South Sudan is a real place with grasslands and marsh, gazelles and oil, and a woman named Nyakewa, who has three circles of sesame-seed-sized initiation scars on her face and was sitting with her children in a camp on the outskirts of a UN base near the city of Malakal when I met her in 2017. But South Sudan is also that abstraction of an abstraction, “an international intervention”—perhaps the last of its kind. It gained independence as a nation only in 2011, when it broke away from Sudan to the north, and then collapsed into civil war only two years later. At least 380,000 people have died there since, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced like Nyakewa, under the gaze of more than ten thousand UN peacekeepers and as many international advisers and development workers.
South Sudan—the size of Spain and Portugal combined, and cut off from Sudan by 50,000 square miles of marshland—was first described in detail by writers who accompanied Egyptian slave raids in the 1840s. The Egyptians discovered a territory containing perhaps two hundred separate ethnic groups, over sixty languages, and very few kings. Even the largest groups had no supreme leaders. The Nuer people, for example, lived in what the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard termed “ordered anarchy,” defined by a “lack of governmental organs…the absence of legal institutions, of developed leadership, and, generally, of organised political life.”
When Britain occupied this bewildering territory in 1899, they ran it through twenty-one district officers—generally Oxford and Cambridge graduates and university sports stars—who did not attempt to develop the country but were mainly there to open a trade route through the marshland separating north from south. They stopped Sudanese officials and Muslim missionaries from crossing the border (on the grounds of “protecting” the local people) and focused on maintaining peace through truces among the indigenous clans.
In his book First Raise a Flag, Peter Martell—a journalist who has reported from South Sudan for more than a decade—gives a flavor of what was involved, from the diaries of one of these officers in 1944:
Today I have been holding a peace ceremony…which will, I hope, prove binding. It has been held on the boundary between the tribes, and accompanied with all the traditional ceremony—slaying of white sheep, smearing bodies (including mine) with dung, and spearing the ground.
London chose to bind southern Sudan to the very different northern Sudan, however, when both regions were granted independence as one entity in 1956. The British had facilitated development and education in the north in a way that they had not in the south (which was so poor that it cost four times as much to administer as it collected in revenue). The government in Khartoum then fulfilled the fears of the district officers by imposing northern officials, institutions, the Arabic language, and, eventually, Islamic law on the non-Arab south, which was largely Christian or followed traditional indigenous religions—sparking a violent resistance from the South Sudanese clans.
The obscene horror of the fighting from 1955 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005 was inflamed at different times by American, Israeli, Ethiopian, East German, Cuban, Libyan, and Ugandan interference. Martell’s remarkable interviews with aging mercenaries and retired spies reveal how the CIA funded South Sudanese rebel groups in 1964 to destabilize a pro-Moscow regime in the Congo, while Mossad backed them in 1969 to undermine Egypt and Sudan, Israel’s enemies from the recent Six-Day War. Ethiopia became the central funder of the rebels in 1984, channeling support from East Germany, Cuba, and—inevitably—Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya in order to undermine US interests, which were then linked to Sudan. Martell’s account elegantly reinforces again and again how almost none of these violent foreign interventions were about South Sudan itself.
US sympathy for the South Sudanese grew during the 1980s, influenced by their leader John Garang, a US-trained economist and former Sudanese army officer who presented the conflict between the South Sudanese and the oppressive regime in Khartoum as a fight to defend Christians against Muslims, or black Africans against slavers, deploying different biblical verses for every denomination of American congregation. After the September 11 attacks, US national security officials—troubled by Sudan’s links to al-Qaeda—joined evangelicals (such as Billy Graham Jr.) and human rights activists (of whom the most famous was George Clooney) to back South Sudan in a coalition strong enough to draw in George W. Bush’s White House.
There was little focus on internal matters such as cattle-raids and violent clashes between two of the main ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka, or the culture of cash, crime, and murder that sustained the South Sudanese resistance leaders. Instead, American policymakers responded solemnly to Garang’s appeal to establish South Sudan as an independent nation: “If the United States could fashion a free, secular, democratic, and united society, why not [South] Sudan?”
