(Hurst Publishers)

Eight years ago this month, hopes ran high as South Sudan declared independence after decades of rule from Khartoum. Former rebels — long the de facto leaders in the territory — joined the new government and made grand plans for building a new state. South Sudan seemed to have the odds on its side — and U.S. support.

In 2019, those hopes have largely been dashed by years of a civil war that has killed an estimated 383,000 and ongoing disputes in the Sudan/South Sudan borderlands. An estimated 2.3 million South Sudanese have fled the country.

What went wrong?

How did the situation get so bad, so fast? This is the question Peter Martell sets out to answer in his new book, “First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace.” Martell, the BBC’s Juba correspondent during the independence period and a former Agence-France Presse East Africa bureau news editor, uses his decade or more of experiences covering South Sudan to explain what went wrong. Setting the story of South Sudan’s current crisis in deep historical context, Martell shows how the politics of ethnicity and corruption, along with the involvement of regional and international powers, combined to create a poisonous atmosphere in which South Sudanese leaders view ruling as a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game.

The deep dive into Sudanese history is a great strength of Martell’s book. He begins in the pre-colonial era, showing how slave raiding and competition for dominance between Egypt, Britain and local leaders shaped the idea that the people of what is now South Sudan were inferior to their northern neighbors. This perception led the British, who colonized Sudan in 1899, to favor northerners in opportunities for education and advancement. After Sudan’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1956, these biases continued, ensuring that southerners always took a backseat to the north.

Not surprisingly, in the south there were high levels of discontent, which came to a head in 1955-1972 with the First Sudanese Civil War, then again in the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983–2005. The near-permanent state of warfare only ended with the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which provided for a 2011 referendum on South Sudanese independence, in which more than 98 percent of South Sudanese voted to secede.

The remainder of Martell’s book contains fascinating tales from his reporting as South Sudan prepared for, celebrated and then dealt with the realities of independence. Less than three years later, civil war broke out as the result of disputes between competing factions of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the rebels-turned-political-party that now governed the new country. Dividing largely on ethnic lines, forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, fought those supporting his ex-deputy, Riek Machar, who is a member of the Nuer ethnic group.

Ethnic groups provide an important safety net

Fighting began when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup against him. But this was simply a sign of much deeper tensions in the relationship between the two leaders and the groups they represent. Why? Because being in a brand-new state with weak institutions and no meaningful way to hold leaders accountable for their actions meant that leaders could use what limited resources the South Sudanese state had to enrich themselves at the country’s expense. As Martell writes,

…there was no social contract between the government and the people. Instead, there was a simple system where the military men in charge bought the loyalties and services they needed from cash taken from oil. That money should have developed the nation for all. Instead, it funded a brutal capitalist dictatorship of greed where the people’s dreams were squandered for power. It was less of a government, more of a business conglomerate.

Moreover, people depended on their leaders to use those looted state resources to help their ethnic group. Martell carefully distinguishes between reliance on ethnic groups and “tribal warfare,” which he calls “a lazy shorthand explanation” used to avoid the fact that people rely on their ethnic communities because they are reliable. Ethnic groups — whether Nuer, Dinka or one of South Sudan’s many other communities — provide social safety nets in times of need in ways their government is not capable of doing. But using state resources to provide for communities’ needs undermines the state-building process that would render the need for reliance on the ethnic group unnecessary.

Martell’s book is a detailed, wonderfully accessible work for those interested in South Sudan and the dilemmas of new statehood. While many of the stories he tells are heartbreaking and even horrifying, there is a high degree of sensitivity here, as he reminds the reader of the many ways that conflict between leaders in Juba affects the lives of ordinary South Sudanese.

And, as Martell points out, “There is suffering, yes, but people also live. Parents raise families, go to work, make love, drink and laugh.” This is a rare reminder in the genre of books by former foreign correspondents, which often focus on conflict, poverty and disease to the neglect of the humanity of their subjects. Martell avoids this trap, and in doing so, has written a must-read book on how South Sudan got to where it is today.

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Previous posts in this year’s series:

How does a woman run for office in Nigeria? The answer’s in ‘Love Does Not Win Elections.’

This gripping memoir tells the story of a girl — and South Africa — coming of age

Amílcar Cabral’s life as a Pan-Africanist, anti-colonial revolutionary still inspires

There’s a new way to understand vigilantism in South Africa

‘Foreign Intervention in Africa After the Cold War’ looks at new players and old powers in Africa’s conflicts

‘Digital Democracy’ delivers a powerful read on politics and social media in Africa