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South Sudan violence leaves donors disillusioned

The country's descent into ethnic warfare, less than three years after it won independence, have many questioning the wisdom of spending billions to help it.

March 01, 2014|By Robyn Dixon
  • Displaced people wait for food in Juba, South Sudan, where ethnic violence has brought widespread upheaval less than three years after the country gained independence.
Displaced people wait for food in Juba, South Sudan, where ethnic violence… (Jim Lopez, European Pressphoto…)

JUBA, South Sudan — South Sudan was one of the most ambitious state-building projects that global donors have ever undertaken: Take a newly minted, resource-rich country with some of the world's worst poverty, health and education problems, pour in aid, assistance and diplomatic advice and hope for the best.

Instead, the African nation descended into ethnic warfare and chaos in December, less than three years after it won independence. Some now question the wisdom of the U.S. and others in pouring billions of dollars into a place long-racked by staggering corruption, poor governance and ethnic violence.

Some analysts say international donors were so tied up in humanitarian projects and development that they overlooked the corruption and dangerous ethnic divides in the ruling party and army.

Sara Pantuliano, analyst at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank, said many falsely assumed that enough development, improved services and access to food would lead to lasting peace.

Despite vast riches in oil, South Sudan's problems never abated nor, critics say, has its government shown an inclination to deliver healthcare and education, which have essentially been outsourced for years to Western donors.

"They have to have the political will to do something for their own people," a frustrated Western diplomat in Juba said recently. "It's important that we help the government to understand that their primary responsibility is services for people, and their protection, and that should not be contracted out."

The U.S. provides about $600 million annually, but lawmakers at a January hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed frustration and anger over the issue.

Intense American engagement in South Sudan's struggle was key to its gaining independence, but disillusionment has set in, with some analysts suggesting the U.S. will be reluctant to plunge into such projects again, especially with the results so uncertain.

The ethnic fighting has dashed donor confidence in the ruling party politicians who unleashed the violence, which has left an estimated 10,000 people dead and 800,000 displaced.

"It appears that the greatest threat to South Sudan post-independence is South Sudan itself," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House committee at the hearing.

But analysts also ask why international powers didn't do more as the struggle in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement spun increasingly out of control last year.

In theory, things should have gotten better after a 2005 peace deal with Sudan that ended a 22-year civil war. Under the arrangement with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, South Sudan got half of the oil revenue. But more than half of its share was gobbled up by defense costs and by the salaries of an army bloated by rebels incorporated into the Sudanese People's Liberation Army in previous peace deals.

Moreover, at least $4 billion was stolen, according to President Salva Kiir, and more was squandered on officials' perks, such as fancy cars and $300-a-night hotel accommodations in Juba, the capital, government officials and their families, for years on end.

After independence, South Sudan's oil revenue increased sharply, but seven months later, Kiir abruptly shut down oil production in a dispute with Sudan over transit fees. It was seen as a costly move. The loss of the resource that provided 98% of the government's revenue lasted 14 months.

The government borrowed millions of dollars from foreign banks to pay its soldiers, knowing that healthcare, education and humanitarian services would be provided by donors and aid agencies.

"It's hard for foreigners to say we are not going to step in, if the government doesn't do it. That's the dilemma," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to comment.

Even if peace is restored, diplomats say, South Sudan's credibility is likely to remain deeply damaged. The cost to South Sudan is immense, as fighting has deterred foreign investors, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

"I think when things do calm down on the military side, it's not going to be business as usual. They're really starting from scratch, I think, in terms of credibility and security of investors," the diplomat said.

Peace talks between President Kiir and his rival, Riek Machar, have stalled.

The root of the recent fighting came more than a year ago when Machar, the deputy president, and other prominent government figures announced that they would run against Kiir for the country's leadership. Kiir sacked them in July.

The risk of a split in the army and governing party was clear, and in December, fighting erupted between forces loyal to Kiir, a Dinka, and Machar, a Lou Nuer, quickly spilling over into ethnic violence.

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