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saving south sudan doc

The Bog Barons

This is chapter five of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus-word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. We will release a new chapter daily, but you can skip ahead and

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, South Sudan Legislative Assembly Speaker James Wani Igga, and Deputy Speaker Daniel Awet Akot pay respects at the grave of late southern Sudanese rebel leader John Garang in Juba, South Sudan, on May 21, 2010. AP Photo/Pete Muller

The bottom half of South Sudan was at one time known as Equatoria. Its boundaries, which are more or less the same today as they have always been, are partially demarcated by the Sudd—or “Barrier.” Water originating in the White Nile takes almost a year to flow into these flatlands, creating a swamp that in the rainy season swells to the size of Alabama. This marshland is the scene of Africa’s biggest and least documented wildlife migration and one of its largest concentrations of crocodiles, giraffes, hippos, elephants, and kobs, as well as more than 400 species of birds.


In the rainy season, the humans who live here cling to swampy islands. These pastoralists move with the seasons; as rain gives way to drier conditions, they continue to follow the water, returning to their villages on the high ground as the rainy season approaches once again. They live in small family groups that fish, herd cattle, grow crops, and hunt, blending almost seamlessly with the ecology of the land. They are part of the approximately quarter of a billion Africans who reside in the Guinea Savanna, an area of 1.5 million square miles that covers portions of 25 countries—a vast ecosystem more than half the size of the United States.

As history has proved, humans who live like this tend to attract a strange breed of interlopers. Since its “discovery,” a series of peculiar men with various agendas have tried to “save” South Sudan. This includes its native-born, and perhaps increasingly so.

Dinka and Nuer tribesmen have composed the majority of the rebel groups operating in the area since the First Sudanese Civil War began in the 1950s. In the late 70s, following what basically amounted to an 11-year ceasefire, the Second Sudanese Civil War erupted for much of the same reasons it had in the 50s. But this time all of those problems had quite literally been doused in gasoline. By the mid 2000s, both sides had fought each other to a bloody draw.

By the time US President George W. Bush was elected, Sudan had become a geopolitical quagmire: The crisis in Darfur was boiling over, and the country was at risk of widespread and violent unrest. Years before, the plight of those in southern Sudan had been directly pressed upon Bush by the Evangelical right (many of whom wanted to arm Christian rebels in the south in an effort to protect them from the Muslim Sudanese government). This led Bush to appoint a special envoy to Sudan in late 2001, with the goal of helping to find a peaceful solution to the Sudanese government’s “brutal and shameful war against its own people.” With 2005’s ceasefire and Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the envoy’s mission seemed to have achieved great diplomatic success.


For Bush it had been a no-brainer, a “legacy item” on his foreign-policy bucket list, according to the Atlantic. But for the bipartisan congressional coalition known as the Sudan Caucus, what happened in 2005 was the long-term payoff of 20-plus years spent trying to convince three administrations to take Sudan seriously. Years of whittling away had finally carved a path toward South Sudanese independence, with borders that included 75 percent of unified Sudan’s oil supply.

Bush’s more diplomatic approach was a contrast to Bill Clinton’s hard-line stance on the Sudanese government, which in the mid 90s had sheltered Osama bin Laden and members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad as they operated out of Khartoum. In 1996, three years after the first World Trade Center bombing and one year after Bin Laden and company’s thwarted assassination attempt on Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, the Sudanese government caved to intense international pressure and expelled the terrorist network. Bin Laden and his cohorts moved their operations to Afghanistan and Pakistan—and we all know what happened next.

Meanwhile, after two decades of leading rebel forces in the south, John Garang and his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A) were instrumental in brokering 2005’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Two weeks after the agreement was signed and Garang was sworn in as the president of the now autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS), he died in a helicopter crash. The official line was that the chopper had gone down in bad weather, though conspiracy theories naturally circulated.


