Michael Gerson
Opinion writer July 11, 2011

Following the hot, happy chaos of its flag-raising ceremony and the departure of 70 planes worth of VIPs from its capital, a newly independent South Sudan now faces a lonelier task. It must construct a nation out of flawed materials — a weak economy, a strong military and fractious tribes.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

The difficulties were illustrated to me at dinner with a prominent political figure from the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). He had been a fighter in the bush for more than 15 years, with several gunshot scars to prove it. His bravery is unquestioned. Yet his military achievements lead him to be openly dismissive of anyone — politicians, intellectuals or exiles — who lacks a war record.

The former commander told me the parable of a hunter who sends his dog to kill his prey but then leaves only bones for the dog. The implication was clear: The military, having done the hardest work, will not be content with the bones.

This is a difficulty in most post-revolutionary countries. Can a guerrilla army transform into an effective governing class? Will the warriors welcome or resent non-military talent and technical expertise?

Western development experts often talk vaguely of corruption, as though it always means the filling of Swiss bank accounts. Doubtless there is some of that in South Sudan. But those carrying the shrapnel of the civil war are also practicing a kind of patronage. They have binding ties to their family and tribe. So they put large numbers on the payroll — the old Chicago form of development. It is not a recipe for economic growth or political pluralism. But it does have a useful side effect: keeping people with guns — and just about everyone in South Sudan has guns — employed and relatively happy.

The fact that South Sudan is a major oil producer only lubricates the patronage machine. As in many other places, resource wealth strengthens elites, who have more benefits to distribute.

But the system has a major flaw. There is a direct relationship between corrupt patronage and instability. If government positions are a major source of spoils, those excluded are tempted to take positions by force. Two South Sudanese generals are currently in armed rebellion against the government. There are no ideological issues at stake. These military leaders feel cut out of the power arrangement. Killing becomes a form of negotiation — an attempt to gain attention and a rightful share.

This is particularly dangerous in a society with a whirl of centrifugal forces — the existence of 150 tribes, a long history of SPLM infighting, and a tendency for North Sudan to fund and encourage internal conflict within the South.

In a new and fragile state, a great deal depends on the governing style of its first leader. A Mandela or a Mugabe may emerge, which places South Sudan in a unique position. The founder of the independence movement, John Garang, died in a plane crash in 2005. Garang was a charismatic, educated, Marxist-turned-Christian, rebel leader — a man who viewed tribalism as historical dead wood and wanted to lead southern Sudan into the modern world.

South Sudan’s first president, Salva Kiir, provides a vivid contrast in leadership. Kiir models himself on the chiefs of his tribe, the Dinka. It is an aristocratic, gentlemanly tradition, in which power is exercised through layers of leadership. While Garang could be abrasive, Kiir is more oriented toward consensus.

Other tribes within South Sudan sometimes resent the aristocratic airs of the Dinka. But so far, Kiir’s approach has served him well. After Garang’s death, the SPLM broadly accepted the legitimacy of Kiir’s succession. He has successfully reintegrated many powerful adversaries from the time of the war back into the party.

But Kiir has a challenge. Large-scale corruption has its own internal logic. It will not, however, result in development. And while Kiir is not seen as corrupt, he is broadly criticized for tolerating corruption around him.

In his fine inaugural speech, Kiir was both gracious to enemies — offering rebels full amnesty — and tough on official corruption. But fighting corruption — high-profile prosecutions and the recovery of diverted funds — requires the making of enemies. And Kiir’s efforts may be undermined by the consensus he has cultivated.

The independence of South Sudan is a large, unlikely achievement. But now it faces among the hardest of historical tasks: The liberators of a nation must become the founders of a nation.

michaelgerson@washpost.com