad shoulders and long arms—Koang (pronounced Kong) has a smile so wide it could span the Nile. We slap shoulders and then hands, in the Sudanese way, and then embrace.
It’s the summer of 2016, and I’ve returned to South Sudan, where two years of civil war have shattered the promise of the world’s newest state. I’ve come to speak with South Sudan’s elites and its ordinary citizens, with those perpetuating conflict and those who want nothing to do with it—hoping to revisit the country’s failure in a new light.
I haven’t seen Koang since the night we first met, in 2009, but the memory of our first conversation prompted me to seek him out again. Koang has come of age since I saw him last, and I am confident he will offer a different perspective on where his country has been, and where it is going.
“It’s been what, seven years?” I ask Koang. “Yes, long time Jeck,” he says, laughing. “You have been so lost”—a favorite expression in South Sudan when you haven’t seen someone in a long time. “But now you are found.”
When I first met Koang, South Sudan was a little more than halfway through a trial period in which its entire future was at stake. In 2005, an internationally backed peace deal had ended Sudan’s long civil war; the country’s southern region, among the most marginalized and underdeveloped places on earth, had been embroiled in conflict with repressive governments in Khartoum for half a century.
Koang’s people had battled not only racial and cultural subjugation, but hunger, disease, and displacement. They had lost a generation of sons and daughters to violence, and those who survived had been denied services, opportunity, or any real voice in their own government. They had been treated as outsiders, trapped inside an arbitrary colonial border with scant hopes of improving their lot.
The landmark peace accord established a semi-autonomous government in the South in 2005, and slated a referendum on South Sudanese independence for 2011. Finally, South Sudanese citizens would have a chance to determine their own political destiny. A trial period would attempt to bridge chasms between Sudan’s North and South by transforming the government, devolving power, developing marginalized areas, and sharing the country’s abundant oil wealth. The goal was to “make unity attractive,” and thereby retain a united Sudan. But it also offered Southerners an opt-out clause: If a more perfect union could not be forged during this peace period, the South would be entitled to secede.
The ensuing six years were extraordinarily volatile, shaped by a dizzying mix of political dynamics and dangerous brinkmanship. Less than halfway through the period, the writing was on the wall—South Sudan was going to vote for independence, come hell or high water. Despite the talk of preserving a union with Sudan, most Southerners were simply counting the days until they could bid their Northern oppressors farewell.
The year I met Koang, I was traveling throughout the Upper Nile region doing research on local armed conflicts. Koang was in his late twenties and doing what many of the most educated and capable youth around him did—working for a U.N. agency or international nongovernmental organization. “He’s a diamond in the rough,” his supervisor had told me. “Just go have a chat with him.”
Koang was born in 1978, the eldest of six, in the predominantly Nuer town of Akobo. After several years being trained as a child soldier in the youth wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), he made his way to a refugee camp in Kenya, then on to pursue studies in Nairobi. He returned to South Sudan in 2005, married a Dinka woman with whom he had two children, and began working for a local NGO, and later, the United Nations.
Koang and I convened outside a local shack of a restaurant and ordered sodas as the sun set behind a grove of thorn trees. He eased into a discussion about intercommunal violence—the breakdown of traditional authority, the proliferation of weapons, the ways young men thought about their roles in the community. He talked in specifics—policy solutions, training programs, tools to begin repairing a social fabric shredded by war—then placed these issues in a larger context, discussing the kinds of institutional changes he thought would enable his community to overcome the past and prepare itself for an independent future. The conversation was more creative and wide-ranging than any I’d had in recent weeks—most with individuals two or three times Koang’s age.
I asked how he might turn his ideas into political action. “Why not run for county commissioner or a seat in the state legislature?” I said. Wearing a slightly pained smile, he dismissed the notion. “It’s not yet my turn.” Two hours of ideas and enthusiasm were suddenly blunted by an unimpeachable deference to the so-called liberation generation. Comrades Salva Kiir, Riek Machar, and the commanders who had led the fight against Khartoum were a venerated class. Buoyed by a sense of entitlement, the leaders of the South’s new government ruled from the top down, dictating terms while enjoying official perks as payback for “the struggle.”
