Procrustean Policing in South Sudan

African cultures have remarkable myths about how the mortals and immortals of ancient eras begat today’s nations. Take the story of South Sudan: one day a family of many-headed divine beings (called the United Nations and the Troika) said “Let there be South Sudan!” There was a clap of thunder, a sudden downpour of rain, a rumbling of earth, and suddenly a people came to life. The “breadbasket”. The “world’s youngest nation”.

Rubbish, you say? Maybe. But then why do so many Policy Makers act as if the land and people of South Sudan first came into being in 2009 or 2011 — or as if the current destruction of lives and property is a war that began only in 2013? Why do people talk as though the ongoing conflict starts and ends with Dr. Machar and President Kiir?

[The International Community fails to understand] that violence does not emerge out of nowhere […that] the context of 2013 is anchored on decades of violence, inter and intra-ethnic communal clashes, and the proliferation of small arms, all against the background of three civil wars within half a century […that] the memories of many citizens goes way beyond 2013 and digs deep into the annals of history of their grandfathers and mothers[…]that leaders around a table do not represent citizens…
Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, The complex history of violence in South Sudan”

Habsburg-Lothringen nails it in his excellent post: the governments of the USA and U.N. member nations have a flawed understanding of who the South Sudanese are and what they want, not just in the current SPLM/SPLM-IO conflict but in the South Sudanese enterprise of creating South Sudan.

This is more than a failure to start development with the people who are the true intended beneficiaries. It’s more than a failure listen to the voices of the poor — the poor in material wealth, in economic opportunity and in political power.


This is a violent disenfranchisement, simultaneously recognizing the creation of a country while denying that country’s people control over their own lives.

Like Procrustes who mutilated his guests so they would fit in his tiny bed, the International Community is the Procrustean Policeman cutting South Sudanese out of their own country.

[We] have filled the spaces with our frameworks…The UN, the NGOs, the diplomatic community and donors over the past decade showed little or no interest in local and national dialogue processes, treating them as side shows of their own programmes that place technical support, economic deals and domestic policy in the forefront.
– Ibid

An International Community-abetted imbalance of power — not a planned “kleptocracy”, contrary to the claims of Op-Ed Development Gurus like John Prendergast — is responsible for the current destruction of lives and property in South Sudan.

Before 2011 the South Sudanese government (from the national level down) was an unbalanced structure built on an unstable foundation: whatever local governance and social cohesion the Ottoman, Egyptian and Sudanese did not deliberately destroy, the British Empire accidentally undermined.

This situation was not helped by the “technical language” and framing of International Community engagement with South Sudan. It favored Elite-controlled interests (war, oil revenue distribution, national government allocation of services and materials, etcetera). Money and power flow according to those lines, while the IC denies oxygen and legitimacy to local efforts at peace, commerce and governance.

This imbalanced South Sudan tipped into upheaval in 2013, in the aftermath of the Global Recession and the combined shocks of falling oil prices and climate change.

Apparently the U.N. and Troika can generate peace talks and investment conferences, but not peace and investment.

Source: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

“So what do we do?” That’s a good question if you embrace the idea that South Sudan’s story is a collection of complex and nuanced phenomena, and you actually care about helping South Sudanese improve their quality of life (thus improving yours).

I think a good start is shifting the locus of control from the Dr. Machars and President Kiirs firmly into the hands of those with the most at stake and the most incentive to halt the destruction of lives and property.

To borrow language from the What Went Wrong Foundation, this means “helping locals influence how aid affects their lives, becoming agents of change in their own communities.”

One idea is to look at the tradition of conflict resolution among South Sudanese. This is not the “political marketplace” described by de Waal but what happens at the community level to resolve disputes over cattle raids, territory, brides, etc.

A step up from that is to look at those named in the article: “the South Sudan Council of Churches, the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation and other local and national processes […] key to underpinning peace and reconciliation long into the future.”

Another idea is for members of the International Community to put more money behind more local business initiatives.

For example, South Sudanese beekeepers made 4+ tons of honey their country’s first export sale to the USA in 2015 and Honey Care has been a reliable buyer for South Sudan’s honey since before 2013.

USAID’s planned 3 year $3.18 million investment in South Sudan’s coffee industry is a good start. But one can imagine the difficulties facing South Sudan’s coffee startups if more established African coffee growers (producing almost 25% of coffee worldwide) already struggle with challenges from climate changes, farmer access to finance, under-fertilized soil, working with many small farmers rather than larger plantations, etc. (For more on that, check the International Coffee Council’s 2015 report).

With the imminent formation of yet another precarious Kiir-Machar government (the underlying conditions haven’t changed), perhaps the USA and others should build off of what the local communities really want.

Otherwise there seems little to deter more South Sudanese from again taking violent action against a system that is neither theirs nor looking after their interests.

Source: Daily Mail/AP

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