THE NEWEST country in the world is physically large—240,000 square miles, the size of France—and catastrophically ungoverned. It is a featureless grassland for most of its open, landlocked run. South Sudan is a landscape without clear divisions or functioning borders, touching Sudan and the Arab world to the north and the troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic to the west, with East Africa pressing up from below. The waters of the Nile and thick seasonal rains drive a wedge of green grass across plains teeming with animals. National Geographic explorer Mike Fay made global headlines in 2007 when he completed the first aerial survey in 25 years and estimated that there were 1.3 million animals flowing across it, a great migratory river of white-eared kob and other antelope and gazelle dotted with a stash of elephants and a handful of species—including beisa oryx and Nile lechwe antelope—existing nowhere else on earth. Finding this many unknown animals anywhere was like finding El Dorado, Fay said at the time; finding them in war-torn Africa was even better.
Though no one has counted in decades, there might be ten million people, too. South Sudan is quilted internally by some 60 tribes, many of them nomadic herders with long-standing antagonisms. But a year before my visit, on July 9, 2011, the Dinka, Nuer, Bari, Azande, and dozens of others came together to declare independence and raise the tricolor flag—black, red, and green—of a new nation. The president, a Dinka and former military officer named Salva Kiir, favors black cowboy hats and lives in hotels. A disorganized parliament struggles to create a host of new ministries out of empty buildings, and the National Archives are a pile of crumbling documents on the floor of a tent.
Independence has added innumerable corrupt factions, including newly enriched local businessmen from the Tribe of Hummers. South Sudan is not a society in recovery: there never was any real infrastructure, government, civil society, rules, laws, or rule of law here, so there is nothing to recover. Instead it’s a scratch country, invented as a solution to an insoluble problem of semi permanent war and defined by what it lacks. There is no electrical grid, no mail service, almost no roads even of the dirt kind, and perhaps a few hundred miles of asphalt if you count every paved block in Juba. The have-nots have a lot of not: barely a smidgen of schools, almost no health care, a population living on zero dollars per day in a subsistence-farming economy where cattle are traded like currency. There are more guns than people who can read; refugee camps are more common than towns; snow would be easier to find than a road sign.
South Sudan was carved from the much larger, Arab-dominated country of Sudan, the last in a series of remote governments, from ancient Egypt through the Ottoman Empire, which viewed the south chiefly as a source of converts or slaves. In the 19th century, British explorers traced the routes of the Blue and White Niles but left little impression on the land and evacuated in 1956, leaving the northerners—typically pale-skinned Arabs from Sudan’s capital, Khartoum—in charge. The vast open spaces became a kind of formless border between the Middle East and Africa, with Muslims in the north and black Africans, often Christian or animist, in the south.
When people talk about the war here, they have several to choose from. They might mean the anti-British struggle of the 1950s or the coups and countercoups of the 1970s, but they probably mean the south-versus-north war that broke out in 1983 and lasted 22 years. In general, all the wars have pitted central authority in Khartoum against the margins, including the Darfur genocide that began in 2003 in Sudan’s far west. The war in the south featured the same genocidal tactics as in Darfur but ran longer, immobilizing the region for decades.
Unlike Darfur, which still lingers under Sudan’s rule, the southerners actually won. Hiding in the countryside, they wore out the Khartoum regime, which agreed to a peace treaty in 2005. More than five years later, a massive deployment by the UN helped midwife a truly independent South Sudan, and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current ambassador Susan Page both pushed hard to make the peace deal stick. In 2011, USAID and other agencies spent more than $100 million on everything from schools to refugee camps, including an impressive array of road-building projects. That’s only a quarter of the money promised by the U.S., but this year’s budget calls for $244 million, easily the largest aid package in South Sudan, and Sven’s European Union is also investing heavily in rural development and “capacity building,” the euphemism for helping the South Sudanese construct a government that isn’t corrupt.