Zach Vertin is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; he was an adviser to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan (2013-2016), and Sudan / South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group (2009-2012).
Last week, Hollywood star and activist George Clooney, launched a report exposing financial corruption among South Sudan’s warring elites. The Sentry report is a constructive contribution — documenting state thievery in the troubled nation Washington helped create, and calling for greater action to combat it. But extreme corruption — both financial and political — has been a fixture in the capital of Juba since well before South Sudan’s celebrated birth in 2011. Why didn’t activists blow the whistle earlier?
As Clooney and his colleagues presented their indictments to a room full of journalists, another question hung in the air: Hadn’t they been among the many ardent advocates of South Sudan’s independence and the rebels who championed it? The very guerillas-cum-governors Clooney and the report authors were now censuring—those of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) — were long darlings of the West and the powerful advocacy constituency that shaped American policy in their favor. That is, until 2013, when these exalted men plunged the world’s newest country back into violence.
Asked by one reporter if his optimism in South Sudan and its leaders was misplaced at the time of independence, Clooney noted that independence was important in preventing a larger return to war with northern Sudan. He’s right; the critiques that suggest independence itself was a mistake or the source of the country’s unraveling are cheap and misguided. So, too, are “gotcha” accounts that point a finger solely at the West or overlook the hard policy choices that accompanied every stage of South Sudan’s political evolution.
But Clooney also responded, “We were very realistic” about South Sudan’s prospects “from the very beginning.” Not everyone would agree. The Sentry project’s co-founder and prominent activist John Prendergast was likewise asked if international actors bore any responsibility. “The fatal flaw in the international strategy,” he said, was insufficient focus “on the core rot at the foundation of this new government.”
But who’s responsible for this collective looking-the-other-way? Why did America’s die-hard SPLM supporters pay so little attention to this awful rot for almost eight years? Why did they ignore not only extreme financial corruption, but the SPLM’s abuse of state power and its abandoning of the democratic principles for which they purportedly fought?
The cause of South Sudan was a worthy one, and popular interest helped bring it much needed attention. But what many SPLM supporters fail to acknowledge are the consequences of having adopted the cause with such singularity and zeal. Over the course of two decades, South Sudan’s American backers coddled the SPLM, embraced a simplified narrative and shaped a policy environment in which criticism was reserved for an undeniably awful regime in Khartoum — the “bad guys.” Criticism of the “good guys,” meanwhile, was either spared or suppressed, and sentiments that didn’t fit this narrative were framed either as moral equivalency or as indirectly aiding the enemy.
Ultimately, the buck stops with South Sudanese leaders; they are responsible for the egregious abuse of state resources and the country’s devastating state of affairs. But an uncritical embrace by Juba’s American friends helped create a moral hazard and reinforce the very sense of impunity that allowed for such extreme financial and political corruption.
Importantly, the United States helped broker a 2005 agreement that ended Sudan’s civil war, guaranteed the South a referendum on independence in 2011, and set up a regional Southern government in the interim. Transitioning from liberation movement to government, especially in a state that barely existed, was always going to be a difficult, and multi-generational, task. It would require solid early decisions on governance, financial management, and political and social reconciliation. Fortunately, South Sudan had ample resources.
Washington and its partners, meanwhile, had leverage: If they were going to help deliver Juba’s ultimate independence prize, then Juba should have been expected to uphold its end of the bargain. Instead, during those critical years, the South’s leaders robbed the place blind, suppressed political dissent and flirted with a new North-South war. Though concerns were sometimes raised privately, too often Southern elites were treated with kid gloves.
The plight of South Sudan’s people helped earn the SPLM many supporters in Washington and around the globe. In time, this also meant that the movement’s legitimacy was derived as much from foreign sources as it was from home. The rebel vanguard was not accountable to the South Sudanese people, but instead to a constituency of Western supporters apparently willing to back them at any price. In time, this partisan allegiance, a simple moral narrative, and a sentimental attachment pushed American policy too far from a balanced center. In recent days, one champion of the partnership reflected, “We lost objectivity; you can become close to someone but still be a tough friend …we were never a tough friend.”
As the United States calibrates foreign policy interventions in divided societies the world round, from Syria to Yemen to Afghanistan, there are lessons to be drawn from America’s unique role in South Sudan. This is not the end of South Sudan’s story, and it does not have to end in tragedy. Indeed Clooney’s project and other important efforts to support, and partner with, the South Sudanese people should be encouraged. But we should also be clear-eyed about the past. Americans should take a hard look at how the United States became so deeply invested, the righteous singularity with which supporters pursued the cause and the implications of very personal relationships with the Southern rebels-turned-governors. This partnership helped achieve lofty goals of peace and independence, but also helped feed the rot at the core of the new republic.