In 2002 Congress—responding to the combined pressure from evangelicals, activists, and national security officials—appropriated $300 million for the Sudan Peace Act, and in January 2005, US pressure clinched a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. This led to a referendum in 2011, in which—to the delight of international observers—99 percent of South Sudanese voted for independence from Sudan and the tyranny of its president, Omar al-Bashir.1
By this time, billions of dollars had been deployed to support the world’s “youngest nation.” In A Rope from the Sky, Zach Vertin, who was a specialist on South Sudan in the Obama administration, describes a scene that echoes so many other international interventions: young foreigners dancing in rickety hotels with failing generators and duty-free whiskey; Lebanese entrepreneurs packing the crowded flights to Juba, the capital; local stalls selling T-shirts “emblazoned with logos of American Rotary clubs and high school lacrosse teams”; and the optimism that foreigners—including him—drew from developments such as the rollout of cell phone coverage. All this was set against what Vertin, whose long experience in and deep commitment to South Sudan made him one of the best analysts there, characterizes as “a militarized society, a bloated and unprofessional army, deep ethnic fault lines, economic torpor, financial corruption, a dangerous focus on ‘big man’ politics, and the absence of any unifying national identity.”
But South Sudan also had some advantages. The Sudanese government had conceded it almost all the country’s contested oil fields, which largely lay south of the border, leaving South Sudan with a far more impressive income stream than other fragile states, such as Afghanistan. This revenue—more than $2 billion a year—was so great that the nation became technically, almost overnight, a middle-income country. The lack of US political or economic self-interest in South Sudan may—as Vertin suggests—have led to a lack of rigorous policy analysis, but it meant that there was less suspicion and opposition in the region to the US presence. John Garang had studied in Iowa and Georgia; Manute Bol, one of the tallest players in the history of the NBA, was South Sudanese and actively campaigned for human rights and aid for refugees; and hundreds of US churches supported thousands of local projects. Furthermore, US economic power dwarfed that of South Sudan. In 1900, when Sudan was a British colony, per capita GDP in Britain was perhaps five times higher than South Sudan’s. Per capita GDP in the US in 2011 was thirty times higher, and its overall economy was nine hundred times larger.
It was shocking, therefore, how quickly things went wrong after independence in 2011. In 2012 the South Sudanese closed their oil refineries and then invaded Sudan to capture an additional field. They did so because Sudan, which controlled the oil pipelines, was demanding high payments for their use, and because the South Sudanese believed that oil was so important to the Sudan economy that the Sudanese would back down. Moreover, Sudan had allegedly been raiding South Sudan from a base at the disputed oil field. Their actions, however, did not force Sudan to capitulate. Instead, the oil shutdown wiped out South Sudan’s government revenue, sucked the country into a spiral of high-interest debt, and forced the US to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to make up the shortfall. In 2013 US intelligence was surprised again when the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, declared war on the vice-president, Riek Machar, and killed thousands of civilians from Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuer, in a single night. America tried to force peace negotiations through a combination of diplomacy, pressure, and leaks to the press, and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, made daily calls to the satellite phones of rival leaders.
But none of the deals lasted. Kiir told President Obama a blatant lie in their first meeting (dismissing as mistaken US satellite footage of illegal arms shipments to rebels in the north). He continued to wear the Stetson hat that he had been given by George W. Bush but hung up the phone when the ex-president called to plead for peace.
The central blame for the catastrophe lay with the South Sudanese elite, who bankrupted the country through corruption and mismanagement and then went to war over what remained of the state. But the US was, in Kerry’s words, “the midwife” in the birth of the new nation—its principal advocate and funder. And the US and international strategy in South Sudan—encapsulated in a development plan written under the chairmanship of the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the aid agencies of the US, Norway, and the UK, and published in the name of the South Sudanese government in 2011—was grotesquely detached from reality. It proposed, for example, that President Kiir, who had made his twelve-year-old son a 25 percent shareholder in a government contractor and overseen the ministry that had withdrawn $30 million for “office equipment” in a single month, would make “evidence-based decisions on mobilisation, equitable allocation and efficient management of resources,” develop “responsive and inclusive policies, based on transparent processes,” and drive “professional, ethical and efficient service delivery.”2
Unreal words had real consequences. Thousands of consultants were flown to Juba to realize these objectives, which underpinned hundreds of programs and channeled billions of dollars of development aid. Field officers from Western countries—who spent their days charming warlords, resisting paying bribes demanded by local officials, and debating how much food aid to allow militias to steal—were expected to foster “accountability, transparency and zero tolerance for corruption.” Education project heads were tasked with rolling out a new Education Management Information System to deliver “updated data, improved management capacity…and [allow] for a modernized payroll system,” while begging government-supported militias not to burn primary schools. Meanwhile, Washington and its allies continued to insist that peace would come from “a regional solution” devised by leaders in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda, despite the fact that these leaders were pessimistic, reluctant to engage anyone except the elite, and often profited from the ongoing conflict.
