Editorial: The tragedy of South Sudan, only five years after its birth

Some of the more than 30,000 Nuer civilians sheltering in a UN base in South Sudan's capital Juba for fear of targeted killings by government forces walk by an armored vehicle and a watchtower manned by Chinese peacekeepers on July 25.
(Jason Patinkin / Associated Press)

Five years ago, the people of southern Sudan seceded from the north and established their own independent nation. At midnight on July 9, 2011, thousands of citizens of the new country flooded into the streets, dancing and singing and proclaiming their freedom.

In retrospect, perhaps they should have stayed home; their optimism has proved unfounded. Just this month, the government canceled the nation’s five-year anniversary celebrations as fighting broke out yet again between rival forces and scores of civilians were killed. That’s nothing new: Since the creation of South Sudan, tens of thousands of people have died in internecine violence and some 2 million have been displaced. A region already plagued by floods and chronic food shortages, by poverty, violence and illiteracy, and by a lack of institutions and infrastructure is now being further ravaged by tribal conflict, insurrection, graft and corruption. In South Sudan, children have been abducted to serve as soldiers, women gang-raped by army and militia members, detainees beaten and tortured. The oil industry, which once accounted for 98% of government revenue, is in steep decline.

In what seemed like a positive development, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar announced last summer that they were ending their 2-year-old civil war and resuming a power-sharing arrangement; Machar returned to the capital city of Juba in April to take up his post as vice president once again. But two months later, the tentative peace fell apart after a shootout at a checkpoint between militias.


By some accounts, conditions are worse for the people of South Sudan today than they were before independence from the Sudanese regime in Khartoum in 2011. That’s a tragedy for the people there, obviously, and also a grave disappointment for the Western and African countries that helped midwife the secession and the birth of the continent’s newest country.

In the months ahead, the international community must continue its efforts to stabilize the situation. To that end, the mandate of the United Nations peacekeeping forces should be extended, and if they’re deemed insufficient for the task, it may become necessary to deploy an additional African Union “rapid reaction force.” Once a measure of quiet has been established, the South Sudanese will have to take on the tougher job of eradicating corruption, building reliable institutions, ending patronage and depoliticizing the army.

Understandably, some observers wonder whether the current government, which has failed so miserably to date, can possibly be entrusted with those tasks. Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. special envoy to Sudan, and Kate Almquist Knopf, a former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development in South Sudan, have recently called both Kiir and Machar “irredeemably compromised” and have proposed the establishment of a U.N.-African Union mandate to administer the country for an interim period.

Meanwhile, some are arguing that Sudan’s unhappy situation ought to serve as a lesson for the United States. A recent opinion article in the Boston Globe, for instance, argued that secession was a mistake from the start, the disastrous result of an intervention into Sudanese affairs by well-meaning but clueless Americans. The article blamed lobbying by Christian missionaries and human rights activists like George Clooney as well as U.S. policymakers driven by “a misguided sense of moral idealism” rather than “a clear-eyed recognition of national security interests.” As usual, the article said, Americans failed to see the folly in their starry-eyed efforts to change the world and end suffering.

Ignorance and self-delusion certainly have gotten the U.S. in trouble over the years. American troops were not, for instance, greeted by grateful Iraqis with flowers when they arrived in Baghdad in 2003, as the George W. Bush administration apparently expected. The U.S. became bogged down in Afghanistan for a decade and a half despite accomplishing its chief goal of toppling the Taliban within weeks of the war’s start in 2001. The U.S. too often blunders overconfidently into foreign countries without clear goals, a coherent plan or an exit strategy.

Surely some of that may have been at play in Sudan and South Sudan. Yet the situation doesn’t fall neatly into that category. The move toward secession was in fact an outgrowth of a multinational effort to end Africa’s longest-running civil war. The north and the south had been shoehorned into a single country by the British in 1956 despite their overwhelming linguistic, racial, tribal and cultural differences — and the result had been half a century of violence in which more than 2 million people died in cross-border raids from the Arab north into the black African south. When a comprehensive peace agreement was finally signed with the help of the African Union and the United States, it included a provision that southerners would be allowed to vote on whether to declare independence from the north. That referendum was a particular goal not of the United States, but of the southerners themselves; the U.S. went along with it. In the end, nearly 99% of voters in the south favored secession.

Americans were not, in fact, under many illusions about the new state’s chances. In the run-up to the referendum, U.S. policymakers made it clear that the obstacles facing South Sudan were enormous and that success was not a foregone conclusion. The Times noted in a 2010 editorial that “the likelihood of a happy, prosperous, democratic southern Sudan coming into being is low.”

“Nation-building” is in disrepute these days. Just listen to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But while it makes sense to be skeptical of military adventures, to be cognizant of the obstacles that may arise abroad and to be careful about spending taxpayer dollars on lost causes (the U.S. government has poured billions of dollars in aid into South Sudan), it would be a grave mistake for the U.S. to retreat from constructive engagement with the world. South Sudan has been a terrible, tragic disappointment, but whether or not it can be fixed, the United States should not forswear its important efforts to use its vast wealth to bring peace, stability and economic development to troubled countries around the globe.

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