This deference to a military elite was an understandable legacy, and one that could not be fully appreciated by an outsider. But it was also undermining this soon-to-be nation, as many of the ex-generals were ill-equipped to build an administrative state. “Koang—he’s the perfect example of both the promise, and the wasted opportunity, of a generation,” his supervisor lamented.
There were many others like Koang, rising stars who honored the struggle but whose minds were trained on the next set of challenges. One could imagine them working, debating, and building institutions in these critical formative years, save for these complicated notions of debts owed. The only recourse, it seemed, was to await generational change, when the aging commanders would die or go of their own choosing.
Two years after Koang and I first met, he and his fellow South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to secede, and on July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan declared its independence. The euphoric birth of the world’s newest state was celebrated around the world. “A proud flag flies over Juba,” declared U.S. President Barack Obama, “and the map of the world has been redrawn.”
But the honeymoon did not last long. South Sudan came undone just two years later, when its liberation heroes turned their guns on each other, plunging the new nation back into chaos.
Today, South Sudan remains mired in conflict. Hundreds of thousands are dead, and more than 4 million have been displaced. The same group of men continue to battle over a government devoid of legitimacy, and the country’s once special relationship with the United States has been all but erased. How did South Sudan’s story of triumph go so horribly wrong?
A proper political autopsy starts with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political arm of the SPLA, and it begins not with the onset of war in 2013, or with independence in 2011. It requires going back further, to the origins of the movement. And it requires insights from its leaders, from their most ardent critics, and from ordinary South Sudanese.
To each of my interlocutors, I posed the question: Why did the SPLM fail? Three answers emerged. None is new, but each has gained depth as a result of time, critical distance, and the re-ordering of the country’s political landscape. And until these dynamics helped set the country aflame in December 2013, when a long-simmering feud between the SPLM’s leaders boiled over, many of the party’s foreign friends had either ignored them or were entirely in the dark.
First, John Garang, the ambitious and charismatic leader of the SPLM, built a liberation movement that was highly militaristic, but that lacked political orientation—and a political architecture. Conscious of the internal divisions that had beset earlier rebellions, Garang resolved to maintain unity by keeping a firm and singular grip on power. Supporters argue that Garang’s vision was democratic, and that his forceful rule was a temporary means to a lasting end. But critics don’t buy it.
Decision-making structures within the SPLM were a “glittering facade,” one argued, behind which Garang directed the movement “alone and unquestioned … while at the same time hoodwinking the world” into believing it was a democratic organization. Garang’s untimely death, in a 2005 helicopter crash, nearly derailed the Southern cause. One former American diplomat with inside knowledge of the movement observed that Garang hadn’t been “building up anything inside the country. He felt he could do that later.… So when he died, there was nothing left.”
A second essential consideration is the party’s lack of a meaningful connection with its own population. For all its Marxist rhetoric, the SPLM was no “people’s” movement—it did little to cultivate the civilian population in furtherance of its own revolutionary cause, and neither people nor economic or social development were ever at the center of its agenda. Worse yet, when the SPLM and SPLA didn’t get what they needed from external sources, they preyed on their fellow South Sudanese, sowing division and resentment among many communities.
The third and most immediate cause of South Sudan’s collapse was party factionalism. Garang’s death in 2005 sparked a vicious battle for the inheritance of the SPLM. The conflict that erupted in 2013 is often misunderstood as the product of a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and deposed Vice President Riek Machar. But an accurate rendering of the SPLM crisis, and the war it ignited, requires a wider lens. While individual positions and alliances shifted with time and circumstance, at least three factions vied for control throughout an eight-year stretch from 2005 to 2013, each maneuvering for influence under the banner of the SPLM.
