South Sudan: The Untold Story from Independence to Civil War. By Hilde Johnson. I.B. Tauris; 304 pages; $35 and £20.
HILDE JOHNSON is a Norwegian former minister for international development who became head of the UN mission in South Sudan when it gained independence in 2011. Two years after leaving the capital, Juba, she has written an account of the challenges she faced and tries to explain how the world’s newest country spiralled from hope to civil war. “South Sudan” is packed with riveting detail, but mostly shows how badly international actors, including Ms Johnson herself, have misjudged their roles in South Sudan.
The first time this reviewer met the author, she was living in a hotel in the centre of Juba. The special representative of the UN secretary-general had resisted living within the confines of a UN base. Ms Johnson said that she wanted to live among the South Sudanese. Her ambition was admirable, but misjudged; most South Sudanese live in mud-walled huts, as opposed to a several-storey hotel with room service and a working lift.
A large part of Ms Johnson’s mission was to work with the country’s many different actors. As she documents in detail, she routinely met senior government and military figures, advising, entreating, cajoling. Ms Johnson saw her role as head of the UN mission as personal. “They never lie to me. They know that I know them too well,” she said of the generals leading the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel movement that became the fledgling nation’s regular army. But lie they did. Over and over again. In retelling the history, the author seems as blind to this as she is dogged in her biases, making frequent mentions of “freedom fighters”, “comrades” and “cadres”.
Her book also reaffirms a narrative that has long been favoured by the country’s gatekeepers—a tight network of Western academics and their humanitarian and defence advisers, as well as their affiliated figures within South Sudan. It is a narrative that resists naming names in connection with atrocities and corruption, and downplays or even suppresses the role of ethnicity in the mayhem of the past three years.
It also fails to grasp the way that South Sudanese leaders perceive the UN and its biggest supporters—America, Norway and Britain. Earlier this month, as violence escalated, a state-affiliated group, the Red Army Foundation, posted on Facebook a call for the public to “resist” plans by the UN to “invade South Sudan” and “overthrow the government”, suggesting that the Western presence is seen as far less idealistic than its leaders might believe.
Ms Johnson closes her book with a plea for still more international engagement to “save South Sudan” so that “the next generation of South Sudanese leaders” can “finally build the country their people dreamt of. Only then can South Sudan rise as a nation.” Her plea is admirable, but again misplaced. The real question is how the “nation”, as perceived by the SPLA and its Dinka leadership, deals with other ethnicities. Heavy fighting broke out in Juba on July 7th. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Two Chinese peacekeepers are among the more than 300 said to have been killed in five days of fighting. Civilians who sought protection inside UN bases have also died. The corpses are decomposing, and there is no way to transport them to a morgue. So they will be buried there, inside the perimeter fencing where the UN had sought to protect them. And so the bloodshed continues.