Making a Country

Southern Sudan's leaders struggle to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors.

View a slide show of Juba, the world's newest capital, on the eve of independence

On Jan. 9, Southern Sudanese will head to the polls to vote in a referendum to decide whether to become an independent state. Barring massive vote-rigging by the government in Khartoum or a fresh outbreak of war, theirs will become the world's newest country. Riven by conflict for decades, this land of about 10 million people is among the poorest, unhealthiest, and least educated in the world. Independence would curtail the historic domination of the Arab Muslim north of Sudan over the black, largely Christian south. But conflict lurks -- indeed, barely lurks. In 2010, Dennis Blair, then the United States' director of national intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that among the world's unstable places in the next five years, "a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan."

Southern Sudan has potential. Its area -- larger than Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda combined -- contains rich lands, ample water, and resources. Sudan's oil fields are located in southern territory but are not yet free from northern control. Strong cultures and resilience have been fortified by years of war and self-reliance. Since a 2005 peace accord formally ended the civil war, Southern Sudan has had a semiautonomous government. Created almost from scratch, this regional administration had made progress. But if independence arrives, so will new threats of corruption and its close counterpart, instability.

How can this would-be country face up to the scourge of corruption? In 2004, in advance of the peace accord, the Southern Sudanese leadership addressed this very question, and it was my privilege to help facilitate its discussions. Invited by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), I was impressed by the spirit and resilience of the Southern Sudanese, their frank self-diagnosis, and the need for more than development-as-usual in Southern Sudan.

 What can you do about corruption?

On the second day of my visit, three members of the SPLM's leadership council grilled me. Governor Deng Alor, of the Bahr el Ghazal region, was a slender 6 foot 6 inches and looked young, maybe 40 years old. Governor (and Commander) Malik Agar Eyre, of Southern Blue Nile state, was about 6'2" and as boulder-like as a defensive tackle. Commander Pagan Amum was about 5'8" and on the squat side.

After the courtesies, the three described corruption as one of the major challenges facing the new government. Alor then posed three essential questions. What can be done about corruption? Has any African country ever made progress against corruption? What are the principles behind successful efforts?

I provided detailed examples, and he and the other leaders commented profusely and approvingly. Pagan Amum, who is today the SPLM's secretary-general, offered a trenchant analysis.

"We are poised for a disaster," he concluded. "We will have a new government with no experience at governing. Our institutions are weak or absent. There will be high expectations. Hundreds of millions of dollars of oil money will be coming our way, as well as inflows of foreign aid. It's a recipe for corruption."

The other two chimed in, often brilliantly. Malik emphasized the importance of institutions to provide law and order, even before some of the development efforts. Deng Alor talked about corruption in procurement. Pagan pointed out that the private sector is often the driver of corruption -- what to do about that?

At one point Deng Alor said, "We have a chance to do something remarkable here, to make something new. This isn't about getting power -- it's about changing things."

"One hundred and eighty degrees," Malik added.

The Elephant Is Peace and Freedom

For the first week I traveled around Southern Sudan and met with local leaders, women's groups, legal experts, and regional officials. Government on the ground was often weak or nonexistent. Consider the case of one deputy commissioner.

We arrived at the district commissioner's office in the late morning. The front door was made of tin roofing. The anteroom was almost bare, with dinged-up concrete and a dilapidated desk. From there we went to the commissioner's office, which was now empty. We were told to have a seat while the deputy commissioner was fetched.

The office had no ceiling. The heavily pitted cement walls may last have been painted at Sudan's independence in 1956. The deputy commissioner arrived. He had gray hair and a short gray beard and was about 6'7" (he looked a little like a taller Morgan Freeman). He wore a dark-blue denim shirt and pants with white shoes. Although it was morning, his breath conveyed the remnants of recent highballs.

He welcomed us and then turned his gaze to a female USAID official. "Young," he said.

She smiled and gamely responded, "Yes, the youngest one here."

The deputy commissioner paused. And then he welcomed us again and launched into a random ramble, from waiting for peace to local troubles in the cattle areas where young people have been fighting. He let forth a blizzard of bromides and generalities, from the need for people to learn to produce, to the need for government to provide basic services such as education, health care, and infrastructure.

At one point he suddenly said, "What if I have a son? He has a cow, and he invents a song for his cow. Then he goes to where the cattle gather and sings this song, and other young men object to the song. Then there is fighting."