The party soap opera would play itself out before and after independence, all the while eroding internal trust and coherence. From the outside, the SPLM may have appeared coherent—its symbols, flag, and rhetoric distracting from the cancer within. But in this toxic atmosphere, governance suffered; the SPLM could hardly advance a coherent vision or deliver on a development agenda amid the constant tug of war.
Any reckoning with the failures of the SPLM, and South Sudan more broadly, must also ask questions about the role of the West—and the United States in particular. Beginning in the 1980s, a small group of SPLM backers in Washington helped Garang assemble a diverse and bipartisan coalition that would grow to have an outsize, and arguably unprecedented, impact in shaping U.S. foreign policy.
The coalition mobilized popular support for the South’s freedom fighters, punished the Sudanese government for its abuses, and engineered legislation to aid the Southern cause. Bite-size messages helped solidify a narrative about Sudan’s war—North versus South, Arab versus African, Islam versus Christianity, and of course abuse: slavery, racism, and the domination of helpless and hungry victims. The themes were based in reality, as no one could deny the horrors being perpetrated against Sudan’s marginalized people. But the complexities of the war and Sudan’s turbulent postcolonial experience were smudged out.
With a Washington consensus established, the SPLM lobby was fashioning solutions with little resistance. Scores of members of Congress, advocates, and journalists piled on, excoriating an oppressive Islamist government and extolling the virtues of a freedom-loving Christian underdog. It was easy to score points, and there were essentially no consequences to joining the righteous chorus.
This phenomenon was possible precisely because Sudan was not China, or Russia, or Iran, or the Middle East. This was Africa, and it was far away. Sudan didn’t concern energy, or nuclear weapons, or strategic defense. Had the stakes been higher, or had matters of geopolitical import been at hand from a U.S. perspective, Washington’s policy might have been shaped by a more diverse and rigorous debate, one that reflected the complexity of Sudan’s crisis and its range of political constituencies. But Sudan simply didn’t matter enough.
The plight of South Sudan’s people had helped earn the SPLM many supporters in the West—and it was a righteous cause. But supporters failed to grasp the consequences of adopting their cause with such singularity and zeal. Firmly in the corner of the “good guys,” many willfully ignored the worrisome trends taking root in South Sudan. In time, the rebel vanguard became accountable not to the South Sudanese people, but to a constituency of Western supporters too ready to back them at any price.
Over more than two decades, this uncritical embrace, simple moral narrative, and sentimental attachment created a moral hazard. “We lost objectivity,” one repentant champion of the partnership told me in 2016. “You can become close to someone but still be a tough friend … we were never a tough friend.”
The making and unmaking of South Sudan warrants a hard look at where national and international actors had gone wrong. But in the wake of the country’s collapse, some critics and commentators went beyond criticizing failures to suggest the conflict was evidence that South Sudan should never have become independent in the first place. This was a lazy argument, and failed to appreciate the region’s history, context, and likely alternative to secession.
In 2011, had the citizens of what was then southern Sudan been denied their hard-won referendum, a new and larger war with Khartoum would most likely have ensued. With two armies on high alert, each better armed than they were a decade earlier, another civil war would have come at horrific human cost, and may have drawn in the entire region.
But there was more to consider than the immediate circumstances of 2011. South Sudan seemed as clear a case as any of a people being denied a chance to determine their own political destiny—a right long enshrined by the community of nations. It was hard to see the rationale for forcing Southerners to remain with their oppressors inside one giant and tumultuous state. South Sudan’s transition to self-government would inevitably be rocky, but separation seemed to offer a better opportunity than another half-century of violence in a country that had never treated Southerners as citizens.
South Sudan’s liberators failed to make good on a golden opportunity, squandering both international goodwill and the kind of oil revenues many states would kill for. The country’s African and Western backers need to engage in some serious soul-searching, having helped deliver independence and then left the fragile project dangerously unfinished. But the suggestion that South Sudan would have been better off remaining within an unreformed Sudan—or that its violent collapse was inevitable—is narrow thinking.
