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Systems of Governance

The Mission of Forgetting

Joshua Craze offers a sobering analysis of the fantasy that is the United Nations mandate and presence in South Sudan, where civil war is the order of every day. The organisation’s peacekeeping mission, Craze argues, is based on the fundamental logic of the UN’s functioning: to recreate the image of its membership wherever it goes – regardless of context – and to enforce a neutrality that wilfully ignores reality and guarantees an inherently incoherent response.

Collage by Buntu Fihla

Collage by Buntu Fihla

Everyone is waiting for everything to stop. The patrols. The water shortages. The endless reports to headquarters. The long walk out to the toilets at the edge of camp that must be taken early in the morning, before the sun casts its dominion over the sky and the urine starts to steam. The peacekeepers have run out of movies to watch. They want to go home. Everyone is waiting for South Sudan to stop, and for life to begin again.

I am in a United Nations (UN) base just outside Renk, at the tip of Upper Nile State, in the far north of South Sudan. This close to the Sudanese border, the sun is still radiant and the ground dusty, though it is June, and the rest of the state is already mired in rainy-season mud. We stand at the edge of a football field that doubles as a landing pad, and we wait, scanning the sky, hoping for a helicopter. For the last month, the South Sudanese army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), has repeatedly cancelled flights into Renk. Perhaps today will be different.

It is June 2015, and it is war. Last week, SPLA attack helicopters destroyed a hospital in Kodok, a small town on the west bank of the Nile held by the rebels. Government forces are massing to the south of where I stand, intent on retaking Malakal, the state capital. Since the civil war began in December 2013, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. No one knows how many have died. Renk’s South Sudanese inhabitants live abbreviated lives. Everyone is waiting for the war to stop, and the world to begin again.

Ahmed*, a genial Jordanian peacekeeper, stares into the sky, bereft. He recounts his travel plans. A helicopter flight to Malakal, and then onwards to Juba, South Sudan’s capital. Only then, when he’s sitting in the departure lounge, will he allow himself to imagine the flight to Dubai, the connection to Amman, and the moment he gets to see his family again. He tells himself he deserves the break. South Sudan will still be here when he gets back, and anyway: what can one man do in this madness? He hasn’t seen his kids for four months.

[*Ahmed’s name has been changed to protect his identity, as have the names of all the other UN staff mentioned in this essay.]

Renk is a hardship station, and like Ahmed, almost all the peacekeepers here are due leave. The lucky few who manage to game the intricacies of the UN’s bureaucracy and get themselves onto a flight out spend their last few days saying goodbye to their colleagues. At the appointed hour, with bags packed and expectant eyes, they assemble at the landing pad. Then the flight is cancelled and work begins again. There will be innumerable last days. Most of the peacekeepers have had months of suspended departures. After a while, no one bothers saying goodbye. All that remains is absence and patrols through a country they have already left.

There is nothing in the quiet blue sky, not even a cloud in whose suggestive shape we could divine the presence of a coming helicopter. After a while, the sun forces us to retreat to a nearby container. The peacekeepers don’t talk of their families, or of South Sudan, but of the pragmatics of leave. How to make sure your leave days don’t include travel days. How to snag extra time in Juba before deployment to Upper Nile. What signatures need to go where, and on which form. Leaving South Sudan is the common language uniting the peacekeepers mandated to protect it. After an hour, the conversation dies down. Dimitry, a baby-faced Russian, flicks through his Facebook feed. Over the radio we hear reports of clashes on the east bank of the Nile. Then we get the message. The helicopter from Malakal to Renk is cancelled again. Ahmed sighs, “War fucks everything up.”


In July 2011, world dignitaries dutifully assembled under the unrelenting Juba sun to congratulate South Sudan on successfully seceding from Sudan. The UN was to join arms with the new nation, building a state and expanding its mission in lockstep. Only 30 months later, in December 2013, the streets of the capital were lit up by gunfire, as militias linked to the president, Salva Kiir, went door-to-door, killing Nuer civilians. The Nuer are South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic group, and that of Riek Machar – the former vice-president, and now leader of the rebel forces. The UN was taken by surprise. “No one,” I was repeatedly told, “ever expected this.”

