Michael Gerson

JUBA, South Sudan -- Following the hot, happy chaos of its flag-raising ceremony and the departure of 70 planes worth of VIPs from its capital, a newly independent South Sudan now faces a lonelier task. It must construct a nation out of flawed materials -- a weak economy, a strong military and fractious tribes.

The difficulties were illustrated to me at dinner with a prominent political figure from the ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). He had been a fighter in the bush for more than 15 years, with several gunshot scars to prove it. His bravery is unquestioned. Yet his military achievements lead him to be openly dismissive of anyone -- politicians, intellectuals or exiles -- who lack a war record.

The former commander told me the parable of a hunter whose sends his dog to kill his prey, but then leaves only bones for the dog. The implication was clear: The military, having done the hardest work, will not be content with the bones.

This is a difficulty in most post-revolutionary countries. Can a guerrilla army transform itself into an effective governing class? Will the warriors welcome or resent non-military talent and technical expertise?

Western development experts often talk vaguely of corruption, as though it always means the filling of Swiss bank accounts. Doubtlessly there is some of that in South Sudan. But those carrying the shrapnel of the civil war are also practicing a kind of patronage. They have binding ties to their family and tribe. So they put large numbers on the payroll -- the old Chicago form of development. It is not a recipe for economic growth or political pluralism. But it does have a useful side effect: keeping people with guns -- and just about everyone in South Sudan has guns -- employed and relatively happy.

The fact that South Sudan is a major oil producer only lubricates the patronage machine. As in many other places, resource wealth has the effect of strengthening elites, who have more benefits to distribute.

But the system has a major flaw. There is a direct relationship between corrupt patronage and instability. If government positions are a major source of spoils, those excluded are tempted to take positions by force. Two South Sudanese generals are currently in armed rebellion against the government. There are no ideological issues at stake. These military leaders feel cut out of the power arrangement. Killing becomes a form of negotiation -- an attempt to gain attention and a rightful share.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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