Not much to celebrate in ailing South Sudan

Women commemorate the second anniversary of South Sudan's independence. (Reuters)

Women commemorate the second anniversary of South Sudan's independence. (Reuters)

It was an open letter written by a group calling itself the "friends of South Sudan" to the country's president.

It accused Salva Kiir Mayardit of failing to meet the basic needs of his people, of running a government "synonymous with corruption", and – most damningly – of human rights abuses reminiscent of the regime in Sudan, against which southerners fought a long and bloody war to win their independence.

"We cannot turn a blind eye when yesterday's victims become today's perpetrators," the "friends" warned on the eve of South Sudan's second anniversary of independence from the north on July 9. They highlighted the fighting in South Sudan's Jonglei state, where security forces have been accused of a campaign of violence again civilians belonging to the Murle ethnic group, which is viewed as opponents of the government.

This violence has included "rape, murder, theft and destruction of property", the "friends" wrote, echoing similar campaigns carried out by Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Since the letter was published, further evidence of intercommunal killings has emerged from Jonglei, where atrocities carried out by the security forces appear to be sparking tit-for-tat killings by ethnic militias. The United Nations reported on Sunday that at least 200 wounded people were found in one village.

"Some 200 casualties have arrived in Manyabol", a remote village in the vast state in the east of the country, said Toby Lanzer, the top UN humanitarian official in South Sudan.
He said militia fighters from rival ethnic groups have been carrying out the killings.

Lost to graft
The friends of South Sudan also warned of "massive corruption" that has created a governing class "who have become wealthy by misappropriating government funds". This comes after a World Bank report was leaked last year that claimed as much as $4-billion had been lost to graft.

The letter's four authors conclude that there is "very little to show" in the way of roads, medical services and education after nine years of self-rule – two of which have been as an independent state, making South Sudan Africa's youngest country.

Despite the litany of failings detailed in the letter, its real importance lay more in who did the writing. The friends – Henry Winter, John Prendergast, Ted Dagne and Eric Reeves – have another name. For several decades they have been four of the six members of the "council", a self-appointed lobbying group that influences United States policy on the Sudans.

From the 1980s on, the council met regularly at a bistro in Washington where they plotted in support of southern Sudanese rebel leader John Garang, Mayardit's predecessor. They set about using their roles in successive US administrations, or in academia, to push the cause of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which later became the ruling party in South Sudan.

Bistro meetings
Reeves, an English professor, became one of most prolific writers on Sudan. Along with Prendergast, who worked in the Bill Clinton administration before setting up his own pressure group, Enough, he was responsible for turning an obscure war in western Sudan into a movement to stop genocide in Darfur. Prendergast has been instrumental in getting stars such as George Clooney involved in the fate of the Sudans.

A sign of the council's influence was that Susan Rice, who heads the US state department, was an occasional diner at the bistro meetings.

Dagne, born in Ethiopia, worked behind the scenes in Congress before eventually spending a stint as advisor to Mayardit after the south had voted to secede three years ago. The decision to share concerns publicly that in the past would have been aired privately is telling.

Their letter was not the only one to cause a stir. Among the respected public figures to speak out against corruption in the fledgling state is Jok Madut Jok, a junior minister in South Sudan. He wrote his own letter detailing the petty graft he has seen infect every level of society, and warns that a "culture of corruption" is consuming the country's hopes for development.

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