What began in December 2013 as a political crisis within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political wing of the SPLA and the ruling party in South Sudan, quickly became a civil war that spread to the states of Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity. In the international media, there were initially two accounts of the conflict. Either it was inter-ethnic strife fermented by age-old hatred, or else a struggle at the top between power-hungry politicians. Not infrequently, the two stories were combined: cunning politicians manipulate ancient antagonisms.

Neither story really gets at what is happening in South Sudan. The first turns the current conflict into ancient history, immutable and inexorable, while the second transforms it into a game of Risk, played by calculating politicians. Both stories implicitly rely on there being a qualitative difference between peace and war – a crisis in need of explanation. That same assumption, that peace is different from war, underlies the international community’s approach to South Sudan: keen to invest in the South Sudanese state, it has looked forward, and paid little attention to the complex history of the country. The current conflict is better understood as an intensification of antagonisms and patterns of conflict that date back to Sudan’s long second civil war (1983–2005), but that were also present during the period of peace from 2005–13.

Since 1956, and Sudanese independence from Britain, southern Sudan – the area that is now South Sudan – has spent 41 years at war. What the international media sees as an exception is better understood as the normal state of things. War has touched everyone in South Sudan. There is no one without a relative who has taken up arms, and the line between civilians and fighters is not clear: soldiers return to their fields come planting season, and the man sitting by the side of the road, drinking tea and waiting for better times, probably also once fought, and may yet do so again. For hundreds of thousands of young men, war has been a way of life, and one of the principal means of finding sufficient resources to live. For the country’s Nilotic elite, war has long been the central way to accumulate what matters most in life: cattle, money and wives.

During the second civil war, commanders in South Sudan made power bases in the regions of their birth, largely recruiting their forces from among their own kin. The civil war, and the imported guns it brought with it, allowed these commanders to entrench their positions of dominance in their kin-group, just as their kin provided the manpower that allowed these men to become powerful commanders. They taxed trade in areas under their control, and bought and sold commodities. Bridewealth payments among South Sudan’s Nilotic populations all involve cattle, and livestock looted from enemies during the war was redistributed to the commanders’ followers, or else used to build alliances through marriage.

In 2005, the SPLM and the Sudanese government signed a peace agreement. The international community heralded the end of the war, and the beginning of a new era for southern Sudan. Less changed than one might imagine. The commanders remained secure in their personal fiefdoms, and the logic of accumulation continued unabated, even as the resources shifted. Cattle raiding and pillaging were at least partially replaced by political battles over oil revenue and government cash. Mundane bureaucracy also became increasingly effective as an instrument of war.

In Upper Nile, the White Nile pushes north, past Malakal and up to Renk, cleaving the state in two. On its west bank live the Shilluk, South Sudan’s third-largest ethnic group. They also lay claim to the east bank of the Nile, and Malakal, which lies on it. Since 2005, their eastern neighbours, the Padang Dinka, have become increasingly powerful in the government of Upper Nile, and have created new counties under their control on the east bank of the Nile, forcing the Shilluk west. These counties were eligible for state funds, and international NGOs moved in to support the nascent administrations, blind to the political stakes. Seen from the UN offices in Juba, these developments were evidence of the increasing power of a strong central state. Viewed from the west bank of the Nile, however, the expansion of government in Upper Nile had marginalised the Shilluk community, and intensified antagonisms in the state.

The conflict waged through county border delimitations and selective government and NGO investment from 2005–13 continued after the current civil war began. Following the December 2013 massacres in Juba, the SPLM lost control of much of the SPLA, which was dominated by Nuer fighters who joined Riek Machar’s rebellion. In Upper Nile, the army was saved by Johnson Olonyi, a Shilluk commander who until April 2013 had been fighting a guerrilla war against the SPLA over his community’s political marginalisation. A gruff, military man, Olonyi is suspicious of the politicians in Juba.

“I have a doctorate in fighting,” he frequently proclaims, a rebuke to Riek Machar, who has a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Bradford. Fighting for the government, Olonyi won battle after battle, driving the rebels from the west bank of the Nile. In Malakal, they composed songs praising his feats. His ascendance was a direct threat to the Padang Dinka elite in Upper Nile. In April 2015, Dinka militia groups began attacking his forces, killing his deputy and driving Olonyi away from the government. He turned on the SPLA, eventually joining Machar’s rebels in an uneasy alliance. Forcing this split initially seemed like an enormous tactical blunder for the SPLA; Olonyi’s forces took Malakal and advanced up to the edge of Paloich, the only functioning oil field in South Sudan and the country’s financial life-blood. By June, however, government forces had stepped back from the abyss, recovering territory and pushing Olonyi’s forces onto the west bank of the Nile. What the Dinka politicians around Stephen Dieu Dhau, the minister of petroleum, had attempted to achieve de jure from 2005–13, they were now achieving militarily, using the weapons of the state: the forced displacement of the Shilluk from the east bank of the Nile, and Padang Dinka control of the state government.

