South Sudan and building a new nation: Lessons from the Eritrean experience

By Dawit O. Woldu & Irvin H. Bromall*

Similarities between revolutionary Eritrea and South Sudan:

September 10, 2011 — South Sudan and Eritrea are the two youngest countries on the African continent, even though the latter became independent in 1993, nearly 20 years before South Sudan. The wars for independence fought by the two states share several other similarities. Both countries fought against nations of which they were a part, and the two wars are probably the longest independence struggles in the history of the continent. Both were bitter and costly in terms of the post-war acrimony that remains, the thousands of lives lost, and the millions of disabilities incurred. Also lost by South Sudan was the little physical infrastructure it possessed and any quality of live its peoples ever enjoyed. The two independence struggles were seen by most of the world as just, right, and deserved. For both, the reward was the freedom to choose.

While both Eritrea and South Sudan waged righteous struggles, after its independence, Eritrea adopted a range of policies that were aggressively hostile in spirit and belligerently vindictive in implementation. It looked inwards when it most needed to look outwards toward the world. The current state of Eritrean society bears witness that its post-revolutionary policies did not build the just society that the revolution had promised. It behooves South Sudan to take a lesson from Eritrea, and not repeat the mistakes Eritrea made in all sectors of policy-making and implementation.

Eritrea’s policy choices:

Domestic political sphere: The Eritrean government took a retaliatory political position, arresting, imprisoning, or murdering anyone thought associated with anti-regime elements or who had connections with former Ethiopian authorities. Eritrea’s bêtes noirs became the US and its supposed vassal, Ethiopia, forever plotting to destroy the new state, and used to justify the most extreme and severe domestic repression. Instead of adopting an approach to heal the wounds of struggle, post-independence Eritrea institutionalized policies that only served to make those wounds worse.

At the elite levels of Eritrean society, a deep cleavage was institutionalized between ex-liberation fighters and the rest of the professional community. The latter were glorified and rewarded richly; the former were denigrated and denied the ability freely to share their talents and skills. The Diaspora was seen as good primarily for its remittances, not for its talents and skills. All political appointments, even at the lowest levels, were of ex-fighters, completely lacking in administrative and management skills. Ineptitude and inertial, cloaked by a harsh military veil, were built into the post-revolutionary Eritrean system of government. As time went by, political failures built on each other, in-fighting took its toll, and petty haggling with gottcha triumphs replaced shrewd decision-making. The ruling circle constricted, and power became even more concentrated. Defections abroad further worsened the situation. A national-service obligation for all youth was implemented. Supposedly a two-year obligation, the terms of national service were often unlimited and conscripted persons served as indentured servants – some would say, modern slaves – of the revolutionary regime. A constitution – worthy of the most democratic of democratic states – was written and ratified, and then promptly forgotten and, thrown to the dustbin of history.

International relations and diplomatic spheres: In international relations, the Eritrean government adopted an aggressive and confrontational stance. The political elite and its tool of control, the media, saw and painted the world in binary terms: “He who is not with us is against us” was the political word of the day. Rather than engaging in a sophisticated game of Realpolitik, the Eritrean regime was often schizophrenic in its actions. For example, the relationship with the West and the Arab world was an ongoing on-and-off relationship, friends one day, enemies the next; one was played against the other. Eritrea confronted its neighbors, and other African states, with threats and military actions. The bloody war over demarcation of the border with Ethiopia is a prime example of this aggressive policy. It is telling that more people died during the nearly 20 years of independence than during the 30-year independence struggle itself.

Defections plagued the diplomatic and foreign-affairs sector of government; the same was true in other spheres of Eritrean life. What few skills the regime possessed were quickly draining away. International decisions became concentrated the top of the ruling pyramid, and those players were woefully lacking in diplomatic proficiency.

The Eritrea government advocated a policy of self-sufficiency. Donor countries, on whom Eritrea heavily relied, found it difficult to work with the Eritrean government. NGOs, the source of much needed aid and technical support, were ordered to leave the country. Government agencies, who worked closely with these NGOs, faced major strains on their financial and human resources. Refusing to let donor countries and NGOs operate defied all rationality, especially when Eritrea was in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis – the famine that reached its high point in 2005.

Together, the policies the regime elected to pursue in the domestic and international spheres constituted the base on which other policy choices were decided.

Economics and development: In a general assault on the private sector, the government ordered the closing of all privately owned companies. The revolutionary government assumed control of all corporations, and it controlled all business and economically related national-development projects. Local businesspersons were arrested and foreign investors were ordered to leave the country. Needed foreign investments came no more. Import and export processes, agriculture, real estate, the building of roads and bridges and other infrastructure, not to mention the media, all fell to state control. A free market did not exist, and neither did the concept. Citizens were forbidden to hold foreign currencies and the local Eritrean currency, the nakfa, was worthless outside of the country. National development was at a standstill.

