Repeating History

‘The Good Lie’ and the Hard Truths of South Sudan

The Good Lie should be about the past. Unfortunately, a new war, rooted in the embers of the one that brought the Lost Boys and Girls to America, has engulfed South Sudan today.

Opening this coming weekend is the hard-hitting new film The Good Lie, a fictionalized version of the extraordinary story of South Sudan’s Lost Boys and Girls who overcame devastating tragedies and ended up as refugees in the United States. The Good Lie should have been a slice of history, the likes of which never to be repeated. But the reality is that a new war, rooted in the embers of the one that brought the Lost Boys and Girls to the United States, has engulfed South Sudan today. A whole new generation of lost children is in the making, an outcome which still can be prevented if the current war can be brought to a quick conclusion.

The Good Lie was filmed at a time of tremendous promise for South Sudan. After a decades-long liberation struggle that left millions dead and displaced, South Sudan became in 2011 the newest country in the world and its people began the herculean task of building a nation from scratch. What was less visible to outsiders, though, were the termites that were eating away at the foundation of this new state.

Termites thrive in the dark, normally. And in South Sudan, there was no transparency in how the huge oil revenues that were flowing into the coffers of the new government were being allocated and spent. As a result, most of the oil money was diverted into the pockets of senior officials instead of being spent on the health and welfare of the South Sudanese people. That stolen money helped stuff bank accounts, build opulent houses in neighboring countries, buy luxury cars, and place the children of these officials in the finest schools outside the country, while the education system in South Sudan collapsed due to lack of funding. These ill-gotten assets are mostly hidden in the neighboring countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia, as well as in South Africa, Dubai, and certain Western countries.

Over time, old rivalries began to deepen, particularly over the spoils of corruption. Those divisions spilled into the open in the latter half of 2013, when the president of South Sudan ousted the vice president and the rest of his cabinet from power. What was visible to the world was the political struggle between two old rivals. What was less understood were the massive and competing networks of patronage and corruption under both the president and vice president.

Ousting the vice president and his allies, who hail principally from the Nuer ethnic group, the second-largest in South Sudan, was a devastating blow to Nuer economic and political aspirations in the country, while the president and his supporters, who hail mostly from the Dinka, the largest ethnic group in the country, benefited. What seemed to be an old political rivalry took on ethnic overtones, with the very survival of entire communities now at stake.

That uneasy status quo was not going to last very long, and it didn’t. Conflict erupted in mid-December 2013 with predictable disputes surrounding who drew first blood and why. In the ensuing nine months, divisions have considerably deepened because of mass atrocities committed by both sides. Ethnic polarization has reached unprecedented levels, and the leaders on both sides make excuses and break agreements with regularity. Everyone claims to want peace, but the problem is that the leaders of both conflicting parties see their interests more easily secured through violence, not negotiation.

For peace to have a chance, the calculations of the warring parties must change as well. How can that happen?

Given the extraordinary wealth that has been accumulated by officials of the government and rebels, the most effective way to get their attention is for the regional states that are leading the peace process, backed by the United Nations Security Council, to begin freezing or seizing bank accounts, houses, cars, businesses, and other assets attached to any South Sudanese government or rebel officials who are undermining the peace process or breaking the cessation of hostilities on the battlefield. If the regional peace mediators from the neighboring countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia begin freezing or seizing those assets, followed by swift action by the U.N. Security Council, this will create unprecedented and unparalleled leverage on the individuals driving the agendas of the warring parties.

The Good Lie is seeded with hope, hope that has been temporarily hijacked by the corruption-fueled elites who are fighting this unnecessary current war. But the neighboring states and U.N. Security Council have the capacity to alter the trajectory away from violence if they impose focused consequences on those responsible for the crisis and drive those elites to a comprehensive and inclusive peace agreement that gives the people of South Sudan a chance to write a very different next chapter of their history.