Last March, before leaving Nairobi for Juba, I met with Mariano Deng Ngor, South Sudan’s ambassador to Kenya. The embassy is situated in an area called Upper Hill, which happens to be near the Nairobi Hospital, the Fairview Hotel, and the Israeli Embassy. A convenient location since I had a doctor’s appointment around the corner that afternoon.
The ambassador is an elder statesman, a Dinka from the country’s ruling elite. That day he wore an expensive-looking dark blue pin-striped suit and matching blue silk tie, decorated with a Chinese-style dragon. Perhaps a gift from one of China’s state-owned oil companies, keenly interested these days in Africa.
Ngor said he was an anthropologist and warned me he might talk for a while. For him, the origins of South Sudan take shape in the 1920s, when his father, a Christian, was captured and sold into slavery. The appalling historical treatment of Sudan’s black African southerners by the Arab north, he explains, was one of the main driving forces behind the creation of South Sudan. In the ‘80s, John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, fought for separation of and independence for the south. That pursuit was ramped up after 9/11, when the US scrambled for new approaches to conflicts, underway virtually all over the world, that involved Islamic fundamentalism.
The US-brokered talks between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the South Sudan Liberation Army (SPLA) resulted in a peace agreement in 2002. But the South Sudanese leadership consisted mainly of former military men whose motives involved a high level of greed and/or tribalism, not the will to implement capacity-building.
Evangelicals from America’s “Christian belt”, Ngor told me, had influenced the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. As it happens the former owner of a private military company had also pushed for independence, pressing Dick Cheney, then US Vice President, to lift economic sanctions.
“The people believe George W. Bush saved the south from Islamic powers,” said Ngor.
The actor George Clooney, however, is credited with putting the Darfur genocide on the world stage. Still, some residents and policy-makers say the 2006 Darfur peace agreement and the star’s global campaigns did little to quell suffering on the ground. In a 2011 referendum, 98% of the south voters cast ballots for independence.
Hopes dashed in December of 2013 when South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, of plotting and starting to implement a coup. Overnight the world’s youngest nation erupted into civil war. The Dinka people, the main tribe of the government’s Juba-based ruling elite, went from door to door looking for Machar’s fellow tribesmen, the Nuer, and killing them. All told, at least 10,000, of multiple tribes, were shot and/or hacked to death in the ensuing conflict. More than 1,000,000 have been displaced and over 400,000 have fled to neighboring countries.
Compelling, and accurate, as this account is, there’s another line to the story. The events that have both given birth to and plagued South Sudan have as much if not more to do with oil and minerals as with religion and right-wing anti-Islamists. Independence put 75% of Sudan’s oil reserves in South Sudan, under the watchful gaze of western and Christian interests.
Landlocked South Sudan has possession of vast underground wealth, but lacks the means of exporting commodities like oil, except through Sudan’s major port, Port Sudan, on the Red Sea.
99% of South Sudan’s government’s revenues are oil derived. So, this set of contradictions means that revenue has slowed to a trickle.
Thanks to the civil war, meanwhile, all South Sudan’s oil-production facilities have shut down, too, save for one in the Upper Nile State.
As an alternative South Sudan’s potential customers’ have a strong interest in a mega-port proposed in Kenya, near Lamu island, a World Heritage Site.
Ambassador Ngor admitted independence hadn’t worked so well so far. Thinking of Somalia as much as Sudan, and the grisly outcomes, ongoing, of interventions there, I noted that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Ngor laughed, but the sound was much like a car battery turning over, finally, after a long, cold winter. He said he’d never heard the phrase before. My watch told me I had to take off, for that medical appointment.
His Excellency shook my hand and assured me that the powers that be would be waiting for me in Juba.