Little of this is visible to the peacekeepers I talked to on that sun-drenched June afternoon. I asked Dimitry what he had observed on patrol the day before. He looked up from his Facebook feed, and shrugged. He seemed tired of this country and its incomprehensible politics. He hoped the government would retake Malakal. Then, perhaps, the helicopter flights would stop being cancelled.


“A holding pattern!” he says, turning away from me, “a bloody holding pattern. That’s the official line from the top. A billion-dollar peacekeeping operation and we aren’t doing anything.” The UN worker slumps in his chair and reaches for my cigarettes. Everyone I speak to in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) seems lost. There is a civil affairs division devoted to building relationships between South Sudan’s communities. The division is effectively out of work. No one, he says, is being very civil at the moment.

Back in 2005, creating the South Sudanese state was the UN mission’s priority. Hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into “capacity-building” before the state began killing its own people. Within a year of the war beginning, Bentiu and Malakal, two of the largest and most cosmopolitan places in South Sudan, were ghost towns.

The UNMISS mandate was revised in 2014, and state-building dropped as an objective. The emphasis now is on protecting civilians. Hundreds of thousands have gathered inside UN bases in Bentiu, Juba, and Malakal. The rest of the country, however, receives no help. The UN doesn’t have the troops, the weapons, or the political will to effectively intervene to protect civilians in South Sudan. The SPLA regularly prevents its patrols from accessing conflict sites. The UN remains quiet. The army fires on its barges on the Nile. The UN remains quiet. To criticise the South Sudanese government would be to announce the failure of the mission, and to acknowledge it cannot protect the civilians of South Sudan. So it stays inside its bases. Plans evacuation strategies. Licks its wounds. Waits for the war to stop. For state-building to begin again.


In Renk, a strange scene plays itself out every morning in front of the single-storey building complex that houses the Upper Nile government-in-exile. After Olonyi took Malakal, the government fled north, and occupied what used to be the Renk county government offices. By 8am each day, people are huddled under the cuei trees drinking tea. This is the bureaucratic labour force of the state government, and everyone is waiting for their wages. Some haven’t been paid in months. After the state authority fled Malakal, it issued an announcement: come to Renk or else you will not be paid. Those whose places of work are in rebel-held areas aren’t paid anyway. Nor are most Shilluk functionaries. Some have come from as far away as Khartoum – Sudan’s distant capital – to collect their salaries. The wages are considered an obligation of the state, rather than payment for work done. This isn’t laziness, but the reality of a country that war has dragged to a stop. Those who aren’t paid sit disconsolately under the trees, or hang around the offices. Tomorrow, perhaps, will be their day.

Those who are paid leave the complex, and go to one of the many places in Renk where one can drink tea and watch the world pass. One morning in June 2015, I am sitting with a government worker in the shade of a half-completed building, one of many schemes put on hold by the war. Malonj, my companion, has moved his family to a refugee camp just across the border in Sudan, and is waiting for his salary. I thought, though, you just got paid. Yes, he says, for January, but it is June now.

As we sit, a plume of smoke, careening down Renk’s rough-dirt main street, announces the arrival of a UN patrol. I ask Malonj what he thinks of the UN. Well, he responds philosophically, they do like driving a lot. The UN vehicle parks next to us, and I wave to Ahmed and Dimitry. “Seen anything interesting?”

For the UN peacekeepers, South Sudan is experienced from a vehicle. Regulations mean that no one can go out alone, and the emphasis of these patrols is on getting information visually. Despite the difficulties of gathering intelligence in a war-zone, the real barrier to the UN’s ability to gather information is to be found within the mission itself.

As one UN officer in Malakal later explained to me, “We only trust what we see. What people say… Well, they could be saying anything, and the South Sudanese lie all the time.” The same UN officer, when I later quizzed him on information he had obtained from someone in the SPLA, consulted his notes. “Ah yes,” he said, “I was told that by Major General something something,” and laughed.

