By Helen Epstein
After half a century of civil war, South Sudan declared independence from Sudan, in 2011. Two years later, the world’s youngest country erupted in its own civil war. In 2015, the combatants signed a peace agreement, but then the scales of power were tipped, and the government struck out against the opposing side. Now some are warning of genocide.
In December, President Obama lamented that his Administration hadn’t done more to address the crisis. His subordinates were torn over how to handle it; unfortunately, the National Security Council, which prevailed over the State Department, may have prolonged the carnage.
Hopes for South Sudan’s future soared when it became a nation, but now diplomats are scrambling to make sense of what went wrong. Some blame greed. As the new nation’s oil wells generated billions in revenue, a chaotic scramble for cash ensued. The rudimentary banking system couldn’t even handle credit cards, and government transactions were conducted using cardboard boxes filled with currency notes. Grandmothers and even four-year-old children were placed on the Army’s payroll. Some four billion dollars went astray.
In her harrowing memoir, “South Sudan: The Untold Story from Independence to Civil War,” Hilde Johnson, the former chief of the United Nations mission to South Sudan, suggests another factor. The nation’s political leaders, all war veterans, lacked the basic diplomatic skill of solving routine political problems through negotiation. Had so much money not been at stake, these leaders might have been able to settle their differences without bloodshed, but competition over riches, combined with the impatience with dialogue that Johnson describes, made the meltdown almost inevitable.
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