This tale vaporized in a long pause, and then the deputy commissioner resumed at a different place in his memory bank.

"You are welcome," he said. "We welcome you, and we are sure that your help will be important in enabling the New Sudan to succeed."

The deputy commissioner, with his maundering and platitudes, is, alas, a familiar figure to me from other developing countries. His propensity for the general over the specific reminded me of something I had read that morning, a speech that was part of "The Draft of the SPLM Policy on Dialogue" -- the party's negotiating platform:.

These general strategic campaigns are on: General Reconciliation, General Inclusiveness or Participation, General Equity and Geographical Balance, General Appeal for All Refugees and IDPs [internally displaced people] to Return, General Cementing of Unity and General Mobilization and Organization.

To be fair, this piece contained some fascinating points about power and struggle (the jungle) and the abiding need for inclusiveness (the elephant is peace and freedom), beginning with a quote from John F. Kennedy:

Politics is a jungle torn between doing the right thing and staying in office. Whether before or after the formation of the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) the SPLM must take the lead to include and involve others outside its circumference in the upcoming government and related posts.

The SPLM ought to view itself like a good hunter who goes to the forest. If he kills an elephant the animal doesn't belong to him alone. The entire village has the right of taking knives and cutting the meat, though traditionally the hunter retains the prerogative to distribute the leg, neck, ribs, etc. to whosoever he pleases.

Yet it would be totally uncustomary for him to deny inclusiveness, sharing and participation of others in this big meal. The elephant in the SPLM context is the peace and freedoms it shall certainly bring about.

But how to do this? Who knows. The speech concluded with this:

Humans eat real bread not the metaphysical thing called peace or freedom. And so the demand to survive will continue relentlessly until physical needs are met. The damned need for satisfaction by the limited means will persist. This seriously explains how and why General Mobilization and Organization are of paramount importance.

Facing big problems with little capacity, it's easier to stick to generalities.

What if You're the Big Fish?

After a week, we had a two-day workshop in the dusty district capital of Rumbek. About 40 local leaders arrived on U.N. transport planes or in trucks and jeeps. We talked about how corruption undermines justice, cripples public services, and perpetuates poverty. We worked through case studies of places that had seen success in improving governance. We talked about a formula: Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion - Accountability.

The participants worked hard and well. During and after dinner the first night, I moved among several tables and chatted with the participants. They freely expressed their impressions of widespread corruption in the foreign NGOs, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), and the nascent agencies of the New Sudan.

The next day, the task became more practical. What should the new government of Southern Sudan do in its first year to avoid corruption? Again, group work, then report back, then a break for tea and water.

At the end we celebrated. As we mingled together in the dusk, we were tired and stimulated, drained and inspired. We ate dinner. Afterward I wandered from table to table. People were talking about government and corruption and the tasks ahead. At one table an elderly official looked at me and said, "What if one has to be the big fish?"

This term "big fish" is one we'd used throughout the seminar. An anti-corruption campaign must catch big fish, not just small fry. Otherwise, people don't believe anything has changed.

Puzzled, I asked the official what he meant.

He inquired softly, "How did you pay for the drinks you invited us to tonight?"

I paid for them out of my own pocket.

"What if you didn't have a deep enough pocket?"

Then I got it. His role as a leader creates expectations. He must often provide hospitality or more -- help or support or subsistence. Where should he come up with the resources? Unsaid is the add-on: "without being corrupt."

Others at the table addressed his concerns before I had to. I was grateful because I didn't have a good answer. At the end of the conversation, all I could manage to say was that there are realities that have to be faced. Like ourselves, our starting points are always imperfect.

I related the story of one leader who had told me that he knew corruption constrained his country, but that his party's finances were based on corruption. "If I fight this sort of corruption, I will fall, or perhaps even be killed," he said. "How should I begin?" And I related what I said in response: Have a strategy. Do things in a sequence; don't try everything at once. Begin with something easy to correct. Then build political support and isolate enemies. Embedded in these themes is a sad message for naive idealists: We have to begin where we are, acknowledging the imperfections in our situations and in ourselves.

I asked the official and the others at the table if that advice shocked them. Does it seem impure? Would it be better to say, "Well, if that's what expectations are, you can't do anything"?

They answered only indirectly. I suppose it was too abstract a question, and it was getting late. I said good night to everyone and wandered off to my tent. A partial lunar eclipse added a note of the ethereal to a day of hopes and promises, of self-examination and realities that hurt.

