What Went Wrong in South Sudan

A woman walking through the landfill where she lives, Juba, South Sudan, 2010
Stefano De Luigi/VII/Redux
A woman walking through the landfill where she lives, Juba, South Sudan, 2010

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…

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