A response to The Economist

In response to the comment by ‘Jaded in Juba’ in The Economist, 12 October.

I am one of Jaded of Juba’s international colleagues. Yes, we are tired, upset, angry, emotionally drained, with little room to act, and aware of the near-inevitability of more horrific tales of brutality in a war run by a band of greedy elites. We are exhausted and horrified by the wilful myopia at best, and brazen denial at worst, of the ruling leadership of the rump regime.

Our feelings are a faint echo of the pain and anger felt by most South Sudanese residents, of all backgrounds. And here I would challenge Jaded: your frustration is voiced in the same dangerously ethnicised over-simplifications that many activists, artists, and normal people are desperately fighting against within South Sudan and its displaced communities today. You frame South Sudan’s war as Dinka – collectively – versus the ‘non-Dinka’: speaking the divisive language of political tribalism despite quoting the terrible denialism of government minister Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, who, despite everything, is not Dinka.

Maybe this fact in itself should stand to challenge your depiction of a ‘tribal war’. This conflict has seen ethnic groups, the familial networks that provide South Sudanese people’s basic social and personal security, instrumentalised and turned against each other by a privileged elite that use people to war over power and money. The short-hands you use only serve to entrench the binaries that these warring men are using to create and sustain profitable conflict over the central state spigot of oil revenue, land deals and sale of South Sudan’s futures.

Yes, the ‘sentimental ties’ of the Bush and Obama governments brought South Sudan’s current rulers into power with the peace deal in 2005. But I dispute that the Trump White House has a sense of realism – what sense does it have? Instead, the current disaster is partly of our making: the US, UK, and Western powers used South Sudan as a supposed ‘new country’ for our testing out of a grand state-building theory. But South Sudan was never a blank slate. Through its generations of armed conflict, the region has developed set practices of violent, extractive government and systems of profit since the very recent colonial period – in the memory of many people’s grandparents.

If we can’t broker peace or state-building effectively, we can at least look to the money. A British firm is implicated in dealing $169m of armaments to the South Sudan government; we can impose wider sanctions, controls, and transparency on laundering networks, companies and assets. Many of South Sudan’s government and rebel elites are dual national Brits, Americans and Australians, and have stashed money and houses in London and elsewhere. And we can amplify the ideas and activities of South Sudanese people struggling against societal collapse, ethnic chauvinism, and repression. They – of all people – have the right to be jaded; but they also know that South Sudan’s complex and violent system of government will take long-term energies and major interventions to change. We must support their efforts.