We Can Become a Modern Government or a Kleptocracy.

A few days later, we departed for Kenya, where the peace negotiations were going on between the Southern Sudanese leadership and the Sudanese government. We had another workshop, this time with the SPLM's top leadership.

After a speech from Chairman John Garang -- the future vice president of Sudan who was killed in a 2005 helicopter crash -- and a short lecture, the participants considered an imaginary future news story I had written called "Southern Sudan's great success." They took turns reading the sentences aloud. At the point where it said that in the future Southern Sudan would be rated one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, someone quipped, "I don't believe it!" and everyone laughed. At the end of the news story they applauded spontaneously. Then they had their assignment: "What is a chain of events that would get us from now to then?" Three groups were formed, and they dove in. A half-hour later it was time for lunch, but everyone continued working for a half-hour more. They were into it.

After lunch, the groups presented their results: A good start, but heavy on the usual suspects of capacity building and prevention, as if we were creating something from nothing. I gave another lecture, this one on what to do about corruption in key areas such as natural resources, roads, taxes and customs, and credit systems. Then there were questions, which turned into comments, and suddenly into revelations. Commander Pagan Amum opened floodgates with a surprising and impassioned speech.

"Our discussion has talked about preventing corruption, and we have been pretending that we have a clean slate. But I want to say right now that we are already corrupt. In fact, we are full of corruption."

Pagan paused. The room was dead still. Pagan started illustrating.

"Let me give you an example. I led a delegation on a trip to Khartoum and got $30,000 for the expenses and so forth. I paid for the travel and the hotel and all of that. I gave $300 to someone with a health problem. Now, after the trip I have $5,000 left over. No one asks me about it. That is the way we are. But then, watch this. One day a colleague in the SPLM is after me for something else. He is angry with me, and then he raises the question in front of others, 'Whatever happened to that $30,000?' and I become furious with him. 'How dare you ask me?' I say. And this is our attitude, after all the war."

Pagan condemned this attitude, using himself as the first object of criticism. He went on to describe how SPLA commanders get money in unorthodox ways and how they are not accountable for what they do with it. Lax or absent systems lead to corruption, Pagan said. People who collect revenue may think, "Well, I'll take a little for myself. Then, since no one asks about it, next time I take a little more, or even all of it, and no one ever asks."

Pagan is a brilliant talker -- a winning combination of storyteller and analyst. He concluded with a challenge to his colleagues to clean up their collective act. I thought to myself: If outsiders said these things to this group, they'd be rejected and condemned. But Pagan's speech opened windows of recognition.

Governor Deng Alor confirmed Pagan's description, giving his own examples. The SPLM's No. 2 man, Riak Machar, added his voice in agreement. Then Pagan concluded, "We really have two choices. We can become a modern government, with free markets and open borders and democracy. Or we can become a kleptocracy, where everyone steals. There is no middle position."

The discussion took off. One leader asked: What will become of commanders used to autonomous authority when peace leads to rules and accountability systems? I was stunned at the boldness of his question because many of his listeners were these very commanders. Then someone got even bolder. Most SPLA leaders should be decommissioned, he said. Could they be given a kind of pension-in-advance and some other help in setting up a life outside the military? How could the movement shift from a wartime, ad hoc system of governance to one that might make possible their dreams?

The tone had shifted decisively, too -- from the analytical and declaratory mode to confession and commitment.

At a subsequent meeting in Nairobi, we discussed again that scenario of future success for Southern Sudan.

Southern Sudan's security will be bolstered by its allies, including the United States. Most SPLA leaders will be pensioned off and be helped to engage in farming and small businesses. Many ex-soldiers will be soaked up in public works and private economic activity.

People will enjoy ample communication with their leaders. Oil revenues will be transparently "locked up" in a special account on behalf of the people, audited from outside by international agencies and so to speak from below by a council of nongovernment leaders.

Excellent pay and oversight will create a cadre of highly qualified top officials. Government will be lean. No one will have to steal to feed his or her family.

Finally, people will perceive that everyone is accountable under the law, including their top leaders.

And Now?

That was almost six years ago. Now Southern Sudan is poised on the brink of independence. The challenges there are not (just) incremental ones -- not just a few more roads and a few more agricultural rehabilitation projects. There is the cardinal challenge of building effective self-government. What will it take?

Pagan was right: Economic policies that emphasize openness and competition are crucial. And the participants in the 2004 workshops were right to emphasize capacity building and fighting corruption. These steps are not easy, especially in places like Southern Sudan.