There is a basic epistemological suspicion of the country among the peacekeepers. Thrown into a strange place, without any of the language skills or historical knowledge that would make it comprehensible, the peacekeepers become minimal empiricists: do I see it? If so, I shall send the information back to Juba. The rest is chaos. Unknowable.

 But what do the peacekeepers see? From the back of a jeep, the world is flattened. They see men with guns. Almost everyone in South Sudan has a gun. Out there, under the cuei tree, there is a world of difference between the Dinka of Renk, and those of Melut – an intricate set of sectional and affinal distinctions as complicated as any UN hierarchy. They can’t see any of that from the back of a jeep.

It is a different set of categories that populate UN reports. “Armed men”, “bandits”, “unknown assailants”. For the peacekeepers, the world is full of threats, and these threats, first and foremost, are to the UN itself. Like any great bureaucracy, the UN’s first duty is its own preservation. In one document I read, there were vague reports of bandits on a road used by UN patrols, and then the line, “Assume the worst until something is known.” Patrols were suspended due to the threat. It was impossible to find out anything else. That would have required leaving one’s vehicle. Assume the worst becomes a modus operandi when nothing can be known.

I don’t blame Ahmed and Dimitry, as they finish stocking up on cigarettes and soda from the shop next to us, and roar away back to the base. They are soldiers in a strange land. Their job is to put information into boxes, and send it back to Juba. In many ways, their lives are the one success story of the UN mission in South Sudan.

In 2011, I was researching prisons. I wanted to go to a prison in a place called Tonj, and so went to Wau, the nearest state capital, to talk to the UN corrections officer who was supposed to be overseeing it. In her office, Magdalena greeted me reluctantly, and we talked about life. In Nigeria, she had earned US$300 a month as a prison guard. Working for the UN, she earned more than four times that. Her rotation in South Sudan had radically transformed her existence back home, and she had been able to build houses for herself and her parents. She had not, however, been to the prison in Tonj. It is far away, she told me, and the road is dangerous.

A week later, I returned from Tonj, and told Magdalena about the prison. There are, I said, six people tied to a tree in the burning sun. She looked up slowly from her computer, her eyebrows arching, as if to say, “What do you want from me?” She phoned Tonj once a week, and they told her if they were holding any children. They were never holding any children. Magdalena had a simple remit. Fill in the paperwork, keep her head down, don’t cause a fuss within the UN, or with the South Sudanese government, and her life in Nigeria would be transformed. Throughout a UN system whose peacekeepers come from India, Nigeria and Bangladesh, similar financial transfers are transforming lives all over the world. I look forward to a happier future time, when South Sudanese peacekeepers, stationed in whichever country the UN deigns to help next, are also able to send money home.

For Ahmed and Dimitry, just as for Magdalena, most of life is contained within the boredom of a UN base. The containers are laid out like a mini-grid system, narrow stone pathways between them, and come dusk, and the closing of the offices, you can feel the throb of the generators, and hear the gentle hum of Nigerian and Indian movies playing. To help South Sudan, the UN mission has decided to have as little as possible to do with it.


The main UN base in Juba is far from the city. You must head towards Jebel Kujur, the mountain that towers over the capital, until the buildings thin out. Finally, you can pass through the UN checkpoint and arrive at a series of office buildings, overlooking the plain below. Smartly dressed young men in suits move quickly between them, as in the commercial district of any major city, while armed patrols amble by. The base combines a bank and a summer camp. Everyone is always passing through South Sudan on their way elsewhere – a fine posting in New York, perhaps, or else Mali at least, somewhere the world pays attention, if only for a minute.

South Sudan is a rung on a ladder, and to climb that ladder one needs information. Endless reports circulate among offices. At meetings, the competition is to show who knows more. Since the war began, the game has become more intense, as if the less the UN can do outside the fortified walls of its camps, the fiercer the battle for control inside – information as fictional mastery of a situation one is powerless to change.

Sections of good reports are copied and pasted into others. Errors are thus magnified, but such is the difficulty of obtaining reliable information in South Sudan, they are rarely corrected. This uncertainty about the country further intensifies the desire for information: in a place where few facts can be verified, everyone is obsessed with facts. The reports of Ahmed and Dimitry take on a gravitas that would shock the people of Renk. Things glimpsed from the back of a jeep are gravely discussed in urgent meetings, and new evacuation strategies are planned. There are superiors to impress, and better positions to be gained.

