Peter Martell’s moving evocation of South Sudan’s slide into civil war

As British ambassador to South Sudan from 2015 to 2017, I was there for the second disastrous collapse of the government. I hope the fragile new peace can become permanent.

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South Sudan is the world’s newest state – seven years old this year – and the world’s most fragile. Two-thirds of the population are aid-dependent. Probably one-third are displaced, with over a million (roughly a twelfth of the population) refugees in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and even Sudan, the old enemy.

The leadership has so far failed to agree its own power-sharing, and shown no inclination to build a country for its people. Rather it has turned on itself, looted, fought, and unleashed unspeakable horrors on its innocent. The number lost since independence to ethnic slaughter, mindless violence and man-made famine is, so far, uncounted – but is probably in the hundreds of thousands.

These are phrases and numbers which trip off the fingers of those reporting on the civil war. They create few ripples in the international media. Distant audiences perhaps see this as Africa normal, a vision of a heart of darkness and violence. As with the awful history of neighbouring Congo, that ignores a reality.

This country is a product of a set of dramatic historical circumstances which have led to the widespread suffering of a brave and generous people. These (or rather the ordinary South Sudanese) are people like people everywhere, but have been subjected to an extraordinary and cruel set of political forces.

The history of South Sudan, in European eyes, as so often in Africa, only started in the late nineteenth century. It only came to the attention of the wider outside world in the liberation struggles of the 1960s. That reflects our history and our view of Africa, rather than the reality for Africans.

The history of the region is, of course, as old as mankind. The tissue of relationships which grew into the Zande Kingdom to the West, and the crossroads of other migrations, was formed over millennia. The northern people of what is now Sudan and Egypt enslaved many. The Anglo-Egyptian condominium put an end to that and broadly kept the peace, but as elsewhere decolonization, in 1956, left South Sudan a rural and undeveloped territory, a part of the Sudan, and one easily dominated by Khartoum.

In one of the longest wars, of fifty years, the Southerners rebelled against the Arab North, first for equal rights in a united Sudan but ultimately for independence. The idealistic Anya-Nya rebel movement of the 1960s metamorphosed into the South Sudan People’s Army (SPLA) under John Garang.

The regionally and internationally mediated Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was agreed in 2005 to give the people of the South a vote on their future by which they overwhelmingly, by almost 99 per cent, chose independence. The euphoria lasted 17 months before breaking down into a civil war which has lasted ever since. The latest peace accord was signed in August.

Can South Sudan, Peter Martell asks at the end of First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace, his striking and moving evocation of the terrible last sixty years it has undergone, look to a brighter future? Quoting Heaney, he hopes that “Once in a lifetime / The longed for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up /And hope and history rhyme.”

Peter Martell has reported for South Sudan for the BBC for a decade, and was their correspondent in Juba for three years around independence. This book is a labour of love for the people of South Sudan and an expression of hope for their future. He traces the history with clarity and a sure touch in identifying the key events and developments. He had an extraordinary experience of criss-crossing the country off any beaten track, interviewing both leaders and foot soldiers as well as many caught in the upheaval of war, violence, and pillage.

The balance of the narrative is between the long struggle for freedom from the North and the disaster of civil war between the South Sudanese since independence. He describes the way the rebellion turned on itself in the 1990s, crucially in the split between Garang and his two opponents, Riek Machar and Lam Akol, and the subsequent fratricide, not subsequently resolved in spite of supposed reconciliation.

This seems to have sown the seeds of the horrors of the war from 2011 to 2017 – the extreme violence against particular ethnic communities, and the multiple rape and murder of children on both sides. The author describes these horrors graphically. The evidence for them is overwhelming.

Martell also presents, in justifiably stark terms, the unmet challenges of independence and the failure of all protagonists, including the international community, to build a country. Quarrelling leaders stole or spent on military equipment all the oil revenues and as much of the international community’s aid as they could. The region, while leading the peace effort, was divided, and the wider international community went from unquestioning spending to making shocked but ineffective statements condemning the violence.

Martell questions why the South Sudanese leaders behaved so criminally and irresponsibly. Rebel commanders cannot build states, he says, and he also notes a crucial observable factor in them: they themselves have lived in war, and have been traumatized by it.

I sympathise with this. Working with selfless colleagues, I accompanied South Sudanese and regional and international governments in the attempt to rebuild after 2013, as British Government Special Representative, and as British Ambassador to South Sudan from 2015-2017, including the second disastrous collapse of the government. I sincerely hope that the now resuscitated peace process can have effect, and above all that peace becomes a habit. There have been no quick or easy answers to what has been a psychiatric drama inflicted on an undeserving people. But one day the conflict and the stealing will stop.

What in the end movingly comes across from Martell’s accurate analysis, description and storytelling is his love for the South Sudanese people. As for all those who visit or work in the country, these are not faces in a crowd: they are people who actually live there, who, like everywhere else, want a job, want to look after their families, educate their sons and daughters, contribute to society, and enjoy themselves.

This includes the young, who are studying in the region, training to be professionals, or, thanks to programmes such as one supported by DFID and the UK private sector, the more than 120,000 girls who have gone through school; and the old and wise, who have been able somehow to explain and, in a church or University, chart a future of hope for their smashed society. May we stand with them.

Tim Morris served as UK special representative to the 2013 South Sudan peace talks, and was British ambassador to South Sudan from 2015 to 2017. He now works in the private sector, advising on investment in Africa.

First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace
Peter Martell
C Hurst & Co, 320pp, £21.25