Education: Even though the Eritrean government made pleasant noises about improving the educational system, the truth of the matter is the revolutionary Eritrean government was always wary of educated and free-thinking persons. The intelligentsia was viewed as bourgeois and individualistic, not in tune with the regime’s Marxist ideology. The regime perceived the rebels fighting while the intelligentsia was safely abroad, freely pursuing its interests. Eritrean intellectuals were portrayed as lacking nationalistic feelings and serving as the pawns of foreign powers. Instead of expanding higher education, the revolutionary regime took drastic measures against it. The country’s revolutionary president officially announced that the University of Asmara, the only institution of higher learning in Eritrea, was a waste of time and was becoming anti-government and anti-Eritrean. He ordered its closure. University students were subjected to severe punishment and arrest for asking for their rights and for the rights of the Eritrean people. Recently, the Eritrean government has even started to involve its military in all higher educational matters. Eritrea’s ’colleges’ were placed under the aegis of the military. “Who will guard the guardians?” is as much a never-answered question as it is an eternal one.

Health: The Eritrean government took stern measures against health professionals, replacing all hospital management and administration with former rebel associates and healthcare providers with insurgent physicians, nurses, and other loyal medical personnel. These persons were often under-trained and unfit for the positions to which the government assigned them. Private clinics and hospitals were closed. Doctors working for government hospitals were ordered into national service and assigned to government hospitals. Private hospitals became a thing of the past. Complex medical procedures were to be performed abroad. The state of healthcare has been deteriorating rapidly since the last Eritrean-Ethiopian war.

Human Rights: The current Eritrean government is one of the most repressive in the world. There is an absolute lack of freedom of speech, press, religion, and movement. Government informers are everywhere. The media present a bland blend of carefully censored information and glorification of the revolutionary struggle and its heroes. The Internet is carefully filtered. Telephones are limited in their availability and potential owners are rigidly screened. Communications, especially with the outside world, are limited and what few calls there are monitored.

In such a situation, any decent information comes from abroad, but foreign broadcasts are jammed, foreign publications are unobtainable, and other informational imports are restricted. The media speak the regime’s voice. The system of national service looms over the lives of many. The military has been used to indoctrinate the youth and to intimidate any dissent in the country. The Eritrean people have been taught well to keep their mouths shut. Because of this repressive policy, many of Eritrea’s youth are leaving the country in mass, along with others, joining those who have left before in the Diaspora. Eritrea is one of the top source countries for refugees in the world.

Eritrea’s lessons for South Sudan:

To avoid what we have defined as mistakes made by revolutionary Eritrea, it is tempting to develop a list of perfect policies that South Sudan should adopt. Such is not the way of a political state surviving in a geopolitically dynamic world. Rather, we will offer some general recommendations, grouped under three general principles, that we offer as lessons for South Sudan.

General principles:

I. Principle of the diminishing usefulness of revolutionary actors – At the end of the day, those who bring a nation into being – no matter the sacrifices they may have made, how heroic they may have been as warriors, whatever good intentions they may have – make poor managers of ongoing, developing states.

II. Principle of the importance of rational diplomacy and international affairs – South Sudan must develop a reasoned diplomatic agenda that achieves its national interests, as it defines national interest. Logically, this would entail finding ways to enter into a working relationship with the North, but this is the sum total of the dynamics of the political situation.

Seeking the favor and assistance of economically powerful states is a wise policy and it is clear that South Sudan must seek out and accept foreign aid from abroad, but in so doing, it must not become a vassal state to anyone. This aid, however, should be accepted and targeted at building a self-reliant South Sudan. Hands-on, village-by-village development projects have been shown to have lasting and significant impact on development. Moreover, South Sudan must encourage capable and willing non-Southerners to assist in development efforts. The state’s vigorous participation in international bodies can only enhance its survival possibilities.

III. Principle of reasoned development – History’s lesson is that free markets, properly regulated, can bring prosperity for wide swathes of the population. History also teaches that a driving force of a society is its intelligentsia and South Sudan must recognize the value of that critical grouping, both at home and in the diaspora. It would be foolish not to emulate the example of other states and encourage the return of talent from abroad. Intellectuals, part of whose jobs it is to be annoying, have the capacity to help greatly in the building of a new nation, providing needed vision, and sharing their even-more-needed intellectual and technical skills. The careful care and feeding of the intelligentsia is a task South Sudan must learn and it must learn it well.

IV. Principle of national perpetuation – “Universities are the nucleus of national development. No country can prosper without strong institutions of higher learning.” This statement was made by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on his 13 August 2011 visit to the University of Juba. There, he committed to the establishment of an academic “think tank.” Since the government recognizes that universities are the spawning grounds of the elite cadres needed to assume full future control of the South Sudanese state, President Kiir’s has made an excellent start. Now, he must follow up with fiscal commitment and political support and South Sudan must remember that a public school system is a basic foundation of nationhood and national self-perpetuation.

What we have presented is by no means a road map for South Sudanese success. It is more a catalog of the road blocks that another state faced when it was in the position South Sudan now finds itself. In Oyee Sudan, proud southerners sing “...Oh God, bless South Sudan!” We can only join in that chorus!

*Dawit O. Woldu, a native of Eritrea, is a Ph.D. Candidate in medical anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Irvin H. Bromall, Ph.D., a former professor and senior federal manager, is a free-lance consultant in Moab, Utah.

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