Not all information is welcomed, however. Too often, I have given talks only for my explanations of historical circumstances and marriage alliances to be waved away as ‘context’. Needlessly complicated. South Sudan is at war, and only certain facts get to count in the UN information economy. Troop movements and battles are what are important. UN military officers sit playing endless games of Risk, moving imaginary units around bad maps, the names of places hopelessly incorrect: the result, in part, of running a billion-dollar mission in which perhaps only two non-South Sudanese officers speak any of the indigenous languages of the country.

In this historical vacuum, a Kremlinology has developed around the president, Salva Kiir, as conspiratorial as the darkest days of the Cold War. Rather than divining the internal policies of the Politburo from the speeches of apparatchiks, this new South Sudanese form of prophecy involves a patient attention to Kiir’s house. What does it mean, everyone wonders, that there used to be two T-72 tanks hidden at the entrance, and now there is only one? Endless analysis beckons. Kiir’s health is also a concern. Did you think he looked a bit grey during that last speech? Yes, I thought so. Who might succeed him? Coups are plotted and dissolved within half-an-hour at the table of UN intelligence officers. The long history of Upper Nile State dissolves into conspiracy theories.


In this information economy, there is one thing that everyone knows and that is not spoken about: the international community itself. Its conduct does not appear as a subject for analysis in the learned reports of the UN. It appears in no report of military threats. Peacekeepers don’t count as military actors. Rather, they are only ever threatened by the South Sudanese. The international community is all over South Sudan, but appears nowhere in its understanding of the civil war. Yet during South Sudan’s long history of conflict, one resource has remained constant: aid. During the second civil war, commanders like Riek Machar proved adept at using the aid industry as a tool of war. Civilians would be forced into towns under his control, and obliging aid agencies would then supply them with food, some of which would be diverted to feed his soldiers. Most of the commanders fighting in the current civil war fought in the last one, and it is business as usual.

From April to July 2015, the SPLM gave a free hand to the SPLA and its associated militias, which then raped and pillaged their way through the south of Unity State, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. It was a conscious policy of mass population transfer. Elsewhere in the south, the government set up ‘safe zones’ to which the civilians could flee. These zones allowed the government to control the civilian population – and eliminate rebel sympathisers – while also appealing to the international community for help: the World Food Program (WFP) drops rations, which can then be purloined, and obliging aid agencies provide medical care. Meanwhile, the rest of the south of Unity State was abandoned, as civilians fled to the UN base in Bentiu – the state’s capital – and into the safe zones, leaving the militias to take their property and livestock. It’s good cop, bad cop, on a demographically astonishing scale.

It would be tempting to think that the NGOs and the UN don’t know what’s going on. Redeemed by ignorance, there can then be the hope that knowledge might save them. Some hope.

After Olonyi rebelled in May 2015, the SPLA denied flight clearances to NGOs trying to get sorely needed food and medical supplies to the west bank of the Nile. Dinka militia forces fired on NGO boats attempting to cross the river from Malakal. It was a concerted attempt to destroy a population, and the deprivation of aid was one of the SPLA’s principal weapons. The government encouraged the WFP to drop food where it granted clearances, in government-held areas. I remember meeting a WFP officer in Juba, shortly after I came back from Upper Nile. “You are being manipulated,” I said. The officer shrugged. “It isn’t like the people in government-held areas don’t need food too.” For the WFP officer, this war has produced only victims.

The humanitarian community is determinedly neutral in the conflict. It is this neutrality that allows the government to instrumentalise the aid industry, while the humanitarians keep their hands clean. Every human is worth something, they insist. The politics of neutrality, however, also allow for other forms of instrumentalisation.


By September 2015, I was back in Chicago, and preparing to teach. About a week after I arrived, I got an email from a researcher working for a UN agency. She had been asked to do a study of pastoralism and raiding in South Sudan. Might we have a chat?

We spoke one warm evening, before the bleakness of Chicago’s winter set in. She explained that problematically, she only had a month to do her study. It was an impossible task. Getting around South Sudan is challenging at the best of times. It is an enormous country, and since the war began there have been no commercial flights. Worse, the rainy season – then at its height – rends asunder the most conservative of travel plans. Doing research is even more difficult. After decades of conflict, it can take months before someone trusts you.

