LONDON—Massacres, ethnic anger and rumors of civil war: the latest news from the world’s newest country. But South Sudan is not Rwanda. The latest cycle of conflict in the East African state is not about race or religion. It is about money.
South Sudan became an independent country following a referendum in 2011. Hopes were unusually high that after several decades of civil war, one of Africa’s troubled children was set to achieve some of its enormous potential.
For South Sudan not only had fabulously fertile lands, the likelihood of great mineral wealth and proven reserves of oil, it also had the goodwill of most of the world.
Today, South Sudan is in chaos. The vice president, removed from office last year, is leading a rebellion that has taken control of much of the oil-producing region and threatens a civil war.
The fighting has pitted tribe against tribe, particularly the two largest ethnic groups, the Nuer and the Dinka. There have been well-documented massacres, and organized ethnic assassinations.
These suggest horrible overtones of Rwanda and Burundi. But this is different. This is not about tribe–it is about dollars. South Sudan is not yet a country, but a territory, fought over by a loose-knit group of former freedom fighters turned gangsters that happens to call itself a government. They are not driven by tribal hatred–they are driven by the desire for cash.
Last July the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, sacked his deputy, Vice
President Riek Machar. The president’s move was designed to cut off the vice president and his allies from oil cash, and thus sap their power as elections approached.
In response, Riek Machar and his supporters marched on the oil-producing fields to the north of the capital Juba, and captured them. This counter-stroke reversed the picture, and cut the president off from the oil fields. The fact that the president is a Dinka (the largest tribe), and his rival, Riek Machar, is a Nuer (the second largest), is almost irrelevant. Oil is the arbiter in South Sudan, and oil doesn’t care what language you speak.
Crude oil is a generator of vast amounts of cash, and there is no temptation to dishonesty greater than cold cash. Stripped of oil, South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world; its non-oil per capita GDP is probably around $250. Thanks to oil, it has rapidly followed its northern neighbor Sudan into hyper-corruption.
Transparency International rates Sudan as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and when Transparency evaluates South Sudan, it is a certainty that it will match or even exceed that rating.
When the oilfields are working, oil revenues are worth around $5 billion a year to the territory’s government. Virtually every cent of that money is stolen by government officials and moved to Kenya, Uganda or Europe.
And who are those government officials? A quick search on Google will turn up a leaked US government list of the biggest crooks in South Sudan, their names and rough estimates of how many millions they have stolen. Most of the leading members of government are there.
The Sudanese are not born crooked. But after half a century of almost continuous conflict, South Sudan has very little human or infrastructural capital. It is not capable of absorbing wealth, because there is no economy in which to invest.
Education and health, roads and bridges, telephones and streetlights–all are absent. Pouring money into South Sudan is like pouring water into a colander; there is nothing to hold it, and it flows away.
What will happen next? There will be more fighting, and then there will be settlement, based on a new carve-up of oil loot.
Riek Machar holds the oil-producing territories, and that is a strong hand, but also a temporary one. Although he can offer the oil to neighboring Sudan, which controls the only viable export route, he faces powerful opposition from southern neighbors Uganda and Kenya, the country where his allies like to stash most of the money they steal from the state.
It is unusually difficult to find someone to trust in South Sudan, but neighboring countries considering their options probably distrust Riek Machar even more than they distrust the alternatives. So the rebel will have to settle with his opponents in Juba – if he survives. Riek Machar has always lived by the sword, which is not a recipe for long life.
The longer-term outlook is very bleak. Zero human capital makes for zero development prospects. South Sudan will remain a robber state for the foreseeable future, increasingly like its neighbor DRC. The only business beneficiaries will be robber corporations prepared to play impossibly high-risk games, as in DRC. And the world’s last wilderness will be a land of cash, oil and blood.
Richard Walker is a journalist and Africa specialist who has lived and worked in both north and South Sudan.