THE BLOG
24/12/2013 06:06 GMT | Updated 21/02/2014 05:59 GMT

The Real Significance of the New South Sudan Civil Conflict

The latest civil conflict within newly-independent South Sudan is a depressing, avoidable tragedy.

This is a part of Africa that has already fought two 'civil' wars in pursuit of independence. It is chronically poor and suffers the worlds highest infant and maternal mortality - and female illiteracy. There are few roads, hospitals or proper schools for its 10m estimated population... but there is an abundance of oil and minerals. Crushing poverty and chronically inefficient agriculture have lead to immobile communities and exaggerated tribal divisions.

South Sudan is a British creation in two senses - the agglomeration of Anglo-Egyptian regions into independent 'Sudan' in 1956 (the UK considered making South Sudan part of Uganda), and in the 21stC UK/US military, financial and diplomatic support for independence in the 2nd civil war - leading to a peace deal in 2005 and independence in 2011.

The current leadership in South Sudan would not be in power if it were not for UK/US support. But being hardened military guys most had little interest in the niceties of government - preferring, perhaps understandably, a 'spoils of war' approach. Most have luxury houses in Nairobi; and self-enrichment has proven a hard habit to break.

Some in the elite see 'government, economy and reform' as the thing the foreign aid agencies do, while they squirrel away the cash... while the West turns a blind eye. British anti-corruption advisers have come and gone... President Salva Kiir Mayardit, donning his trademark hat he received from President Bush a decade ago, takes his a dominant Dinka Tribe trickle-down largesse seriously, leading to complaints from the many other tribal leaders.

The most vocal complainants were the Nuer tribe members - whilst also Nilotic, had acquired a parallel sense of entitlement. Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, was thus trying to cascade cash to senior Nuer tribals until sacked in a purge. This triggered the current conflict.

Mid-ranking advisers and aid workers had been predicting this conflict for years. With indigenous-run government almost absent and a tribally-based dog-in-the manger attitude to economic activity, independence, and the 6-year preparation for independence, did not bring economic freedoms. Worse was the failure to use oil revenues to build very basic amenities - roads, telecoms, schools, electric lighting and simple functioning local government. Contract 'commissions' between tribal leaders are fought over for months or years, compounding the sclerotic aid bureaucracies' delays. The West somehow couldn't stop the large scale diversion of funds.

Whilst Western diplomats, NGOs, and aid folk as individuals were slogging away at their briefs, the overall Western 'nation-building' system was as chaotic and dysfunctional as it was in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and East Timor. Whilst the Western security guys, spooks and oil industry politicos have been as dismissive of 'nation-building' as some of the South Sudanese military leaders, they may all end up with nothing as security deteriorates further and the oil business stutters.

Are there any legislators out there that can hold their respective executive branches to account and bang heads together domestically and internationally ? The populations' hopes have been raised and dashed on our watch. From 2005, tribal divisions were ever-present as in much of Africa - meaning that peace and economic well-being were dependent on very rapid economic development... some of it costly but most of it not. The West's weak and catastrophically formulaic approach has been wholly reprehensible.

It has been obvious from the start that a new tribally-divided nation with power and livelihoods based on jostling for crumbs from the oil revenue and aid industry table, is going to descend into tribal conflict, if 'sized-to-fit' governmental and economic development is not paramount, and a condition of Western support.

I do not underestimate the difficulty or complexity of creating a pro-Western nation-state, but if it is alleged that objectors do, then the question must be asked as to why the UK and US choose to become embroiled in pursuit of outcomes which are known to be near-impossible at the start. The great tragedy in past decades is the loss of life in the achievement of independence.

The current tragedy is Western inability to use its leverage to ensure this civil war didn't happen. We should not blame African culture or tribalism, we should brutally look to our own inadequacies.