The World’s Newest Country Is Broken and Forgotten. Enter Pope Francis.
It is just over a decade since the steamy capital of South Sudan exploded in joy, with revelers singing and dancing through the night to mark the birth of their new nation as it split from its old enemy, Sudan.
The new country was cheered on in 2011 by the American diplomats who had midwifed its delivery and the Hollywood celebrities who championed its cause. Billions of dollars poured into an ambitious state-building project that offered a fresh start to a people weary after decades of war. “Freedom!” they cried.
But to the people in South Sudan, that now feels like a very long time ago. Engulfed by civil war and sweeping floods, the world’s youngest country has been plagued by schisms and thwarted by leaders who pocketed its considerable oil wealth. No Western leader has ever made a public visit, leaving many South Sudanese feeling forgotten.
But not by Pope Francis. He is scheduled to land in the capital, Juba, on Friday, after visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo — an African tour intended to shine a light on some of the continent’s most troubled yet ignored countries.
Excitement has been building for weeks. A new tarmac road, still a rarity in South Sudan, has been laid along the bumpy route to the papal nunciature in Juba, passing fortresslike Western embassies and military checkpoints where, most nights, underpaid soldiers solicit bribes from motorists.
An outdoor barbershop in central Juba.
Anticipation was also rising in Bentiu, 330 miles to the north, where ululating women gave thanks for the pope’s planned visit during a recent Mass in a tin-hut church filled with refugees from South Sudan’s worst floods in half a century.
Speaking through a bullhorn, Rev. Joseph Makui joked that their church was as grand as the Vatican, then lashed out at the country’s negligent leaders.
“They have the money, but they don’t share it with us,” he said.
Roman Catholic leaders insist the visit is pastoral, not political. But in a country as weak and divided as South Sudan, where Christian churches still wield great influence, politics may be impossible to avoid.
Francis is arriving with unusually prominent companions: the archbishop of Canterbury and the symbolic head of the global Anglican Communion, Justin Welby, and the leader of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshield. In the colonial era, Christian missionaries in Sudan were divided by the river Nile, with Catholics allowed to preach on one side and Anglicans on the other.
Now the “three wise men,” as some have dubbed them, are uniting for a joint pilgrimage — the first of its kind, church leaders say — in an effort to bring the plight of suffering South Sudanese to global attention.
The pope is coming “as a shepherd, speaking to his people and calling for a conversion of hearts,” Archbishop Bert Van Megen, the Papal Nuncio to Kenya and South Sudan, said in an interview. About six million of South Sudan’s 11 million people are Catholic, he said, including its president, Salva Kiir.
On Friday, Francis will be welcomed to Juba by Mr. Kiir, an ex-rebel who has led South Sudan since 2011, much of it locked in a vicious feud with his archrival, Riek Machar.
In a dramatic gesture at the Vatican in 2019, Pope Francis prostrated himself and kissed the shoes of Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar. It was a calculated show of humility intended to pressure the two men into resolving a rivalry that had sparked a civil war in 2013, causing an estimated 400,000 deaths.
They also represent South Sudan’s biggest fault line: Mr. Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group, which dominates the government and security forces, while Mr. Machar belongs to the Nuer, the Dinka’s bitter rivals.
The papal kiss hardly healed their divide. Although Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar formed a unity government in 2020, the relationship remains riven with distrust. The integration of dueling armed groups into a unified army is unfinished.
And local conflicts continue to rage in different parts of the country, often manipulated by national leaders, including Mr. Kiir, as a means of undercutting rivals or consolidating power, analysts and diplomats say.
The crowds greeting Francis in Juba are unlikely to be as large as in Congo: With few paved roads linking South Sudan’s cities, and a plethora of armed groups in the countryside, the journey to Juba is too difficult or dangerous for most residents.
Their country regularly tops the least desirable ranking tables. Last year Transparency International rated Sudan as the world’s most corrupt country (in this year’s list, published on Tuesday, it was beaten by Somalia for first place). According to the United Nations, South Sudan is the deadliest country in which to be an aid worker.
