Why South Sudan Deserves the World's Buy-in

A Conversation with Reverend Michael Yemba, a South Sudanese Pastor with Empower One in Dallas, and BJ Goergen, Board Member, East African Ministries and Seed Effect

Famine and political strife challenge South Sudan yet international leaders and organizations should not give up. Young people in the region offer a chance for change and peace.

Former child soldiers and members of the Red Army Foundation march on July 9, 2017 on the streets of Juba, South Sudan to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the country's independence. (Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images) Former child soldiers and members of the Red Army Foundation march on July 9, 2017 on the streets of Juba, South Sudan to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the country's independence. (Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty Images)

Reverend Michael Yemba and BJ Goergen both maintain a passion for South Sudan, as well as experience working to alleviate the political and physical realities facing a nation beset by war and famine. Pastor Yemba is a Sudanese native who lives in Dallas, where he works with Empower One. Before recently joining J.P. Morgan’s Philanthropy Centre, BJ Goergen was executive director of the Radler Foundation, a Texas family foundation that worked in vulnerable communities, including in East Africa. During that time, she led the creation of the Leadership Academy of South Sudan. A 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar who served in President George W. Bush’s administration, Goergen now sits on the board of East African Ministries and Seed Effect, which work in South Sudan and northern Uganda.

The pair recently came to the Bush Institute for a conversation about South Sudan with William McKenzie, editor of The Catalyst, and Hannah Abney, vice president of external affairs at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Let’s start with a big-picture look: What are the economic development challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa, including famine in places like South Sudan?

Goergen: I know that for South Sudan, conflict is destructive to progress and to economic development. Conflict also prevents investment. It’s hard to build on a foundation when the foundation keeps moving. In countries like South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Congo, which have had continued conflict over time, they tend to not see as much economic progress as stable countries. Finding stability becomes a precursor to economic development in the region.

Africa as a whole is really promising. People around the world see the innovation happening across the continent, and the innovation of governments that are full of potential. There is so much potential in sub-Saharan Africa, but that potential is limited when there’s conflict.  

Yemba:  What BJ said is true, especially when it comes to South Sudan. Conflict has affected economic events there, as well as in Central Africa and the Congo. Where there’s a conflict, there’s always an economic problem. But there’s promise in other African countries like Uganda and Rwanda. 

"People around the world see the innovation happening across the continent, and the innovation of governments that are full of potential. There is so much potential in sub-Saharan Africa, but that potential is limited when there’s conflict."
-BJ Goergen

How do you resolve the conflict in South Sudan?

Yemba: Resolving the conflict will take the international community. Since 2013, the nation has been in a difficult situation. People have tried all means of resolving the problems, whether internationally or internally, but things are not working.

The international community should not give up.  They should keep pushing and go in, talk to the leadership, and find a solution that would resolve the conflict.

 Goergen: Are you saying that the current leadership won’t be able to resolve the conflict?

 Yemba: No.

 Goergen: You’re saying there has to be external support and pressure?

 Yemba: Yes.

"The international community should not give up. They should keep pushing and go in, talk to the leadership, and find a solution that would resolve the conflict."
-Michael Yemba

Could you tell us about the South Sudanese people, what they’re like, where their values are, and what their communities are like? That might help us in the U.S. frame the conflict in a human way.   

Goergen: The South Sudanese people are resilient and patient.  The young people have a vision for peace and the future that the older generation doesn’t have. 

I helped start a leadership academy in South Sudan for students from all parts of the country and all different tribes. The students have a vision for prosperity, peace, and unity unlike anything I’ve seen. They have big goals for what their country can be.   

People in East Africa in general are very connected to their land. That’s different than here, especially now when Americans, if they have land, only have a tiny patch that their house sits on. In East Africa, land is ancestral. It’s your heritage. It’s who you are. The only equivalent here might be a family that had a ranch in their family for seven generations. 

In South Sudan, when you get people from all over the country, from all different tribal backgrounds, to come together and see each other as co-responsible for the future of their country, something changes. It changes the dynamic from, “This is my land, and that’s your land, and we’re going to fight over who has the land,” to, “How do we work together to build a future?” 