After Garang’s death, Salva Kiir took over the leadership of the SPLM. Kiir, a Dinka from Warrap, had fought with the Anyanya separatist army during the First Sudanese Civil War; in later years with the SPLM/A, he’d served as Garang’s trusted second-in-command. With 93 percent of the vote, he was elected in 2010 as the man to see South Sudan through the following year’s referendum, in which 98.8 percent of the public voted to secede from the north. It was a mandate all around. With his leadership Kiir brought deep religious fervor, likening, on the GoSS website, his realization of Garang’s dream to “Biblical Joshua who took the mantle of leadership from Moses just as the Israelites were on the verge of entering Canaan and capably established the then fugitives in the Promised Land.”

Kiir, a big man with a big personality, is proud of his military heritage and 22 years of combat. When the war ended, he made it a point to keep his “bush beard.” During a 2006 visit to the White House, Bush gave Kiir a cowboy hat that seemingly hasn’t left his head since. He quickly took to wearing the Stetson during state visits, public appearances, and even during the signing of South Sudan’s declaration of independence.

Kiir’s detractors say that he likes to drink, has anger-management problems, and is paranoid—understandable personal flaws for a man whose main occupation for two decades consisted of unrepentant violence and the management of constantly shifting tribal divisions. But this demeanor is a major issue for a politician charged with uniting a war-torn nation.


On Saturday, July 9, 2011, the interim constitution was signed and South Sudan was officially a sovereign nation-state. Kiir and his vice president and SPLM/A comrade Riek Machar walked side by side in front of a who’s who of African old-school dictators, strongmen, and democratically elected leaders. Among those cheering the country into birth were Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni; Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, the longest-serving ruler in Africa; Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa; Meles Zenawi, the prime minster of Ethiopia; Equatorial Guinea’s oil-rich strongman, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue; and Omar al Bashir of Sudan, a man indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in 2010.

But jubilee soon gave way to logistical concerns like feeding people and printing stamps (which the South Sudanese government bungled on numerous occasions). The UN reported that in 2012 approximately $763 million in aid was required to keep the country afloat. USAID provided an additional $323 million in 2013 but found it difficult to operate due to “insecurity, bureaucratic harassment of relief organizations, logistical challenges, and Government of the Republic of South Sudan–imposed restrictions.” A tidal wave of good intentions and donor money flooded into South Sudan as the White Nile flooded its marshlands, but the situation was already looking hopeless.

Even with a billion dollars to spend, the 22 different agencies that make up the United Nations Mission in South Sudan found it difficult to gain a foothold in the region, noting that “the challenges facing the world’s newest state are overwhelming in both scale and complexity. State structures have only just been established, and delivery systems across all sectors are either absent or dysfunctional. Corruption impacts virtually all levels of Government, and accountability mechanisms, where they exist, have failed to deter misuse and mismanagement of public resources. In the absence of broad-based political and social-cultural mechanisms for resolving disputes, violent conflict remains a day-to-day problem.”


For 2014, the UN earmarked $924,426,000 to deal with South Sudan’s exponentially growing problems. This was the projected yearly cost for 8,000 uniformed military and police peacekeepers, pay for various forms of governance, and relief from the humanitarian disasters that continued to plague the new country on a disturbingly regular basis. In March 2014, the UN put out an urgent appeal for an additional $1.27 billion to be in place by June to help contain the regional chaos running rampant through South Sudan, Central African Republic, and other countries in the region. The UN estimates that as many as 3.2 million South Sudanese could be in dire need of help, which will undoubtedly impact neighboring nations as refugees continue to flee their homes.

George W. Bush and Salva Kiir in the Oval Office on January 5, 2009. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

A wide assortment of NGOs, all with their own agendas, flocked to South Sudan in the lead-up to the 2011 referendum. At last count, in 2010, there were some 150 international NGO groups officially registered in the region. All of them spent lots of money on hiring locals and working on varied ways to improve the new nation. Today most have fled, pulling out their expat employees and leaving their vehicles and equipment behind for looters.

In August 2011, GoSS commissioned a report from the Joint Donor Team, an aid organization that helped the government hash out a national budgetary plan based on projected oil revenues, which according to the IMF make up 98 percent of GoSS’s national revenue, compared with 57 percent of the earnings of Sudan’s government.


