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Erik Solheim Headshot

How Could We Get It So Wrong?

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South Sudan suddenly exploded into a chaos of mass murder and ethnic fighting on December 15 last year. President Salva Kiir had fired his Vice President Riek Machar and the secretary-general of SPLM, the ruling party and the only political machine in the land, in an attempt to consolidate power. Ethnic tensions arose as Machar mobilized his Nuer supporters while Kiir called upon his fellow Dinkas for support. At least ten thousand have since been killed, close to a million internally displaced and entire cities burnt to the ground.

How could this happen in the same country that had fought so long for its independence from Sudan and finally won its freedom? The nation where well above 99 percent had voted for independence and a united people had aspired to build a new country. I was there with many world leaders when statehood was declared on the 9th of July in 2011. Tears of joy filled the potholes in the streets of Juba. The mood was ecstatic, the colors eclectic and the speeches euphoric. Even a terrible dancer like me was tempted to throw myself into the rhythms and join the scores of beautiful dancing women!

I was for many years involved in the negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan which involved frequent visits to all parts of this beautiful country. I considered President Kiir with his characteristic hat a good friend and knew well former vice president Machar, a former guerrilla fighter with a PhD. Now they are shooting at each other and much of what they once fought for and built up together is lost.

The crisis came as a complete surprise to the international community with the favorable exception of Ethiopia and a few others. People were busy planning an international investment conference a mere two weeks before the violence erupted. It was business as usual and the objective was to generate more money for health care and education. The Vice President and a number of ministers had already been sacked and many African countries were increasingly concerned. But, it was evident that the broader international community basically had gotten it completely wrong. I visited South Sudan six weeks prior to the breakdown and met with a number of diplomats and aid officials. Some told me that the sacked leaders had accepted the situation and started new and better lives. They drank less, went to church more frequently and had even taken up yoga and other interesting activities. In any case, the former warriors had been replaced by more competent technocrats so all was basically well and good. How on earth did we get it so wrong?

The short answer: We forgot the primacy of politics.

International partners so often underestimate the importance of politics for keeping the peace. Development and prosperity helps stabilize countries in the long run and the use of force is sometimes necessary. But, politics is always the key. Nation building is a long and often violent process. The Chinese state arose out of a sea of blood more than 2,000 years ago and more people died in the American civil war than in all external US wars combined. We should have learned about the importance of politics in Afghanistan and Iraq, but keep getting it wrong. Nation building is long and difficult processes requiring political solutions. Unless we put politics in the centre, we are doomed to fail.

Political mediation, not development programs or aid principles, should have been our overriding focus when SPLM, the one and only political machine in South Sudan, crumbled at the top. Crisis in

South Sudan will not be salvaged by opposition parties with no real power or by civil society organizations with limited outreach. Leaders do not appeal on the basis of ideology, class, religion or geography so power struggles easily becomes matters of tribe and ethnicity.

The aftermath in South Sudan illustrates the problem of having a narrow focus on development and investments when tensions are brewing under the surface. It makes no sense to build a school today if the school can be burnt down and the teachers massacred tomorrow. Fragile states such as South Sudan are vulnerable and it takes very little for the state to crumble and chaos to reign. An economic crisis, natural disaster or petty quarrels between leaders can lead to full-scale collapse. Much progress will be lost in the ensuing violence and destruction. The African Development Bank estimates that a civil war in Africa cost as much as 20 to 30 years worth of development. The Liberian GDP was close to 1100 dollars in 1980, a figure that had fallen to 160 dollars when Nobel peace prize laureate Ellen Johnsen Sirleaf was elected to pick up the pieces after years of violent conflict.

Avoiding such breakdowns and assist state formation should be our main concern in fragile states. The OECD Development Assistance Committee will step forward to try to enforce this message. Donors must use their development budgets to underpin legitimate governments and support peace mediation. The donor countries have under the New Deal committed to support fragile states and provide funding for their political priorities. The idea is to use development assistance in a way that support and strengthens the state. The New Deal for Somalia lead by EU generated 1.5 billion dollars for security, judicial reform and tax administration. Not the most exiting way to spend aid and definitely not one that provides dazzling photo opportunities for visiting ministers. However, it is what the Somalis deemed most important for their own future. It is a lot of money, but it is nothing compared to the billions wasted on random development projects and the cost of twenty years of war and terrorism. Development assistance must put the developing country in the lead, support the political priorities and put the state to work. As the Somali finance Minister Suleiman told me -- Please use our country system, otherwise the state will not grow stronger.

The crisis in South Sudan should provide some lessons for the international community. A new deal for South Sudan requires the attention and dedication of politician and civil servants at the highest level. We will not understand complex conflicts and contribute constructively unless we send the best people with the necessary experience. Ethiopia is leading the regional countries in the peace talks and no one is better suited to do this job. Donors should use their funds to support that process, not use money and high-profile visits to divert attention elsewhere. There is no other way forward than a compromise government involving the warring sides. The international community can play a productive role by using development assistance to support the government, use the country system and mobilize support for those doing the right thing.

Let us use the opportunity provided by the crisis in South Sudan to put up a big mirror for the international partners, look into how we got it so wrong and thus start a better future chapter. Anyone believes that conflict prevention is too costly? Then try conflict.