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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > September 2016 > The stillborn state

The stillborn state

The creation of South Sudan has brought war not peace— those who would divide Syria should take note

“This is a rich country, like Europe. What went wrong?” In an anarchic refugee camp in South Sudan, hundreds of miles from the capital Juba, an old man named Francis singled me out. United Nations helicopters zoomed above our heads, almost drowning out his voice. Passing us in the mud alley, young children carried buckets of dirt on their heads to plug up holes in their makeshift homes, while others played in the trenches of dirty water that ran like a grid through the camp. The smell of sewage was unbearable.

Soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) prepare to withdraw from Juba in February in accordance with the terms of a peace agreement between the government and the opposition signed in August 2015
© SAMIR BOL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

South Sudan is the newest country on earth. It was hoped that its creation in 2011 would bring stability and peace. But these ambitions have not been realised and in the sprawling camp, Francis was trying to make sense of what had happened to him and to his country. After 25 years of living in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, he had decided to return to the south, where he was born. There, rather than a welcoming homeland he found a brutal sectarian war. He fled, ending up near the city of Malakal in a camp under the protective shadow of a UN military base which, he said, made him feel “like I am in jail.” But if he went back to where he had lived in South Sudan, “All of my belongings would be stolen, and I would be taken to a corner and killed… It’s my own brother in South Sudan who could shoot me in the back of the head.”

As Syria, torn by civil war, heads towards a division of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines, we should study the example of South Sudan. It is a parable about the peril of dreaming up fragile new mini-states as a response to problems within troubled old countries. South Sudan is not so much a failed state as one that never truly came into being; it was born dead. Before 2011, Juba was a garrison town built out of mud huts and plastic sheeting. An influx of money remade it overnight into a Potemkin capital. Now construction has come to a halt, and the more sheepish nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have gone home. The run of half-built empty buildings give the city an eerie quality. When the place was flooded with cash, the President could at least buy his way out of trouble. But there are 745 generals in the South Sudanese army, and 28 regional governors to pay for—and no money left in the kitty.

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In Prospect’s September issue: Paul Johnson argues that there is no getting away from the fact our economic prospects have got worse post-Brexit. Paul Wallace attempts to outline how the government will try and deal with that situation, while Nicolas Véron suggests that The City of London will decline outside the European Union. On a brighter note, Clive James explores what we can learn from the television show Mad Men. Also in this issue: Patience Wheatcroft, the Conservative peer, suggests that Brexit might not be a done deal with a rebellion in the Lords possible. Thomas Chatterton Williams explores the work and Beyoncé and argues that black artists are failing to say anything profound and James Dyson outlines how he would rule the world.
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