The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, though it cost thousands of lives, ultimately allowed 2.5 million more girls to go to school, health indicators to significantly improve, and millions of refugees to return home—all in the face of a fierce Taliban insurgency. In South Sudan, by contrast, after an international state-building effort lasting more than a decade, people got poorer, less educated, and less healthy; hundreds of thousands died.
No city in Afghanistan resembled what I saw in Malakal, in 2017, after it had been captured, lost, and recaptured twelve times by rival militias. On either side of the main boulevard, the houses lay in fields of weeds, their roofs stripped, every stick of furniture gone. The single market, in a truck park, held sacks of sorghum, cassava, groundnuts, and plastic toys, but there was hardly a customer. Six years earlier, the population of Malakal had been nearly 150,000 people. Now there were at most 10,000, not counting the 40,000 people living in the nearby UN refugee camp.
Contemporary historians scorn the idea that ancient British cities collapsed immediately after the departure of the Roman legions, arguing that the unraveling of urban life is always a more gradual process. Malakal suggested otherwise. As the British minister responsible for South Sudan, I wasn’t worried about how to realize the strategic objectives of establishing “clear fiscal rules which will underpin prudent fiscal management” and strengthen “expenditure control.” Instead, I was worried about the South Sudanese government’s request for us to rebuild the same building the US had financed in 2005, South Sudanese opposition forces looted and vandalized in 2013, the Japanese rebuilt in 2014, and government forces razed to the ground in 2015.
If the development strategy for South Sudan read something like a fading mission statement found in an abandoned space colony, whose occupants had all been killed in an alien attack, this was partly a reflection of how little we knew. Hardly one of the 12,000 soldiers or policemen posted by the United Nations—from more than sixty nations including Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Romania, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, and Papua New Guinea—or the thousands of consultants who worked alongside them had spent a single night in a rural Sudanese house, or could complete a sentence in Dinka, Nuer, Azande, Banda, or any of the other fifty or more languages spoken in South Sudan.
Zach Vertin was one of the exceptions—a testament to the seriousness, sense of purpose, and focus of the best American officials in the age of intervention. We might have done better with more Vertins. His eight years in South Sudan, initially as an analyst for the International Crisis Group and then as a State Department policy adviser from 2009 to 2016, took him to almost every province and allowed him to develop relationships with hundreds of South Sudanese, and his modest account in A Rope from the Sky conceals the courage he displayed in meeting with enraged militias or challenging a criminal government. His is a rare record of how humanitarian goals can be communicated—to everyone from John Kerry to George Clooney (whom Vertin briefed over drinks in a Juba bar).
Vertin avoids proposing any simple solutions, and weaves his analysis and interviews with senior leaders into the last thirty years of South Sudanese history. As we get closer to the present, he focuses not just on crucial weeks but crucial hours in the politics of the country. But his account also suggests how much even the best foreign observer can miss. It is not only that too much of the book is dominated by the intricacies of US diplomacy and accounts of long conversations with South Sudanese officials, and that too little space is given to the important role of other international players such as Norway, the UK, and the UN, or to other South Sudanese—including church congregations and women. It is also that he never brings the rural regions, which are home to most South Sudanese, to life. He notes that “a single cow can fetch 300 dollars in rural areas,” which has made cattle “a driver of violent conflict.” But he doesn’t fully communicate what these animals signify in the culture, as when he quotes Duop, a Dinka man, saying that an ox “is like a bank account filled with thousands and thousands of dollars…. It’s just like a teenager getting a sports car in America.”
The oxen culture of the rural communities of South Sudan, and the Nuer in particular, is among the most famous subjects of anthropological research in the world, largely due to the influence of Evans-Pritchard—Vertin’s distant predecessor, hired to study the region by the British authorities in the 1940s. Compare the rhetorical flair of Evans-Pritchard’s account:
From the colours, their distribution, the shape of the horns…a youth man takes…his cot thak, his ox-name…. It is the name of this ox that a man shouts out in war, hunting, dancing and leaping, and in sacrificial invocations, and by which, in one or other form he is addressed by his peers…. He composes poems about [his ox] and sings them to it…. Should the ox die he is downcast; and should he die it must be sacrificed at his mortuary ceremony.
