Alan Boswell is a journalist, writing on South Sudan, conflict and statebuilding. This interview was conducted as part of the “Crises in Context” educational awareness campaign at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
In what context and in which environment did you experience South Sudan?
I first came to South Sudan as a journalist in 2009, and then moved to South Sudan in early 2010 through the April 2010 elections and 2011 referendum and independence. I’ve traveled in and out of South Sudan and Sudan ever since doing journalism and conflict research.
How have your feelings towards the situation in South Sudan evolved over the past six years, since its independence?
Thanks to my travels around South Sudan and up-close exposure to South Sudan’s toxic politics, I never was bullish on South Sudan as a stable country or the [Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM)] as a ruling party, which is evident in the articles I wrote leading up to independence and soon after. Still, all of us who witnessed South Sudan’s birth as a country experienced the hope embodied in its independence. The collapse of South Sudan may not be a surprise but that has made the catastrophe no less depressing to watch.
As far as an evolution in my thinking on South Sudan: At first, as a journalist, I was very focused on America’s problematic and largely-deluded love affair with South Sudan’s ruling party, the SPLM. In the years since, I’ve come to view South Sudan’s challenges as far more rooted in its structural deficits as a political or security entity than in any particular shortfalls of its leaders and institutions. (This perspective is very much a minority one in the policy world, which instinctually adheres to the Great Man theory of history.) South Sudan was a radical political experiment in reverse-engineered statebuilding – a radical experiment really without precedent, undertaken without the depth of consideration or care that such an experiment demanded. The experiment failed and continues to fail at the cost of far too many lives and the destruction of whole societies. We didn’t care enough to know better. We still don’t. Thus far there has been very little attempt to even try and learn the lessons of what went wrong.
In your experience, how different is the interethnic struggle during the Second Sudanese Civil War compared to the current interethnic conflicts in South Sudan?
Most of the current ethnic animosities are rooted in past grievances. However, this war is not – as some commentators and policy makers lazily assert – merely a continuation of previous “tribal” fighting. South Sudan’s war is a war of state formation. As those versed in the history of atrocities know, ethnic cleansing often accompanies state formations as groups battle for control over the new nation-state. For those more interested in this topic, I would recommend the work of Andreas Wimmer of Columbia University. This historical comparative perspective is also why I have little sympathy for those policy makers who plead they were blindsided by the current war: the most egregious mistake of all is to not have structured a transition to guard against these risks or to have seriously contingency planned for this potentiality.
It’s important to understand why the groups in South Sudan are fighting – not out of ancient ethnic animosities, but over a very modern political game created by the rules of Westphalian sovereignty. A crude state formation has produced a new game of King of the Hill, and this game of King of the Hill is the driver of the conflict. Calls for interethnic reconciliation, as if this crisis is just a matter of tribal animosities, may be well meaning but is fundamentally misguided. It is not tribal hatreds tearing South Sudan apart, but an incongruous political structure pitting groups against other groups in a winner-take-all system that no one can win. It is impossible in the near-term for any state to achieve monopoly of force over South Sudan without political consensus, but one party can hang onto Juba indefinitely without political consensus. This is the root of the conflict, and this is the consequence of naïve, programmatic “nation-building.” Those who hope that new leaders alone would change these fundamental political dynamics I’m afraid would be disappointed once again.
How does the current humanitarian crisis in South Sudan differ from those in other parts of the world, such as the crisis in the Levant?
Both are terrible humanitarian crises. The two are difficult to compare to each other, as few places on earth are like South Sudan. In South Sudan, few battles take place: war is against territory and populations, not combatants. There are certainly parallels with the situation in the Levant. Compared to the Levant, South Sudan’s violence could be described as “low-intensity,” but only if systematic rape, machete attacks, or wholesale starvation is a less “intense” form of violence than the aerial bombardment of modern mechanical warfare. One could make the reverse argument.
What discrepancies do you see between the events unfolding in South Sudan and its coverage in Western media?
