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The View from Here: News out of South Sudan

Mike Gangwer Published on 18 July 2014
voters in the Southern Sudanese

There is fresh news out of the world’s newest country, South Sudan, which was formed just a few years ago. The news is not good. Readers of this column know I spent nearly eight months in South Sudan (about two years ago), and so I have an emotional as well as physical investment in this African country.

If I have learned anything working overseas, it is this: Many people have ideas and express them as aspirations. Some are small. Some are large. For a region, declaring a goal of independence so a group of citizens can live, manage, govern and exist on their own is a large aspirational goal. Our own country sought such a goal.



In the southern portion of Sudan, such a group of people made this declaration of independence. Often during my time there, radios were on with speeches by South Sudanese leaders making a compelling case for independence.

When I asked someone to translate the speech into English from the native tongue of Arabic, I was told the leader talked of being against the status quo. The speech included a historical perspective, including injustice and unfairness and lack of self-determination.

I asked if there was any part of the speech that talked about the future, especially in real terms of what happens next. How is a government formed? What is the role of government? How will government be held accountable? And perhaps most fundamentally, what is it government must do that people themselves cannot do?

The answer was always no. My second day in South Sudan was particularly instructive. My colleague and I attended an agricultural fair in Juba (the capital city). It had a county fair feel to it. In the mid-afternoon the new vice president and one of the state governors took the podium.

Both of them extolled the virtues of their new country, now set free from Sudan and in particular the capital of Sudan, Khartoum.


I did not hear a single word about how the new country would be managed. Yet here were two leaders, and while I was unclear as to exactly how they had been elected, their position and status was important to them.

Couple this together with the tremendous presence of foreigners in South Sudan, all funded by governments or private firms, including churches, to help this new country stand on its own. I have often reported that my disappointment is: The bulk of this help was/is an entitlement program.

Nearly all foreign organizations seek to win over the “hearts and minds” of the local people … and the way to accomplish this is giving them material things. These include something as small as a carton of seed to a 100-kilometer-long road.

There are two huge problems with this entitlement effort. Development programs based on stuff without capacity building fail. People become enslaved to getting things and soon find themselves expecting to be taken care of.

Second, such entitlement programs are not sustainable. At some point, the foreigners will leave for the next mission. At least most of them do. What are people to do if they have not had to figure out how to govern themselves?

The growing pains of a new country are difficult at best. Helping people form a sense of governance is the foundation of success … not how many tractors are given. Yet in South Sudan, in spite of the billions of dollars spent and thousands of hours of time, the country has devolved into civil strife to the extent that people identify themselves by allegiance to tribes and not to a new country.


Such civil strife impedes any kind of progress and really puts a stop to foreign investment in a country so desperate to stand on its own.

During my time in South Sudan, I suggested the appropriate work there was helping the South Sudanese develop a sense of the appropriate role of a government and not giving people stuff.

I refer to development and not critical aid given after a catastrophic event such as weather extremes or war. I am suggesting that when we help someone, we help those who help themselves. The goal we seek is the obvious one: When they can stand on their own, it is not necessary to stay one more day.

I will never forget my discussion with the governor of Eastern Equatoria in Torit. He told me his country will never make progress as long as the foreigners are here, including me. We drove out to the Torit airfield (the dirt landing strip) and watched a large airplane land, taxi and open up its cargo door. Inside were three pallets of rice, cooking oil and used clothing.

They were loaded onto a truck and taken to town for distribution. The governor was angry. “We don’t need this, any of it.” He confided that he felt such an airlift or arrival by truck of stuff was the root cause of laziness. He used that word in this context.

I believe in the adage told to me when I was growing up: “You help those who help themselves.” The South Sudanese have independence now. The best way to help them is having a frank discussion with the leadership … that elected leaders have a duly responsible role to serve as public servants; this is a privilege with accountability. We can help them understand their country will not be exceptional until it is governed properly.

Who decides what proper government is? The people themselves do. Good governance is based upon the common man and not the individual man. Written differently, the collective thoughts of a people are channeled into a democratic form of governance that places no person above another.

The rule of law is based upon the civil discourse and discussion that is based upon fairness and equitable justice. The common good is identified and shared equally. The individual good is based upon individual merit, scholarship, accomplishment, work ethos, personal freedom and intrinsic liberty.

The goal of a society that seeks to be a civilization is the proper balance between the common and the individual good. We do not find these in a handbook, nor do we develop them over the span of a few years. But we have examples of nearly 175 other countries to choose from.

I am so disappointed with the news out of South Sudan. I am not sure the South Sudanese were ready for independence. I do not think they answered the question … “what comes next?” PD

PHOTO: Voters in the southern Sudanese city of Juba celebrate with the flag of South Sudan in 2011 during the first day of voting for an independence referendum. Photo courtesy of Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

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