A growing pile of investigative reports have documented how oil revenues continue to vanish — billions and billions of dollars. Yet nobody seems to know where the money has gone — not even the official in charge.
“I don’t see the money,” Puot Kang Chol, South Sudan’s minister for petroleum, said in an interview, “I only see figures on paper.”
Mr. Chol, 38, a Machar aide who joined the unity government in 2020, said that oil revenues were directed by the finance ministry, which is controlled by Mr. Kiir. The stalled political transition was “a disaster for the country,” he said, adding that he hoped Francis’s visit might jump-start it.
“South Sudanese admit in private that their country is essentially a slush fund,” said Alan Boswell, a South Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group. “Their leaders sit atop a failed state, siphoning oil revenues as much of the rest of the country spirals out of control.”
A sense of malaise pervades Juba, where glitz meets gnawing poverty. Hulking four-wheel-drive vehicles — often the latest Toyota Land Cruisers — jostle for space with goats and rickshaws. Luxury hotels offer comfort at Manhattan-worthy prices.
At the Pyramid Hotel, an 11th-floor restaurant offers panoramic views of the Nile and an adjoining shantytown. The fourth floor has the Las Vegas Casino, where, on a recent afternoon, Chinese-speaking gamblers gathered around the blackjack table.
But the depth of South Sudan’s dysfunction only emerges outside Juba in places like Bentiu, the capital of Unity State.
Bentiu should be a boomtown: Several large oil plants lie nearby. Instead it resembles an impoverished village, with no electricity or running water and few concrete buildings. The wreckage of a crashed airplane is parked at the gate of the city airstrip, used largely by the aid workers who provide what services exist.
Everywhere, there is water. Floods that began three years ago, linked to climate change, now stretch across an area larger than Switzerland, impacting one million people, satellite images published by the United Nations last month show.
U.N. peacekeepers have built 55 miles of levees to prevent hundreds of thousands of refugees from being swamped again. Every day, they patrol the eight-foot-high barriers to check for cracks that could presage a catastrophic collapse.
Nyayien Yow, a widowed mother of five, scrapes together a living by paddling out into the floodwater by canoe, where she clambers up semi-submerged trees to collect firewood for sale in a local market.
It’s dangerous work. Cobras and other poisonous snakes lurk in the branches, biting the unwary. And last month she was viciously beaten by a man who claimed her canoe had banged into his.
With little law or order in Bentiu, Ms. Yow didn’t even consider reporting the assault to the authorities. “I couldn’t do anything,” she said simply. “He is a man.”
She eventually found help at a nearby shelter run by the International Rescue Committee, which supports women hit by an alarming surge in gender-based violence in recent years.
Longstanding worries about the health of Mr. Kiir, 71, resurfaced in December after video footage showed the president urinating on his pants as he stood for the national anthem at an official function. The embarrassing incident gained international attention after Mr. Kiir’s feared intelligence agency, the National Security Service, accused seven employees at the state broadcaster of leaking the footage, and detained them.
To maintain his grip, Mr. Kiir has relied on the N.S.S., one of the largest such security agencies in Africa, said Brian Adeba of The Sentry, a research group. “It’s an army within an army, the regime’s praetorian guard,” he said.
The Sentry was co-founded by George Clooney, the actor who was once a powerful advocate for South Sudan’s independence and is now a fierce critic of its government’s failings.
The U.S. government, which gives $1 billion in annual aid to South Sudan, has signaled its displeasure with Mr. Kiir by blocking non-humanitarian funding for his country at the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Still, some South Sudanese are determined to keep alive the dream of 2011.
On a recent evening, a local comedian named Akau Jambo, 25, had a drink at The Baobab House, a fashionable bar in Juba, with friends who, like him, had grown up in refugee camps in Kenya or Uganda.
Despite everything, they had returned to South Sudan determined, he said, to make the best of their new country.
“We can’t wait for things to change,” he said. “We have to do it ourselves.”