South Sudan: The Untold Story from Independence to Civil War – Hilde F. Johnson

Hilde Johnson

In all honesty and deeds, there are fewer international experts in South Sudan than Hilde Johnson. Her writings on the country’s becoming and unbecoming status are not only informed by a wealth of experience but also by her objective voice. She is a gifted wordsmith with a flair of intellectual and political richness, analytically saying.

In South Sudan: The Untold Story, Hilde takes the reader through a journey of triumph, hope, and despair. The book invites the reader first by introducing the South’s quest for an independent state. In a chapter she titles “A Dream Comes True” Johnson explains the hopes and expectations of South Sudanese in a new nation. The speed, at which South Sudan was recognized by communities of nations, Johnson argues, is interesting. Perhaps South Sudan did have a case; how sustainable that case was would remain a public debate.

As Johnson herself put it bluntly, “dreams can turn into nightmares.” They sure did. At the heart of the book however, Johnson addresses corruption in not less than 30 pages. She writes with passion on the topic. Her point of view is that the SPLA-SPLM has the mindset of “it is our turn to eat.” She describes the vice in few but biting words:

The corruption behind closed doors is one thing; what people observe in town is another. One could see one care worth $150,000 or more – one SPLM leader at least has five. There were $25,000 watches on display – one liberator had a $75,000 watch. They showed off smartphones costing hundreds of dollars, and were drinking the most expensive whiskey and finest champagne…”

In Nairobi and Kampala, she writes, there are many houses owned by South Sudanese in rich neighborhoods, some look like palaces. Johnson finds this data shocking particularly when she compares it with the reality on the ground. Juba, the capital where the massive state looting occurred did not have roads or good parking spaces. In fact, some of these valuable cars had their parking lots either along the muddy roads or by the grass-thatched garages. Thank God most citizens were too poor to steal a car.

SPLM leaders not only corrupted South Sudan at the time, but they also exported their dishonesty outside. Interestingly, Johnson shares a diplomatic incident where President Kiir reportedly told the diplomatic community in New York that “he was not well” on a discussion pertaining his own country and in which he was the guest of honor. Johnson dramatized the issue and said that the “SPLM’s sense of entitlement seemed to have included the international community.” Throughout the book, Johnson makes no apology for the daunting lack of governance among the SPLM guys. From the oil shutdown which she blames squarely on the SPLM to reactionary force that handles even the simplest citizens’ demands with disproportionate use of force, Johnson questions the ability of the SPLM to lead an independent nation in the 21st century. As she put it, the SPLM during demonstrations can easily move from “shouting to shooting.”

The book details a lot. It discusses the Jonglei problem which Johnson describes as the South Sudanese problem. The troubles of Murle, Lou-Nuer and the Dinka there complicate UNMISS operation. Although the UNMISS did try out its best, I disagree with the author’s way of quantifying the assistance that the SPLA offered to mere patrol alone. Johnson contradicts herself when she admits that the force’s mandate was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis and her comments that the UNMISS did indeed put everything in order.

It is equally relieving to hear her admitting the inadequacy of the UN peacekeeping operations particularly its bureaucratic processes which more often than not adversely affect the very people it intends to protect. Johnson explains her poor relations with the government of President, mentioning the Bor Case in which civilians were butchered in a UN-mandated environment. She uses the book also to explain her relations with Riek Machar; a matter that has influenced public records. Johnson denies any existence of special relations with Riek Machar whom she describes as very “ambitious.” Although she acknowledges his methodical and diplomatic approach towards hot issues, she feels that Riek lacks political substance in comparison to John Garang and other SPLM leaders. She writes:

“Although Riek appeared to understand better than most the way international diplomacy works, the’ do’s and don’ts’ of national leadership, he still made remarkable errors of judgment. One was to aver publicly in July 2013 that it was time for the President to leave the office and that he would contest a consequent election…to many observers, this indicated that his reputation for impatience and hunger for power was deserved; his interest, after all, was first and foremost Riek Machar and much less the country.”

Although the book somewhat diagnoses the problem of the SPLM leading to the events of December 2013, it is disappointing to read that there was no clear culprit among the two men. Johnson seems to blame the crisis on the two; that their combined failure to arrest matters before they could burst led to what we have today. Bur the weight of the blame looks big on the government side which is of course expected. The problem was clearly a leadership wrangle turned soar. Whereas a political coup was simmering, President Kiir felt cornered by the SPLM’s top dogs; he would turn to the SPLA’s command, giving them sweeping powers to make decisions. The bomb exploded immediately.

The book did some justice however, on whether the Nuer massacre was state made or a sporadic killing. Johnson argues that based on the evidence seen, the state did indeed take part in the planning, and execution of the killings. This offers a good beginning for future investigations into the matter. The fact that External Security Director, Thomas Duoth, a Nuer advised the Nuer to run to the UNMISS for protection explains everything. The book also presents a balanced argument on crimes of war, crimes against humanity that the parties committed. The mention of the Bentiu Mosques massacre by the Opposition and the Juba, and Bor killings of the Nuer by government forces make sense at least for future prospects of opening human rights pages.

The book sheds some light on the IGAD peace mediation later on when the conflict reached the level of regional leadership. Although she commends their effort in coming up with some peace resolution, Johnson argues that the regional leaders showed more differences than can be imagined. In fact, she writes jokingly that “the mediators need mediation” at some point, giving examples of Uganda versus Sudan in supporting either side of the military divide, and Ethiopia versus Kenya over the leadership of mediation.

As Johnson concludes the text, she wonders whether South Sudanese leaders would be willing to do what was need to save their country, not only from fighting but also from failing. Adding that this not only meant achieving peace on paper, but also to achieve sustained peace, refrained from playing divisive politics, implement genuine, and inclusive processes of reconciliation and healing as well as constitution-making process and end impunity. Only then, Johnson argues, would South Sudan become a nation.

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