The result was a five-year, 413-page operating manual for South Sudan that showed oil revenue already peaking in 2011 and then dramatically decreasing until completely tapping out. This blip of shortsighted income, combined with expected population growth and a current national poverty rate of about 50 percent, didn’t make for the most carefully considered financial plan. But many of the people appointed to run the country were former bush fighters and their relatives and friends. Some were educated; many were not. National, regional, and local governments, tribal leaders, and businessmen all looked to exploit this short-lived environment of rejuvenated optimism.

Buried within that 413-page operating plan was a startling statistic: The total value of all South Sudan’s 3.5 billion barrels of oil that would be pumped out of the ground over the next two decades would net only an estimated $38 billion. And once it was gone, that was it.

While fleshing out their 2014 budget, South Sudanese officials estimated that they needed $4 billion just to run the government’s day-to-day operations. They only managed to scrounge up $2.2 billion, as the rest had already been pledged to oil fees, external debt, and infrastructure commitments.

The August 2011 operating plan was based on the optimistic idea that oil would flow smoothly and swiftly into Port Sudan in the north and the two countries would work together to export oil and share the profits. In January 2012, however, Sudan and South Sudan came to an impasse regarding pipeline-usage fees. The pipelines were promptly shut off, along with South Sudan’s primary source of income. The borders were closed to trade. Kiir accused Sudan’s government of stealing $815 million in South Sudanese crude oil out of retribution. Kiir and Machar, paunchy politicians who were once lean bush fighters, rattled off their grievances in Juba and lobbed threats at Khartoum. But the strain rapidly felt by both sides was too much to bear, and in September 2012 it was agreed that the pipeline would be reopened.


On May 3, 2012, less than a year after South Sudan had opened for business, Kiir sent what he has since claimed was a private letter to more than 75 senior-level politicians and government officials, accusing them of stealing $4.2 billion in state funds. He demanded that they pay it back and gave them instructions to deposit it, oddly enough, in a special bank account set up in Kenya by GoSS.

Although Kiir insisted that he and only one other member of his cabinet had access to this letter, the Associated Press obtained it in early June. While this incident was on a much larger scale, the vanishing funds echoed an earlier snafu in 2006, when Arthur Akuien Chol, the provisional government’s finance minister, was dismissed after being accused of mishandling a $60 million grant from Sudan to establish basic civil functions. He subsequently implicated SPLM’s secretary general, Pagan Amum Okech, to whom Chol says he was instructed to give half of the $60 million.

So where did the money go this time? Nobody knew. And Kiir thought it best that these accusations of theft and corruption be kept quiet, lest they tear the government apart. One person who was very curious about where the money went was Machar, and he was determined to get to the bottom of the scandal. This curiosity would soon become a major point of contention with Kiir.

The three main things the money was supposed to be going toward were hiring soldiers and government employees, paving roads, and building a strategic grain reserve. But while Kiir’s accusatory letter polarized his nascent government, there still hadn’t been much—if any—progress on building infrastructure, even though thousands of former rebels and relatives were on the government’s payroll.


By June 2013 the oil pipelines had been shut down yet again. This time Sudan accused Juba of supporting rebels who had been fighting against Khartoum. South Sudan denied the charges, but that did nothing to get the oil flowing again.

“Oil-rich” South Sudan was, in fact, a debtor nation that had borrowed around $500 million from other countries: $100 million from the Qatar National Bank and another $100 million from Johannesburg-based Standard Bank Group, for starters. By September 2013, the IMF had promised another $50 million. Rumors began to circulate that the US was shoveling funds into South Sudan to prop up Kiir’s government. In November 2013, as the South Sudanese claimed that they could not afford to pay civil servants, various media outlets reported that the country was in the hole for as much as $4.5 billion, which had been borrowed from an assortment of commercial banks.

South Sudan was quickly following the path of Sudan, whose economy was $41.5 billion in debt, with 87 percent of that in arrears, according to the World Bank. But it had taken a century for things to go this pear-shaped in the north. South Sudan was just over two years old, and it controlled most of the oil. There was no acceptable excuse or explanation for this sort of rampant malfeasance, yet no one was claiming any sort of responsibility. Quite simply, South Sudan was a basket case.