I asked her why she had such a short period of study. There had been a delay, apparently, in getting the donor funds released, and now they had only a brief window in which to spend them, otherwise they would have to return the money. It is a familiar situation for many NGOs: a lot of cash, no time, and not a lot of knowledge. Her research, she explained, was in any case just a pilot study for a much larger project: aid agencies setting up workshops all over South Sudan to convince the country’s pastoralist communities to stop raiding. All her attention was focused on a meeting with the relevant stakeholders. For a brief moment, I thought she meant she was organising a meeting of all the elders of the pastoralist communities in South Sudan. No, she meant the UNDP, VISTAS, UNMISS, Concordis – all the NGOs that work on pastoralism and raiding. As with so many projects run by the international community in the country, the principal points of reference were not the South Sudanese, but other NGOs, each of which, in a genteel version of a turf war, takes a particular place and theme, and looks for donor funding. I asked her what she had discovered so far. “Raiding is really bad right now. Really bad. Everything was much better before the war.”

Before the war. I taste the phrase. So many UN and NGO reports hinge on that word, before. It is salutary to read the grey literature from the 1990s, during the height of the second civil war – the endless NGO reports and policy briefs that are discarded the moment the situation changes amid breathless demands for more information. These reports might not tell you much about contemporary South Sudanese politics, but you learn a lot about the international community, past and present.

During the 1990s, the before of the international community was the time before the second civil war. From 2005 to 2013, the NGOs also needed a before – a bright and rosy time of happy coexistence, the better to contrast with an ominous present – and so the before became traditionally. Before is never historical; it is the time just out of reach. Each wave of aid workers that steps off the plane at Juba’s beleaguered airport brings with it its own before. The international community ceaselessly resets the clock, as institutional memory disappears on the return flight to Nairobi. The oldest institution in southern Sudan is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). It does valuable, important work – but ever since it arrived here, decades ago, it has been in a state of emergency, tending to one crisis after another. The humanitarian community endlessly attends to the present, and its before is not the beginning of a historical analysis, but a way to cast out the realities of a present sutured by the past.

Before is instrumental. It sets up a crisis in which one can intervene, the ghosts of previous interventions forgotten. The UN researcher I spoke to was an honest, earnest person. She wanted to do good work, but the project was a fig leaf, its conclusions prefigured. Its goal was not to understand the situation in South Sudan, but to justify funding for yet another large-scale intervention. The whole project began from two absurd assumptions: that raiding is considered morally bad, and that the international community can stop it.

Since the beginning of the civil war, I have spoken to many people whose villages have been burnt, their cattle stolen. They are angry, lost, and they want to go raiding, and get their cattle back. That isn’t to say that all raiding is considered good, but that cattle raiding is part of a complicated moral economy, full of shades of grey, and not simply the antithesis of a good life, lived under the watchful eye of the UN. The social and political reasons for raiding fly under the radar of NGO schemes. Pastoralists attend the workshops on human rights and sustainable livelihoods, mouth the same banalities as the UN, and then return to their lives. So many NGO and UN interventions in South Sudan don’t touch the fabric of the country, but pass over it, as money comes in from US donors, and goes straight back out again, in the pockets of ‘conflict resolution’ experts expensively imported to provide workshop training.

The international community has affected a form of blindness in relation to its own past in southern Sudan. Each intervention begins again, context-free, and is easily manipulated by the South Sudanese government. I wondered though, after speaking to the UN researcher, whether this blindness isn’t wilful: a particularly lucrative form of learned ignorance.


There is a growing literature that says the problem with UN peacekeeping missions is their habitus – the way they act – and that the solution is knowledge. The UN’s separation from the countries in which it works allows it to function. Hundreds of different nationalities, all within one structure, and all those differences effaced, replaced by a single, primary distinction: the UN versus the world outside. While this division allows the UN to function, the literature claims, it also unfortunately leads to many missed opportunities, because the UN misreads the local situation. What the UN needs, it is argued, is knowledge. If the UN knew more, and was more sensitive to the lived realities of a place like South Sudan, it could be saved.

