African women must stand against the elite war in South Sudan

Friday June 08 2018

South Sudanese sing and dance on July 9, 2011 to mark the country's Independence. PHOTO | AFP


I was there. What a great privilege it was to be an eyewitness to such a memorable day of history.

It was July 9, 2011, the day of South Sudan’s joyous birth. I was in Juba, and I felt such profound pride for my South Sudanese brothers and sisters.

As the World Bank’s vice president for Africa, I had been closely involved with the economic preparations for South Sudan’s Independence.

I pledged the World Bank’s total commitment to the South Sudanese people to help them begin the arduous work of building a peaceful and vibrant democracy, with an accountable government, and an empowered citizenry.

I listened with hope to President Salva Kiir’s stirring speech, where he promised to lead his country with integrity, tackle official corruption, and raise economic development for everyone.

But I must tell you now that I am so bruised by what has since become of South Sudan, that it is difficult for me to engage in any conversation about this country that has promised much but delivered so little for its citizens.


The civil war in South Sudan has gone on for far too long. Each day, more South Sudanese lives are devastated. The pitiful outcome from last week’s peace talks – a recommitment to a ceasefire that has never known any commitment – showed that the country’s leaders have no interest in an end to the fighting. It is time for African solidarity to get behind every instrument that can end this war.


The first thing that must be done is to isolate the drivers of South Sudan’s civil war – the people, the institutions, the nations that keep the war going for their own benefit. Those who profit from the suffering need to be identified.

Those who facilitate the warmongering need to be singled out. Then every available measure – sanctions, regulations, exposure – at the global, regional, and national levels must be applied to stop these people bleeding the country dry.

Second, the African Union must hold accountable and punish South Sudanese leaders who have engineered the civil war. Ample evidence already exists, from numerous United Nations investigations to the report of the African Union’s own Commission of Inquiry, published in 2015.

The African Union has long known who is responsible for South Sudan’s destruction, yet it has not acted. Its current leaders must find and utilise the political and legal instruments to bring South Sudan’s destroyers to justice.

Third, we must maximise the power of women across the African continent to wage peace for South Sudan.

Imagine a situation where a strong coalition of African women link their arms with South Sudan’s women to stand up to the men who have ruined their country, to demand an end to the war, and to champion a completely different future for the country.

That idea became a real possibility on May 25 at the Sawa South Sudan summit, chaired by Julie Gichuru and joined by inspirational women from across our continent: I joined in this summit and felt the energy generated when South Sudan’s women connect with their allies from across the continent.

In solidarity, women of Africa can be a force for peace and for hope; a force for South Sudan’s male leaders to reckon with.

All of this must stand on a foundation of solidarity with all South Sudan’s citizens. Their country’s war has been an elite war, and the elites have been milking the ignorance of the people. This war of exploitation must end, and it can, by engaging directly and consistently with South Sudanese people.

Across Africa, we can stand with South Sudan’s people so they can confront the leaders who have plundered their country’s potential.

As the international community, of which I was a part, we too quickly assumed that South Sudan was going to build the necessary institutions to lead and develop the country after its Independence. Theirs is the primary responsibility, but we share a duty, too.

Our greatest mistake was assuming that a state could be built from the building blocks of government: Public financial systems, agencies, and ministries. But government is just one part; governance also matters.

For that, a country needs not only wise leadership but also strong outside support to enable citizens to rise as strong, capable, and visionary leaders fully committed to their country’s wellbeing.

It is not too late for South Sudan. Many lives have been lost; many opportunities have been missed. The country’s promise from 2011 has been wounded, but it is not lost. It is within the hearts of South Sudan’s people.

The most important thing we can do now is show by our actions, not just our words, that we are on their side, so they can tell their government how their country must be led, and to lead the country themselves. There can be no durable peace until the right kind of leaders emerge from South Sudan’s population.

Dr Oby Ezekwesili is a chartered accountant, former Nigerian Minister of Education, a former vice president of the World Bank, and co-convenor of the ‘Bring back our girls campaign’.