But the new government and its foreign friends should also give emphasis to recommendations from our workshops.

Separate the army from government and involve former SPLA leaders in productive economic activities. Demonstrate to citizens that things have changed and they are benefiting -- in particular from oil revenues and international aid. Put the fight against corruption at the center of creating a new government. Create a core of qualified, well-paid government leaders. Demonstrate that impunity is over by frying some big fish, including from the SPLM itself.

Southern Sudan faces enormous challenges, but the leaders I met were frank about the difficulties and creative about the keys to success. If they keep the heat on, they can do their people proud and make the first few years of the newest and perhaps most problematic country in the world a model for others to follow.


Dilma's Secrets

In digging for dirt on Brazil's new president, a group of journalists and scholars may have come uncomfortably close to a more serious truth about a whole country.

RIO DE JANEIRO—It's part of the deal when someone who was once a member of a guerrilla rebel group runs for president at the head of a mainstream political party: People are bound to try to find out what "really" happened. During Brazilian President-elect Dilma Rousseff's campaign, journalists and researchers went to the national archives and the Superior Military Tribunal (known by its Portuguese acronym, STM) to dig up records on Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship and the candidate's resistance activities that led to three years of jail and brutal torture. And many say they were told: Not during the campaign.

With Rousseff about to be confirmed as president on Jan. 1 in Brasilia, the question of what's in the archives -- and why no one was allowed to get into them -- has taken on new importance. It's not that anyone expects Rousseff's files to yield some shocking Patty Hearst moment. The documents released since the election -- a batch of previously unpublished STM files reported on in November by a leading newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo -- add only a few new details to what's already known about Rousseff's days as a young rebel. But more importantly, the protest from journalists and transparency activists over an apparent cover-up may actually help enable a much-delayed reassessment of Brazil's conduct during its U.S.-supported 1964-85 military dictatorship -- something the country has still barely reckoned with.

The delicate subject of Rousseff's background with the banned Revolutionary Marxist Workers Politics Organization was largely kept out of the light during the campaign. The candidate herself, in the few times she spoke about it, maintained that she was never armed and worked only as an organizer. For months before the Oct. 3 election and the Oct. 31 run-off, Folha had been seeking documents about Rousseff's trial from the STM, which is run by ministers chosen by the president and branches of the armed forces. And for that entire time, the newspaper was stonewalled. "I don't want political use [of the Supreme Military Tribunal's documents].... I'm not going to run the risk in the electoral period," STM top justice Carlos Soares told the newspaper, saying that he had put the records in a safe.

Rousseff told Folha in a February interview that she received arms training in Uruguay, something she had previously denied. "My training was very dunce-like," she said. "There was not much shooting. The [arms] were put together and taken apart. Also [there was training in] security. You [learn] how to make it so that you're not followed." She added that even her military captors never accused her of armed actions -- she was only charged for subversion. But the documentary record was not released until after the election, when a court decision brought the files out of the safe and Folha ran its reports in late November.

One of the military records describes a 1970 confession given under torture by a Rousseff comrade, who claimed that Rousseff had the access code to find a hidden arsenal of weapons stolen the year before from Sao Paulo security forces. The tortured comrade, Joao Batista de Sousa, told Folha recently that Rousseff later said she used the code to find the address of the arsenal but that when she arrived, the house was already riddled with bullet holes. Another STM document describes how, in the years before her imprisonment, Rousseff gave classes on Marxism-Leninism. Folha spoke with a comrade from the old days who recalled giving Rousseff her first lessons on communism but now complained the future president was "too much a developmentalist" and had forgotten about the environment.

The details themselves were fairly bland, especially compared to the WikiLeaks cable released not long after the Folha story, calling Rousseff the "Joan of Arc of Subversion" and claiming that she'd co-founded her rebel group and played a key role in organizing armed robberies, something she has consistently denied (the U.S. ambassador to Brazil has told Brazilian journalists that he can't confirm the allegations in the cable). But the details are not as interesting as how Folha's experience in obtaining them shows Brazil's long-standing discomfort over its history: the 21-year-long dictatorship with its unresolved human-rights abuse record, the armed Marxist resistance, and the 1979 amnesty, recently upheld by the Brazilian Supreme Court, that protected both military torturers and guerrilla warriors from prosecution.