I’m continually disappointed in both the media’s coverage of South Sudan in relation to comparable crises in the world and the media’s failure to explain the conflict in context. The main challenge for media coverage of South Sudan is that the narrative hit an immediate dead-end. If a conflict is a story only because it is horrendous beyond belief, there is nowhere to progress the story beyond that. The failure to put South Sudan’s collapse in a wider context storyline with new twists and turns is a failure of journalism. Journalists must find a narrative that continues to develop together with the events on the ground or else coverage of South Sudan will continue to drop even as the crisis continually worsens. America’s direct – historical and ongoing – role in the current crisis offers at least one media narrative for Western audiences that remains perplexingly underdeveloped.
What aspect of the humanitarian situation would you like to shed light on that has not gained the media’s attention?
Since July, South Sudan has produced the largest human exodus in Africa since the Rwandan genocide. This exodus is separate from the displacement prior to the July collapse and is a direct result of the unintended consequences of a C-grade (I’m being generous) peace process. In many ways, the current war in South Sudan is actually a new war largely distinct from the 2013-2015 conflict. From a humanitarian perspective, a very bad situation has now spread to engulf much more of the country. From a political perspective, a new war is a new war and must be analyzed as such. You may be surprised how many policymakers and diplomats fail to do so. At the most basic level of journalism and diplomacy, we have not invested the resources to even try and analyze the conflict with any depth. Just because our international institutions only have the capacity for simple solutions doesn’t mean that simple solutions will be forthcoming.
Do you have any stories from your work that you would like to share that would help Western audiences understand the scope of the crisis in South Sudan?
One of the most appalling aspects of the war has been the rampant, systematic sexual violence waged on women. Plenty of these stories have already been told but deserve special attention.
How do you imagine the civil war in South Sudan coming to an end?
It is hard to envision this now, but in the absence of a sustained diplomatic push to build new regional and international consensus, the war will continue until some point in the future when the ground is ripe for a new political settlement based on whatever facts on the ground emerge. Such a path will also be long, bloody, and involve more ethnic cleansing and, yes, potentially, genocide.
It is difficult for outsiders to fully appreciate how difficult the “Give War a Chance” prescription is to implement in South Sudan, a place so heavily fractured and without even the basic infrastructure of roads. South Sudan is unwinnable in the near-term, which is one of the reasons that the political violence is so extreme. The only thing holding South Sudan together at its birth was crude force and corrupt patronage. Neither are effective in a stable, sustainable sense.
What gives you hope that the conflict will come to an end?
The collapse of the peace deal in July 2016 was also the final collapse of more than a decade of failed, naïve Western policy on South Sudan. Many South Sudanese elite now finally recognize that we don’t actually have a good prescription for how to build a centralized state from scratch. There is now a growing consensus among South Sudanese for the need for a national convention where a South Sudan union can be negotiated between South Sudanese, a political union of shared sovereignty that finds a model that fits South Sudan, rather than trying to violently squeeze South Sudan into a model that doesn’t fit. This national political settlement should’ve formed the foundation of South Sudan’s independence all along.
How can ordinary people distanced from the conflict contribute to helping the South Sudanese people?
MSF (Doctors Without Borders) continues to stand out among aid groups for its gritty, conscientious, life-saving work in very difficult circumstances.
I won’t argue for simplistic advocacy solutions because South Sudan’s current crisis is partially the result of a simplistic advocacy solution to an incredibly complex problem. Ordinary people who care should push for diplomatic engagement rather than sound bite solutions. I’m not optimistic about human rights advocacy groups reforming their own shortcomings in enough time to assist a collapsing South Sudan they helped create.
In general, ordinary people should pressure their political representatives to push for active diplomacy on South Sudan. Right now, that includes pressuring the current US administration to appoint a Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan and then fully back that envoy with more than the occasional press statement. The actual prescription for South Sudan will not fit on a bumper sticker, but people can go a long way towards making sure the US government continues to engage the crisis with real diplomatic capital. Anyone telling you that the US is actively engaged on South Sudan right now is selling you a convenient fib. The US has largely disengaged and is without a coherent policy on the way forward. The Obama administration’s policy collapsed in its final year in office, and the Trump administration has yet to pick up the issue with any seriousness.