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Ralf Oberti for Al Jazeera America

Sudan Expert: International community enabled South Sudanese corruption

Alex de Waal discusses how South Sudan, the world’s newest country, was set up to fail.

In "South Sudan: Country of Dreams," Fault Lines investigates how the U.S. helped create the world’s newest nation, then watched it spiral into civil war.. The film airs on Monday, April 13, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.


Many experts would agree that South Sudan—the world’s newest country, officially created in July 2011—owes its existence to support from politicians, advocates and activists from outside its borders.

For almost 20 years, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) enjoyed near unwavering support in their fight against the Islamist, central government of Sudan, based in Khartoum. The SPLA was initially led by John Garang, who was educated in the U.S. but returned home to fight for a voice for southern Sudan.

But despite its oil wealth, extensive corruption plagued the fledgling democracy. Less than three years after gaining independence, the new country descended into civil war, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of its people and the displacement of almost two million.

Alex de Waal, an expert on Sudan, is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. He says that, in their intervention in Sudan, the U.S. and its international allies chose to empower the SPLA to separate from the Islamist government in Khartoum and lead a new nation in the south.  Human rights abuses and corruption were ignored and the development of a healthy civil society in South Sudan neglected, setting the stage for the humanitarian disaster now unfolding there.

We spoke to de Waal about the U.S.’s involvement in Sudan over the past two decades. An edited transcript of the conversation follows:


Fault Lines: Historically, what was the relationship between what is today Sudan and today South Sudan?

de Waal: Sudan has always been a country of extremes. If you go to Khartoum, you are in a middle income country, an enclave that is really quite prosperous, that would not be out of place in much more developed parts of the Middle East. When you go to the peripheries—you go to the South, you go to Darfur, you go to even parts of eastern Sudan—you are in some of the poorest places on the planet. And over several centuries the way that Sudan functioned as an entity was a process of those at the center exploiting the peripheries; governing them through extraction and violence, and accumulating, by their standards, really quite considerable wealth.

Is that what led to the birth of the SPLA?

The SPLA emerged out of a mutiny, in fact a series of mutinies and rebellions. Not just in South Sudan, but also in other peripheries, particularly the Nuba mountains. John Garang described it as a mob. He said we began not as a disciplined cadre of committed revolutionaries, but as a mob of people who had run to take weapons. And his challenge was to keep them together within one single political program. And he did that through coercion. He was ruthlessly centralist.

How did the U.S. and the rest of the international community get drawn into the situation in Sudan?

In the mid-1990s, two things happened: The first was that when the Sudan government under President Bashir took a very Islamist turn. They began to antagonize their neighbors. And the Ethiopians and Eritreans in particular were being actively destabilized.

The second turning point was the second Clinton administration, with Madeleine Albright as secretary of state, took a decision to support regime change by proxy. They were very concerned that the government of Sudan was hosting Osama bin Laden, was destabilizing Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda. And they saw the solution to this problem of regional destabilization as regime change.

They had no confidence that the SPLA could achieve it. But they were confident that if the SPLA were actively militarily supported by its neighbors—Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda—it could be achieved.

But the end result wasn’t a regime change. It was the creation of a new country, South Sudan.

The U.S. government was pushed into a corner by events, partly of its own making. The chief culprit for the independence of South Sudan is the government of northern Sudan. The government of President Bashir was unable or unwilling to fulfill basic promises to make unity attractive, to invest in South Sudan. The residual option, the fullback option of a vote of self-determination, including the option of independence emerged slowly over time to become the default option.

Was this something that was aided by figures in the U.S. who painted the north as evil?

There were many groups which were involved in the campaign for Sudan in the United States. In the early 1990s, it was really a handful of liberal human rights groups and the churches. And the churches were instinctively secessionist. They basically saw the Southern Sudanese as being a Christian community that was entitled to its own country. But there were many Christians in the north as well, so the churches themselves were also divided about this. They were also fearful if the south should secede what should happen to the Christians in the north. The more liberal groups were interested in all of Sudan.

What caused people in the U.S. to be so attached to the plight of people in Sudan?

The cause of the southern Sudanese is so manifestly just. These are people who have suffered extraordinary hardship. Extraordinary wrongs over many generations. And it is very easy to sympathize and to empathize with their suffering, and to want to support them in everything they can do to be freed from this atrocious oppression, war, disease and famine. And so aid agencies, missionary groups were very, very eager to assist.

The leadership of South Sudan got accustomed to being indulged, to being treated with kid gloves and even to getting away with murder.

Alex de Waal

executive director, World Peace Foundation

But the Sudanese story got reduced to a very simple moral narrative. Instead of the real complexities of Sudan in which good and bad are not to be found simply on one side or the other, it was reduced to a very, very simplified script. And that sort of simplified moral script makes a very bad policy.

And how did it affect policy?

Once the Clinton administration had adopted a policy of regime change by proxy, many activist groups jumped on this bandwagon. It suddenly became an opportunity for aid groups, for example, because a lot of aid now began pouring into South Sudan. Before 1997, the aid was strictly monitored because everybody knew the SPLA was stealing it. After 1997 the U.S. government was giving a lot of aid directly to the SPLM and SPLA and its institutions.

Even though they knew that SPLA commanders had stolen aid money before?

The policy was to support the SPLA, SPLM, to overthrow the government in Khartoum. And in order for it to do that it needed to build up its institutions, it needed to become credible and legitimate.

Why this blind support for the SPLA?

