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South Sudan “Between Somalia and Congo”

Members of South Sudan's Murle ethnic group wait to receive food aid after attacks in 2012 by a rival tribe that the U.N. says affected at least 120,000 people. Credit: Jared Ferrie /IPS

WASHINGTON, Apr 25 2013 (IPS) - Experts here are calling on the United States and the international community to increase pressure on the government of South Sudan to address weaknesses in its central governance.

A high-level panel of scholars and government officials warned Wednesday that corruption, economic mismanagement and a lack of national unity could pose obstacles to the establishment of stability in the newly formed country.

"It’s a state being built from scratch with virtually no history of centralised governance." -- CGD's Kate Knopf

“That is the fear, and that is why we call for reform,” said Lual Deng, managing director of the Ebony Center for Strategic Studies, a non-profit research institution in Juba, South Sudan. “The way we see it, South Sudan is between Somalia and the D.R. Congo. If we are not careful, it will fall into one of these.”

Deng was speaking in particular about the growing issue of highly concentrated power in the hands of a small number of people, as well as growing signs of pervasive corruption. He referred to the disappearance of eight billion dollars in oil revenues last year, believed to have been stolen by government officials.

The malpractices of the South Sudanese government were also at the forefront of human rights and civil society concerns in the wake of the last week’s release of the U.S. State Department’s annual worldwide report on human rights.

The South Sudan section reviews the country’s human rights practices during the past year, the first full year of South Sudanese independence following a brutal civil war with Sudan that came to be regarded as one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent years.

The report details a bleak picture of the country’s first year of sovereignty, stating that the three most serious rights issues included security force abuses and lack of access to justice and conflict-related abuses.

It also details “extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, intimidation … corruption within the justice sector … and displacement of civilians as a result of fighting between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces”.

In a statement issued Apr. 22, human rights groups including Act for Sudan, American Jewish World Service, the Enough Project and United to End Genocide called the report an “opportunity” for the South Sudanese government to address these issues, “both through investigation and by ensuring such abuses do not occur in the future, as well as carrying out the action plan it has signed with the UN, acceding to all relevant human rights treaties, and moving forward with the planned national reconciliation process.”

“We want to make it clear that while we support South Sudan – as do many NGOs and governments – we don’t want to be seen as turning a blind eye to human rights abuses just because the country is new and facing many challenges,” John C. Bradshaw, executive director of the Enough Project, a Washington advocacy group that works to counter genocide, told IPS.

Look to diaspora

The discussion Wednesday suggested a comprehensive strengthening of South Sudan’s governance institutions as the only way to address the potentially existential threats posed by corruption, government abuses and economic mismanagement.

“I think it’s really important to look at the history and context of where South Sudan is coming from,” Kate Knopf, a visiting policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington think tank, said at the discussion Wednesday. “It’s a state being built from scratch with virtually no history of centralised governance.

“There are many, many grave concerns about how South Sudan is being managed … But [these concerns] need to be situated in a context of where South Sudan is and what our expectations can properly be of a country in this very nascent state.”

Indeed, one of the central themes highlighted in the discussion was a lack of skill among many South Sudanese that would enable them to take on government positions.

One of the solutions proposed by the panel, particularly by Deng, was to encourage the return, temporary or permanent, of the South Sudanese diaspora community to take on vital government roles.

But for Erik Reeves, a professor at SmithCollege who specialises in Sudan and South Sudan, an incomplete reading of the State Department’s new report could undermine hope for a solution. He cautions against reading the human rights abuses of the South Sudanese government as separate from the aggravations and hostilities of its northern neighbour, Sudan.

Reeves says that the Sudanese capital of Khartoum houses and supports renegade militia forces known for continued attacks on South Sudan, most of which are ethnically motivated.

“The effect of that is enormously destructive [in escalating] racial tensions that are already high in South Sudan,” Reeves told IPS. “Khartoum is creating a highly inflammatory situation in which human rights abuses are more likely to occur.”

According to Reeves, the U.S. State Department has been negligent in exposing Sudan’s role in South Sudan’s human rights record out of a desire to preserve a relationship with Khartoum for counterintelligence reasons. He suggested that the embassy in Khartoum is rife with intelligence activity.

“The report on South Sudan is a further extension of a U.S. policy toward Sudan that has been unbalanced and continues to be unbalanced in its excessive valuation on issues of supposed counterterrorism,” he said.

Arresting sacred cows

Regardless of the external sources of conflict, though, some of the most pressing items on the agenda for South Sudan today appear to be tackling corruption and the narrow concentration of power. If unchecked, some say these matters could render any other solution – such as expanded access to education or improved relations with Sudan – worthless.

“We hope the president will take the issue of corruption very seriously, by arresting a few sacred cows … to send a serious message,” Deng said, referring to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir.

Until President Kiir does so, some think corruption represents the most urgent part of the broader “crisis of governance” threatening to throw the fragile new country into consuming instability.

“Reform comes out of crisis,” Knopf said Wednesday. “Giving South Sudan the best lessons learned [in other countries] doesn’t really matter … the solutions … have to come from within South Sudan.”

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