Outside of oil, outside of the hard cash flowing through the fingers of a rapaciously incompetent and crony-laden government, what is the real economy of South Sudan? Nothing, really. The everyday citizens of South Sudan live hand-to-mouth, planting crops when the rains come; looking after their herds of cows, goats, and sheep; building their homes from natural materials; and spending their meager disposable income on the odd plastic chair, T-shirt, or phone card. All the while, they cling fast to the hope that gunfire and indiscriminate murder won’t once again negate their hard work overnight.


The sad truth is that the only business that South Sudan truly knows is war, and even then it’s not so good at it. Even though the SPLM successfully forged a ruling political party out of its military wing, South Sudan’s only long-term sustaining source of income has been killing its own people and nefariously shuffling around pots of money that have mostly arrived from outside sources looking to “help.”

As such, while the 2015 elections loomed against an accusatory backdrop of congressional favoritism, corruption, and hostile authoritarian rule, Kiir reacted the only way he knew how. On July 22, 2013, he fired his entire cabinet and gave orders to arrest a number of politicians he had implicated in various scandals. When he drafted the interim constitution, Kiir made sure to include a clause that allowed him to summarily fire democratically elected governors in extreme circumstances (chiefly under the guise of “national security”). But in a legal sense, that no longer mattered, as the final 2011 constitution replaced this overarching power with due process and voting. Kiir didn’t care, however. He was going to do what he wanted. In his mind, his autocratic, military style of management trumped the constitution and democratic process. The already contentious groups that made up the government began to splinter in a way that foreshadowed failed statehood.

Salaries continued to go unpaid. Staunch allies of Kiir defected. By November 2013 South Sudan’s finance minister, Aggrey Tisa Sabuni, admitted that the situation was veering toward total collapse. “Our borrowing has caught up with us, and we cannot run away from it,” he told Voice of America. Austerity measures were implemented, but they excluded the handful of senior officials who still received their salaries and perks. Dissent spread as the funding promised for projects and deals suddenly ground to a full stop.

Mabior Garang, the eldest son of the late John Garang, was not having it. Alongside John Garang’s widow, the former minister for roads and transport, and Machar, Mabior challenged Kiir’s leadership and questionable business practices. On December 6, the trio and their supporters held a press conference and expressed their complaints concerning Kiir’s leadership.

Why did a country less than three years old owe $4.5 billion in debt to the US? How did Kiir justify expenditures to create a 15,000-man “Republican Guard” that would run parallel to the existing armed forces? These questions remain unanswered.

Inspired by the press conference, a mixed group of Dinka, Nuer, Shilluk, and other SPLM party members announced that they would hold a session of the National Liberation Council to review the corruption, to be followed by a public rally on December 14. Kiir addressed the rally, thundering that he would not tolerate a repeat of 1991 (referring to the Bor massacre against the Dinka by Machar’s Nuer rebels). Kiir’s supporters started singing war songs, and he put out a document that condemned his detractors.

A number of politicians did not attend Kiir’s fiery meeting on December 14, leading him to believe that a plot to overthrow his government was imminent. The next day he ordered his presidential guard to disarm all Nuer members of the Tiger Battalion presidential guard and issued a long list of offenders who were to be arrested.

On December 15, Kiir declared all-out war on the Nuer. An ugly ethnic cleansing against the Nuers ensued, a campaign that has to date claimed between 500 and 10,000 lives, depending on whom you’re talking to (as of press time a reliable source on those numbers remains elusive). Fighting broke out in the barracks of Juba as Nuer guards were ordered to disarm. An armed militia of Dinka called the “Gelweng”—or “Keeper of Cattle”—were ordered to go house to house, set up roadblocks, line up men along the street, and perform interrogations, beatings, and executions. Kiir declared Machar a “prophet of doom.” Tanks and armed troops soon arrived at Machar’s official residence and razed it, killing any bodyguards and household staff who stood in their way.

But somebody from the presidential guard had tipped off Machar and his wife, Angelina Teny, allowing them to narrowly escape with their lives.

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