The SPLA was supposedly, if not the next government of the united Sudan, a major component of that. Now why did the U.S. government want that? In the mid-1990s, Sudan was the global hub of jihadism. It hosted Osama bin Laden. It hosted the men who tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June of 1995. And understandably, the U.S. government wanted it gone. Indeed, after the Al Qaeda bombings of the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, they actually launched cruise missiles against Khartoum. So it is understandable that Clinton wanted this regime gone.

So was this a turning point in the way the U.S. approached Sudan and the South Sudanese people?

It was a critical turning point. And almost everything that has happened since has followed from that, including practical moral, political support to the SPLA, including a host of measures intended to isolate and weaken Khartoum.

And even though events have changed—Khartoum stopped supporting terrorism, Khartoum signed peace agreements, the SPLA did not turn out to be a force democracy and human rights—once that policy had been set, it was very, very difficult to change. Once that policy had been set, there was a host of very loud, clamorous activists groups that made it impossible for the US to change its policies.

Who were these activist groups? Who were they and why did they become so influential?

The activists groups are an extraordinarily broad and bipartisan coalition. They range from the religious right and numerous religious groups, including the mainstream churches and their supporters, to liberal human rights activists, to in a discrete way, the Israeli lobby. And it's very rare for these groups that are represented in both the U.S. parties and all corners of the political spectrum to find a place on which they can cooperate. And so it is an area in which leading figures in Congress and the administration, successive administrations, have invested.

Can you give me some examples of how they made it difficult to change course?

In demonizing Khartoum, one of the side-effects was to promote the SPLA as heroes and as angels. They were neither of those things. The human rights record of the SPLA throughout the entire war has at no time been any better than the human rights record of the Sudan government. And those who advocated on behalf of the SPLA knew it, they knew it perfectly well. What distinguished the two was that the cause of the SPLA had a strong element of justice. These people were fighting for equality, they were fighting against an entrenched system that was oppressive and violent.

And their leader John Garang spoke the language of equality, of democracy, of freedom. Now, other liberation movements around the world, take the ANC of Nelson Mandela, have insisted that they should hold themselves to a higher moral standard than their adversaries. They will not sink to the level of the oppressor. They will behave better. they will have deeply entrenched principles of human rights, during the struggle, they will not postpone morality, freedom, progress until they win. Not the SPLA, and the "International Friends of the SPLA.” Instead of holding the SPLA to a higher standard than its adversary, forgave it its crimes because of the perceived justice of its cause. They held it to high esteem but to low standards.

And the SPLA leadership became accustomed to those low standards. The members of that leadership believed they could get away with gross abuses of human rights, of breaking agreements, of fixing elections, or behaving atrociously, because they were the good guys. And there were many in Washington who allowed them to get away with that.

They never criticized the South, the southern leadership?

After the outbreak of the war in South Sudan, when units of the presidential guard of president Salva Kiir were going around the city of Juba, killing selectively members of another ethnic group, the Nuer. The response of the Washington advocates headed by the likes of George Clooney, was to say and write things such as, "This is the opportunity for President Kiir to exercise leadership and make peace and be more inclusive."

Ralf Oberti for Al Jazeera America

Now imagine if President Bashir's presidential guard had gone around Khartoum, killing hundreds of opponents on an ethnic basis, they would not have been saying the same things about them.

This naivety on the part of Americans extended more broadly into their approach to South Sudanese leaders after Garang's death in 2005, as well?

In the years after John Garang's death, the same indulgence was extended to the South Sudanese leadership. The elections of 2010 were fraudulent in the South. Not much doubt about that. And indeed the referendum of January 2011—there are very, very few places in the world you could get a vote of 99 percent, and Western countries and democracy advocates would be applauding it. Most of them would be looking, more carefully they'd be saying, "There must be something fishy here."

In the post-independence period, the government of South Sudan took the extraordinary decision to shut down its entire national oil supply during a dispute with northern Sudan. Now there's no question that northern Sudan was misbehaving. But when a country has 98 percent of its government budget in one source of revenue, which is oil, to shut that off in its entirety is surely an act of total irresponsibility. And yet, that decision was not criticized.

Why this fear? Why this tip-toeing around criticism?

I'm guessing that when people identify personally with a cause, they can very easily lose their objectivity, and they can end up believing both in the intrinsic goodness of the people who are their friends and in holding their friends to different standards than those who are their enemies. And I think this is what happened.

There was a lot of groupthink involved. The leadership of South Sudan got accustomed to being indulged, to being treated with kid gloves and even to getting away with murder.

And this continued after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 between the SPLA and the Bashir government?

The relationship between the international aid community and South Sudan after the peace agreement was a bit like an abusive relationship. The government had its own money and could do what it wanted and it was not interested in the welfare of the kids. The aid donors were feeding the children, they were providing medical care, it was also supporting education. And they had to put up with the abuse because they knew that if they pulled out the government would not take care of the kids.

The United States government and the advocates were so determined that South Sudan would be a success that the option of failure was never seriously considered.

Would you go so far as to say that figures in the U.S., in the government and in the advocacy community bear some responsibility for the utter destruction and violence that has happened?

I think when the advocates for South Sudan, both inside the government and outside the government, reflect on the role they've played over the last 20 years, they need to ask themselves some very, very searching questions about their own responsibilities for enabling the South Sudanese political, military elite to construct such a profoundly corrupt and abusive system of government. It's really quite shocking.

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