I trained as an anthropologist, and naturally enough, anthropologists like this idea. It suggests a role for us: we can be the bridge between the UN and the world, explaining particularities, and setting up cultural-sensitisation workshops for the UN. (There is nothing that cannot be saved by a workshop.) The problem with this idea is that it assumes knowledge makes a difference. Anthropologists write reports for the UN all the time, and they are shelved. No one responds. It isn’t that UN officers don’t understand South Sudan – some do, some don’t. Rather, the problem is that the most learned UN veteran, with ten years on the ground, and the most fresh-faced Russian peacekeeper, act in exactly the same way: they fulfil the dictates of the mission. There are reports to be filed, which allow no place for context, and there is a mission mandate to be accomplished.

A central platform of the UN mandate is that it does not take sides. The UN’s insistence on neutrality is its rhetorical armour. Despite all the indications to the contrary, it refuses to see that in South Sudan there are no neutral gestures, and everything that one does changes the political calculus on the ground. To refuse to see the truth of that is the willed ignorance that sustains the technocratic fantasy of the mission. It allows the UN to see the problems of South Sudan as only so many logistical challenges: how to get food from point x to point y. Neutrality allows the UN to stand apart from the war: they are saviours from afar, not – so the rhetoric goes – a constitutive part of the political economy of the country.

Without this rhetoric the UN would be even more immobile than it already is. For if it were to acknowledge the political realities of the country, and that every intervention is necessarily political, what could it do? It has no political constituency, and no means of deciding whether to support one side or another: this is expressly not part of its mandate. Neutrality is the myth of innocent intention that allows the UN to act, and those actions to have consequences that are never part of the UN’s self-image; its very neutrality becomes a political instrument for the South Sudanese government, who can control where food aid goes, take some off the top for its soldiers, while the UN proclaims that all human lives are equal.

The UN mission is predicated on an active and forceful forgetting. It forgets, every day, that its mission is impossible. There is no state to be built. There never was. There were instead powerful feuding interests that manipulated the UN at every turn. The UN forgets, every day, that it cannot protect the civilians of South Sudan. From April to July, when the militias swept down into Unity State, raping and pillaging as they went, the UN staff remained in their base in Bentiu, despite a Chapter VII mandate (that allows for the use of force) to protect civilians. In December 2015, MSF said that “there has been a complete and utter protection failure on UNMISS’ part in southern Unity”. UNMISS, of course, rejected the accusation. Its 11,350 troops had been active, the mission insisted: they had been on patrol.


The more money that is put into UNMISS, and the longer it stays in South Sudan, the harder it will be for it to admit that it has failed. It is not the fault of the peacekeepers – outnumbered and undergunned – or even of the self-important officers in Juba, pontificating about Kiir’s health around the poolside. The failure is in New York: in the crafting of a mission whose mandate is a fantasy. No one wants to hear that.

In 2011, when South Sudan seceded, what the world wanted to hear was that a new nation was born, and a new state could be created. We wanted to hear the story of a successful South Sudan. The UN, that strange child of all the world’s nations, was going to help. That it conceived of the assistance it could provide in purely technocratic terms is hardly surprising: in its commitment to neutrality, it disavows politics; in its immense and lumbering bureaucratisation, which holds together workers from so many nations, technocratic efficiency has become its lingua franca. It helped to create a capital, Juba, when everyone needed a capital: the NGOs needed to deal with a unified government to get donor funds, the oil companies needed a minister with whom to negotiate. If the heady days of Juba, unexpected boomtown, seemed like a fantasy, it is because they were.

Now the dream of nation-building has been put on hold, and with the people of South Sudan at war, the world wants someone to save the day. Enter the UN, version II. Its own role in constituting the conflict forgotten, it announces that it will protect the civilians.

The novelist Amitav Ghosh once wrote that the “UN represents the totality of the world’s nation-states, and the fundamental logic of its functioning is to recreate the image of its membership wherever it goes… Yet the entities that result from these efforts are clearly not nation-states in the traditional sense, since the nation is by definition sovereign and, so to speak, self-created – an entity that has brought itself into being.” The UN intervention in South Sudan predates its government, which was formed in 2011. From the beginning, the government learns from the UN. The true stakes of politics are hidden, just as the manoeuvring of powerful nations in New York finds no place in the UN’s official rhetoric. The language of the South Sudanese government is technocratic: everything is capacity-building, enhancing the state, while real politics goes on under a cover of neutrality. The UN is the model for unaccountable, technocratic government in South Sudan.

The government talks of human rights, and bombs hospitals. The UN talks of protecting civilians, and stays in its bases. Both are waiting for better days. For the war to stop. For state-building and donor funding to begin again.


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This story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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