Why Washington Should Care About South Sudan

Why Washington Should Care About South Sudan

If Joe Biden were to steer the formidable might of the American foreign policy apparatus toward achieving peace in South Sudan, he might well find that Africa’s nations will welcome America’s moral leadership

In 1908, a young member of the British Parliament named Winston Spencer Churchill was trekking through Uganda when a tsetse fly settled on his shoulder. Though he knew he was traveling through a region where the tsetse fly had already killed hundreds of thousands of people, Churchill had nonetheless tired of the protective veil he and the other members of his party had been obliged to wear, and so took it off to better enjoy the view of Murchison Falls on the Victoria Nile. As he recounted in My African Journey, the sight of the tsetse, with its distinctive, long proboscis and large wings folded peculiarly on top of each other, frightened him into redonning his veil. Then, as now, the tsetse fly carried sleeping sickness, a parasitic disease that attacks the patient’s nervous system until he or she becomes totally insensible and eventually impossible to wake up. The formidable young rising star of British politics found himself humbled by nature’s power and corrected course. Had he not, the British Empire might never have found the hero it needed in its hour of crisis thirty-two years later, and present-day readers might not have stumbled upon this colorful analogy for present-day American policy in East Africa.

Observers of the United States’ listless Africa policy might well conclude that American policymakers are suffering from sleeping sickness, which is characterized by a brief period of feverish activity before the patient grows lethargic and ever harder to rouse. In Africa, nations are broadly realigning away from the United States and toward Russia or China. This is especially true of sub-Saharan Africa, where cycles of increasingly frequent droughts and intense floods have exacerbated long-simmering tensions from ethnic conflict to Islamic insurgencies. Now, just a few weeks after President Joe Biden’s much-vaunted U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, Russia looks set to replace France as the guarantor of West African security, China is touting the transformative impact of its infrastructure projects, and the United States, despite all its money and military might, finds itself overshadowed by Pope Francis’s visit to East Africa in early February.

However, the worsening crisis in an oft-ignored African nation, the world’s youngest, has the potential to catapult the United States back into a position of influence in Africa. That country is an oil-rich and strife-ridden nation which briefly entered global news cycles as part of Pope Francis’s pilgrimage to it and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That country is South Sudan.

A Neglected Strategic Player

South Sudan, though somewhat obscure in comparison to its more notorious northern neighbor, enjoys an important geostrategic position: it bridges East and North Africa, and possesses vast reserves of oil, copper, and gold, in addition to fertile soil, a sizable stretch of the Nile River, and its immense hydroelectric potential. Yet currently, South Sudan sits at the bottom of every human development ranking—for the most part, due to protracted conflict between rival ethnic groups that receive funding from countries with an interest in the region’s resources.

Part of America’s strategy for containing China’s growth involves denying China access to Africa’s mineral wealth, so South Sudan should loom large on the Biden administration’s list of priorities in Africa. Furthermore, just as Burkina Faso is the linchpin of West African security because it separates the Islamic State in Africa from Boko Haram, South Sudan’s stability is necessary to prevent the Somali jihadist organization Al-Shabab from spreading into more of East Africa.

Yet the United States’ current approach leaves much to be desired. Consider, for example, the results of its de facto approach of handing off responsibility for addressing many of the country’s various ills to non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Though some humanitarian organizations and NGOs have a presence in South Sudan, their investment has proven ineffective. As the New Humanitarian reports, donors prefer to see their funds invested in short-term projects, such as random conferences and dialogues that do not involve any real power players. Additionally, the restrictions imposed upon NGOs on where they can go and whom they can invite to their events means that individuals that are actually involved in local conflicts, such as militants and tribal leaders, who often have divergent interests, are excluded from engaging in dialogue. Compounding this situation is the fact that, as reported earlier this month in the Guardian, local NGOs increasingly find their aid distribution programs hamstrung by an overabundance of short-term grants and a scarcity of long-term contracts. These long-term contracts, if they were available, would enable NGOs to plan more effective campaigns, or make the investments necessary to increase their impact, particularly in the most isolated and at-risk communities.

What America Can Do

The present situation represents a strong opportunity for the United States to both address the needs of the South Sudanese people and fortify America’s strategic position on the African continent. There are five ways this can be done.

First, the United States can provide military and security assistance that can act as a force multiplier for local initiatives already underway in South Sudan but otherwise almost certainly doomed due to lack of funding and poor management. Such assistance and expertise can help provide a stable context in which productive and peace-seeking dialogues, such as between armed youths and people from communities long hostile to each other, can occur.

Second, the United States can use its diplomatic strength to help facilitate negotiations between the South Sudanese government and its neighbors. For example, since 1963, South Sudan has been locked in a border dispute with Kenya over the Ilemi Triangle—a disputed region rich in petroleum and water. Despite peace initiatives managed by the African Union, the region often erupts in violent border skirmishes, much like South Sudan’s decades-long standoff with Sudan over the Abiyei oil fields.

Third, the United States can help fund the long-term contracts that local NGOs need to maximize aid delivery and programmatic effectiveness. Moreover, America can deploy homegrown programs and funding to incentivize cooperation between Sudanese elites and hold them accountable to any agreements they might reach. South Sudan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, as evinced by a report promulgated by The Sentry, an advocacy organization. 

Fourth, the United States can provide development assistance—which is essential to security, as robust economies provide options for youths who might otherwise join an insurgent group out of desperation. Here, Washington would do well to replicate the success of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) model, and provide expertise and training to local leaders before handing off the day-to-day administration of programs to them as part of a focus on leadership and community development.

Fifth, the United States should call upon a powerful, globally respected figure with unmatched moral authority for help. In this, they will find an ally in his holiness Pope Francis, who has set his sights on achieving peace in South Sudan. As reported in the New York Times, the two-day visit of Pope Francis in early February, as part of an ecumenical pilgrimage with the leaders of the Church of England and Church of Scotland, shone a light on the deep divisions and seemingly intractable problems facing the fledgling nation.

Roman Catholics constitute 52.4 percent of South Sudan’s population, while other Christian denominations make up roughly 8 percent. Cooperation with the Pope and other major figures in the Christian world would help to make up for the United States’ lack of moral authority in the region, which is still reeling from the abortive American intervention in Somalia of 1992–1993, its limited response to the 2004 genocide in Darfur, and other embroglios. Additionally, the Catholic Church has a strong presence on the ground in South Sudan, as do churches in the Anglican Communion and various ecumenical groups. Many in the religious community have undertaken heroic efforts to help communities recover from the violence, including a single nun, Sister Gracy, who managed to establish several schools and medical facilities with minimal international support. The United States could greatly assist South Sudan by helping identify and support such driven and talented individuals. The Catholic Church—with its distributed networks of churches, community centers, almshouses, and other initiatives—would prove indispensable to such deeply local work.

In short, the United States alone has the material resources to match the Pope’s spiritual authority; together, they could help impose order and begin to restore South Sudan by building basic infrastructure such as sewage systems, roads, and electric grids.

The President Following the Pope?

The ingredients for success in South Sudan are undoubtedly present if President Joe Biden decides to take on a larger role in East Africa. Military solutions to social problems have not yielded lasting peace in recent years, if the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are any indication. Indeed, while its oldest ally, France, waged a heroic, decade-long counterterrorism operation in the continent, the United States fell back on its default position of militarizing the surrounding regions and wringing its hands when underequipped militants overpowered government forces and upgraded their equipment on Uncle Sam’s dime.