Nuer society is, naturally, no longer the traditional society described here—not least because of decades of Kalashnikov-enabled conflict. But equally a Nuer or Dinka relationship to an ox today is quite unlike an American attachment to a Corvette or a Mustang. And while Vertin does not adequately explore these issues, South Sudan’s own development plan, drawn up in the aftermath of the 2011 referendum and still the main planning document for the country, ignores rural life almost entirely. It solemnly claims to be based on a careful study of the region and its conflicts, yet in its 400 pages there is one reference to “clan” but 125 to “accountable” and “accountability”; one reference to “the church”—which delivers many of the important public services across the country—but 141 to “sustainable” and “sustainability.” “Gun” appears twice, “governance” 180 times. The words “Nuer” and “Dinka,” “ox” and “oxen” do not appear at all.
If the international community overestimated its ability to force a peace agreement by threatening the Kenyan bank accounts of South Sudanese leaders, it may be because they could not believe that some leaders valued their oxen, and local status, more. And if the disarmament policies intensified, rather than lessened, violence, this could be because they had not understood the practice of warlords paying hundreds of armed boys to guard oxen against raids from neighboring clans. (The disarmament of one clan could just allow another clan to conduct a successful raid.)
But the basic flaw was not ignorance, because the fundamentals were impossible to miss. Any foreign diplomat or development specialist newly arrived in the country would have been able to tell you that South Sudan’s political leaders had succeeded in stealing $12 billion in oil revenue in six years. These outsiders might not have known whether a province was marsh or desert, but they knew that commitments to education and infrastructure had been flouted and the money diverted into private bank accounts. They might not have known whether there were any elephants left in the country, but they knew that almost every leading figure in the government was associated with, or had personally presided over, massacres of people.
Yet these same international officials could sit solemnly at their desks explaining how men they perceived as murdering gangsters would oversee
results-based international capacity development support strategies; mapping baselines…improving the design and effectiveness of assistance mechanisms (including development of lessons learned and best practices); ensuring a broad systems approach…and supporting the work of the [Budget Sector Working Groups].
Such words were embedded in countless strategies and frozen into mission statements. They were easy to use and difficult to argue against, and they had a lofty and optimistic tone. The officials felt better suited and trained to write about “accountability” than about the Nuer.
Similar problems occur in domestic policy in the UK and the US, of course. But officials there at least come from the culture they describe, speak its language, and report to its government. There is a limit to the claims they can make about a local school in the face of teachers, parents, inspectors, and journalists. But who is going to expose false or exaggerated claims about the future of South Sudan?
There could have been a different strategy. People with deep experience in the country, like Vertin, could have been promoted and asked to explain what they could or could not achieve with limited time. We could have drawn lessons from the fact that the same health program, with identical resources, produced flourishing clinics in Ethiopia, while in Nigeria it resulted in no sheets, medicines, or patients. We could have learned that the education program that developed successful students in Rwanda resulted in Malawi in 83 percent of children being unable to read a single syllable by first grade—and accepted that state-run education in South Sudan would be even worse than in Malawi and therefore a very poor investment. But we could still perhaps have given money to the Catholic clinics and schools that were working reasonably well in the southern province of Equatoria.
We could have focused on protection rather than development—not on making something new happen, but on preventing something worse. We might not be able to create a civil society, but we could improve protection for civilians on the perimeter of a UN camp. We might not be able to prevent food aid from being stolen by militias, but we could still provide food to their victims. And in some areas, we could even have worked with communities to slow the extermination of endangered species and habitats—and perhaps have protected a fragile cultural heritage.
But to do any of these things well (and all of them are unbelievably difficult things to do well), we would have to unlearn decades of anxiety about such programs, which are perceived as Band-Aids. We would have to stop lacerating ourselves about humanitarian support being “unsustainable” and resist the temptations, natural in a war zone, toward an insistent and unresponsive optimism (an optimism that leads even Vertin to conclude his book with a portrait of a South Sudanese NGO employee turned armed Nuer rebel commander—and to try to present him as a symbol of the hope that lies in the younger generation).
And we would have to work out how to justify such objectives. Could we write in a strategy that there was hardly a state to speak of, that the ministers were warlords, and that almost all the money had been stolen? Or that the best-case scenario would be for South Sudan in five years’ time to be a bit more like Afghanistan and a bit less like the Central African Republic? What would the media make of such statements, and would the public agree to spend their money on such a thing, particularly when it was painfully obvious that many of the problems were caused by the South Sudanese government itself? Could we justify the lives that would be lost pursuing such apparently small gains? Little wonder that instead of listing, patiently and unflinchingly, the practical steps to provide protection, humanitarian assistance, and some modest programs in health and education, the international community clung to a fantasy that South Sudan could be magically transformed through the ritual incantation of international development theory.