Independence was not inherently a mistake. The more pertinent critiques are those of expectations, and of execution. With so much focus consumed in securing sovereignty itself, the territory’s leaders—and their international backers—did too little to prepare the political, social, and economic foundations for a viable state.
On that summer day in 2016, Koang sat against the back of his hut in Waat, the light coming through the door projecting a perfect shadow on the wall behind him. Outside, his bodyguards sat on the ground with their Kalashnikovs, elbows resting on bent knees, and pass a yellow jerrycan of water. Koang and I discussed the war, the peace process, and his own future, including the decisions now making his gut churn.
Koang served as county commissioner in his native Akobo until 2014, when the war forced even the most progressive leaders to choose sides. He was dismissed by Juba after throwing his lot in with the predominantly Nuer opposition, but was in 2016 serving in a shadow leadership position in Bieh State, where huge swaths of Nuer territory remained outside Juba’s control, their citizens estranged from a government they did not trust.
“What is needed, above all, is leadership that can facilitate reconciliation,” Koang argued, but he doubts the men that have so defined his country’s divisions—and its warped politics of privilege—are up to the task.
“There are other young people in South Sudan that have influence now in their communities,” he added, confident that he and his generation can change things if they find a way to organize. “People who also think things must be done differently.”
He’s right, there are others like him, and he thinks they may be growing in number, as the war may have finally opened a crack in the generational ceiling. Koang mimicked the conversation he envisioned having with them: “Now, young people of South Sudan, what is the way forward? What do we do? How do we organize for elections? How do we sell our ideas?”
Later, Koang returned to ideas about flipping South Sudan’s top-down power structure on its head. From productivity incentives to tax collection to local resource management, he outlined a system that could return some of the disproportionate focus on Juba to states and local communities. But there are risks in confronting the old guard with such transformative ideas, and young people like Koang are in a precarious position. Outside of government, there are few livelihoods, opportunities for advancement, or platforms for civic participation. If he pushes an agenda that challenges the status quo, the powers that be will simply shuffle him out of government.
“It is difficult, a sacrifice, you know? You will live in a tukul like this,” he said, pointing with a raise of his brow to his modest mud hut, “while some of your colleagues are building more stories onto their houses.” Some of his friends in government have been co-opted, suppressing their feelings about what they know is wrong, Koang said, in exchange for personal gain. He himself has no doubt toyed with the idea of selling out, and his speaking aloud about it feels like a way to affirm his decision, and maybe create some accountability by saying it to another.
I returned to the conversation Koang and I began seven years ago about generational change, outlining the options I sensed were on his mind: leave; stay and be co-opted; or find a third way—to change it.
As he’d outlined during our hours of conversation, leadership is arguably the most important ingredient in his young country’s success. Who is he, then, if he picks up and leaves now? That, he insisted, would be a kind of betrayal of both his people and his ideals. “I am caught between,” he said.
There are no easy answers in South Sudan. It is hard—and in many ways, too early—to draw conclusions about the country’s fate. The task of forging a viable state will continue, even though the country is now worse off than it was on the occasion of its euphoric birth. But that doesn’t mean that popular self-determination, and the realization of independence, were mistakes in and of themselves. The story of South Sudan is one of triumph, and one of despair; but above all, it is an unfinished story, and one that need not end in tragedy.
“Do you have any hope?” I asked Koang two years later, in the spring of 2018, upon reaching him on his satellite phone. South Sudan’s conflict had evolved but persisted, and the prospects for peaceful transition remained in doubt.
The telephone line was scratchy, but after missing his first few words, I heard Koang’s voice come through again. “That things have fallen apart is not the end of everything. … All this will end, and we shall pick these things up to move our country forward.”
This excerpt has been abridged and adapted from the book A Rope from the Sky: The Making and Unmaking of the World’s Newest State.