An East-West Showdown in the Heart of Africa?





Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award winner, he has reported from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.

Juba, South Sudan -- Is this country the first hot battlefield in a new cold war?  Is the conflict tearing this new nation apart actually a proxy fight between the world’s two top economic and military powers?  That’s the way South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth tells it.  After "midwifing" South Sudan into existence with billions of dollars in assistance, aid, infrastructure projects, and military support, the U.S. has watched China emerge as the major beneficiary of South Sudan’s oil reserves.  As a result, Makuei claims, the U.S. and other Western powers have backed former vice president Riek Machar and his rebel forces in an effort to overthrow the country’s president, Salva Kiir.  China, for its part, has played a conspicuous double game.  Beijing has lined up behind Kiir, even as it publicly pushesboth sides to find a diplomatic solution to a simmering civil war.  It is sending peacekeepers as part of the U.N. mission even as it also arms Kiir’s forces with tens of millions of dollars worth of new weapons.

While experts dismiss Makuei’s scenario -- “farfetched” is how one analyst puts it -- there are average South Sudanese who also believe that Washington supports the rebels.  The U.S. certainly did press Kiir’s government to make concessions, as his supporters are quick to remind anyone willing to listen, pushing it to release senior political figures detained as coup plotters shortly after fighting broke out in late 2013.  America, they say, cared more about a handful of elites sitting in jail than all the South Sudanese suffering in a civil war that has now claimed more than 10,000 lives, resulted in mass rapes, displaced more than 1.5 million people (around half of them children), andpushed the country to the very brink of famine. Opponents of Kiir are, however, quick to mention the significant quantities of Chinese weaponryflooding into the country. They ask why the United States hasn’t put pressure on a president they no longer see as legitimate.

While few outside South Sudan would ascribe to Makuei’s notion of a direct East-West proxy war here, his conspiracy theory should, at least, serve as a reminder that U.S. and Chinese interests are at play in this war-torn nation and across Africa as a whole -- and that Africans are taking note.  Almost anywhere you look on the continent, you can now find evidence of both the American and the Chinese presence, although they take quite different forms.  The Chinese are pursuing a ruthlessly pragmatic economic power-projection strategy with an emphasis on targeted multilateral interventions in African conflicts.  U.S. policy, in contrast, appears both more muddled and more military-centric, with a heavy focus on counterterrorism efforts meant to bolster amorphous strategic interests. 

For the last decade, China has used “soft power” -- aid, trade, and infrastructure projects -- to make major inroads on the continent.  In the process, it has set itself up as the dominant foreign player here.  The U.S., on the other hand, increasingly confronts Africa as a "battlefield" or "battleground" or "war" in the words of the men running its operations. In recent years, there has been a substantial surge in U.S. military activities of every sort, including the setting up of military outposts and both direct andproxy interventions. These two approaches have produced starkly contrasting results for the powers involved and the rising nations of the continent.  Which one triumphs may have profound implications for all parties in the years ahead. The differences are, perhaps, nowhere as stark as in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan.  

A Midwife’s Tale

Starting in the 1980s, the efforts of an eclectic, bipartisan collection of American supporters -- Washington activistsevangelical Christians, influential Congressional representatives, celebrities, a rising State Department star, a presidential administration focused on regime change and nation-building, and another that picked up the mantle -- helped bring South Sudan into existence.  “Midwife” was the word then-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry chose to describe the process. 

In recent years, no country in Africa has received as much Congressional attention.  And on July 9, 2011, South Sudan’s Independence Day, President Barack Obama released a stirring statement.  “I am confident that the bonds of friendship between South Sudan and the United States will only deepen in the years to come.  As Southern Sudanese undertake the hard work of building their new country, the United States pledges our partnership as they seek the security, development, and responsive governance that can fulfill their aspirations and respect their human rights.” 

As the new nation broke away from Sudan after decades of bloody civil war, the U.S. poured in billions of dollars in humanitarian aid and pumped in hundreds of millions of dollars of military and security assistance.  It alsoinvested heavily in governmental institutions, and built infrastructure (constructing or repairing roads and bridges).  It sent military instructors totrain the country’s armed forces and advisors to mentor government officials.  It helped to beef up the education sector, worked to facilitate economic development and American investment, and opened the U.S. market to duty-free South Sudanese imports.

The new nation, it was hoped, would bolster U.S. national security interests by injecting a heavy dose of democracy into the heart of Africa, while promoting political stability and good governance.  Specifically, it was to serve as a democratic bulwark against Sudan and its president, Omar al-Bashir, who had once harbored Osama bin Laden and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in that country’s Darfur region.    

When South Sudan broke away, it took much of Sudan’s oil wealth with it,becoming sub-Saharan Africa's third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola.  In taking those resources out of Bashir’s hands, it offered the promise of more energy stability in Africa.  It was even expected to serve Washington’s military aims -- and soon, the U.S. began employing South Sudanese troops as proxies in a quest to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army. 

That was the dream, at least.  But like Washington’s regime change and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, things soon started going very, very wrong.  Today, South Sudan’s armed forces are little more than a collection of competing militias that have fractured along ethnic lines and turned on each other.  The country’s political institutions and economy are in shambles, its oil production (which accounts for about 90% of government revenue) is crippled, corruption goes unchecked, towns have been looted andleveled during recent fighting, the nation is mired in a massive humanitarian crisis, famine looms, and inter-ethnic relations may have been irreparably damaged.  ...



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