"In [Brazil] you clearly have military and to some degree government that does not want to open the door on the past," says Peter Kornbluh, a Latin America specialist with the National Security Archive, an independent research institute run out of George Washington University. In other words, it's not just the political right that's not interested in exploring its hard-line past. Some members of the leftist resistance -- now spread about the higher reaches of government, academia, and the media -- have a stake in keeping their history of kidnappings and bank and arms robberies out of the limelight as well. Because of this, Brazil is in "virtual last place" among modern Latin American countries when it comes to access to information, Kornbluh adds.

Indeed, the Folha reporters weren't the only ones trying and failing to get their hands on military-era records during the campaign. When Adrianna Setemy, a doctoral student in history at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, went to the National Archives in Brasília in October, she was told that she couldn't have access to the records she normally uses to research the Foreign Ministry's role in the dictatorship-era fight against communism -- because journalists had asked for them, and because the archives wanted to "preserve the electoral process from the harm they could do with the information inside," as Setemy says the archivist told her.

As it turns out, Setemy's professor, Carlos Fico, is a historian who was involved with a digitization project connected with the National Archives -- Memórias Reveladas (Revealed Memories), which is meant to scan and offer access to various records across Brazil's state archives and was in fact founded by Rousseff herself last year when she was chief of staff to outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Fico followed up on Setemy's request with one of his own; he was also told to wait until the end of the campaign. Instead, he waited until the election was over to publicly announce his resignation from Memórias Reveladas. A group of his colleagues, including Folha journalist Fernando Rodrigues's group Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji) and the government watchdog group Transparência Brasil, quit in protest as well.

"Today we're a bit the focus of an attack, as though without understanding the law, they interpret that the archive arbitrates the law," National Archive Director-General Jaime Antunes da Silva told me, pointing out that Brazilian law protects "the intimacy, the private life, the honor and the image" of an individual for up to 100 years. Fico and many other researchers believe the archives are being overzealous in their interpretation of this vaguely worded privacy clause and moreover, that the archives are being exceptionally cautious with dictatorship-era documents out of fear of political reprisal, since they are a subordinate of the Casa Civil, a ministry of the presidency. The archives could, for example, follow the Sao Paulo state archives in having the researcher sign an oath of responsibility for the use of the information or block out victims' names.

So what are the archives being so cagey about? While it's the STM that keeps the documents that most directly relate to Rousseff and her comrade's trials and imprisonment, researchers told me that the capital city's archive could either have copies of STM documents or related information from other organs responsible for repression during the dictatorship, some of which are now defunct. These are less likely to be smoking guns than potential political embarrassments -- perhaps linking Rousseff's comrades to further armed actions or offering more ambiguous details of her time as a Marxist. But their release could still prove politically complex, and not just for Rousseff.

The president-elect's acceptance speech gingerly touched on her dictatorship days, describing herself as simply a pro-democratic freedom fighter rather than a revolutionary while discussing the liberty of the press: "We dedicated all of our youth to the right of expression," she said. "I prefer the noise of a free press to the silence of the dictatorships."

The press itself would agree. Fico, Transparência Brasil, Abraji, and even Antunes of the National Archives have been vocal in support of a draft law now in the Senate that would ease access to public information and quantify how much remains classified, something that is itself still a mystery. The draft includes a clause making clear that "information or documents that deal with conduct that implies a violation of human rights practiced by public agents or at the demand of public authorities will not be able to be an object of restricted access."

Rodrigues of Folha and Abraji expects the Senate to take up the draft by next year. With broad access to military-era documents, there's always the chance that the public might galvanize against the re-affirmed 1979 amnesty and finally carry out some kind of reconciliation process, like Chile and Argentina -- a step that was left behind in Brazil's astonishing charge toward democratization and emerging-power status. Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president who left office in March and was herself a torture victim during the Pinochet dictatorship, oversaw a freedom of information act in 2008 that could stand as an example.

And some ripples may already be reaching shore: On Dec. 14, in a landmark decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Brazil must transfer all documents related to a famous case of "disappearance," the Guerrilha do Araguaia, to the National Archives and open them to the public. The court ruled that the state is responsible for the disappearances of 70 peasants and militants between 1972-1975 and that Brazil's amnesty law, which blocks investigation, is incompatible with the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Brazil is a signatory. It's anyone's guess what could happen next -- but it will be instructive to see how Brazil's new president, the former "Joan of Arc of Subversion," handles this challenge to her young administration.