I see the hearts and minds of the next generation as important for peace and prosperity in the region.  Africa has more young people than any region of the world.  It’s this tidal wave coming. An investment in young people is an investment of the future of a country and continent.  

If you can't engage young people and give them tools for personal prosperity, for economic prosperity, for academic prosperity, they will not flourish. That’s a requirement for the region to flourish. 

"If you can't engage young people and give them tools for personal prosperity, for economic prosperity, for academic prosperity, they will not flourish. That’s a requirement for the region to flourish."
-BJ Goergen

Help us understand more about this difference between young and old when it comes to a vision for peace.

Goergen: When we started our leadership academy, a group of South Sudanese leaders came to us and said they were tired. They had been fighting their whole lives. They had been in war with the North and now with each other. Fighting was all they knew. They said they were not changing, but their young people were open for change. If their young people could come to know another way of life other than conflict, the young people would be open to that vision in a way the older generation would not.

Technology in Africa has dramatically taken off, and young people have access to much more information than their parents and grandparents. Their worldviews are growing. There’s a bigger worldview for the younger generation. They see prosperity in the region, and want it for their own country.

Pastor Yemba, how do you describe the South Sudanese? 

Yemba: We value our families and our culture very much.  We respect visitors who come to our country, our home.  We always value people who have contributed to our suffering very much, like President George Bush.  We will never forget the initiative he did for South Sudan. 

South Sudanese in America today are still very much connected in their diaspora, and at the same time connected back home. We value the family relationship. It’s unique to find a South Sudanese in America living alone, not within a community.  When the conflict comes, it affects the entire community. 

I know the gap between the young and old is there, but the old generation is looking to the young generation.  South Sudan will not be successful without this young generation. 

Bidi Bidi Settlement Camp, North Uganda, May 2017. Bidi Bidi is bigger in size than Washington D.C. and more than double the size of Disney World Florida. The settlement only opened in September 2016 and has a population of 272,000. (Sumy Sadurn/Getty Images) Bidi Bidi Settlement Camp, North Uganda, May 2017. Bidi Bidi is bigger in size than Washington D.C. and more than double the size of Disney World Florida. The settlement only opened in September 2016 and has a population of 272,000. (Sumy Sadurn/Getty Images)

We want to see peace in South Sudan, because we were proud to have a nation in 2011. Now, we are confused. Where do we belong?  Many of us who have been in the U.S. would like to go back. It’s like leaving your heart in South Sudan. 

BJ mentioned the attachment of South Sudanese to the land. Could you explain that significance? 

Yemba: From the town to the village, the land belonged to ancestors and ancestors who have been there before us. The generation that comes, they inherit the land. The government has nothing to do with the land in South Sudan.  

For me to give a piece of land to BJ, I have to consult my family. This is not my land alone.  It’s a family’s land. We have to honor our ancestors through the land that they have for us.  We maintain that our ancestors are still alive through the land. 

"From the town to the village, the land belonged to ancestors and ancestors who have been there before us. The generation that comes, they inherit the land. The government has nothing to do with the land in South Sudan."
-Michael Yemba

It’s your legacy, your family’s legacy.

Yemba: Yes.

Goergen: You can’t buy land in South Sudan. You can have someone loan you land, or you can lease land, but you’re leasing the use of the land. It’s still a part of the ancestry of the family that’s letting you use it. 

Does the attachment to the land stand in the way of resolving conflicts? 

Goergen: People are always wanting to get back. If I grow up in a city in the U.S, and the city doesn’t have economic potential for my family’s future, we leave. We make an attachment in a new city. I moved to Dallas for work, and now Dallas feels like home for me. 

It is not that way in South Sudan. You can leave the land, but you don’t really want to plant somewhere else, because the land is calling you.  

It sounds like being a Texan, but go ahead. [Laughter

Goergen: A little bit, probably more than other parts of the country. 

People will make investments in their future, but it’s almost temporary until they can get back to their ancestral land and develop that themselves. From what I’ve witnessed working in the region,  not being able to be safe in your home prevents development from happening.   

There’s an African proverb that helped me to understand East Africa: “When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.” The conflict in South Sudan is between these two elephants fighting, but there is a whole population affected by those actions. And that population is resourceful, educated, innovative, and peaceful. The majority of people are peaceful.

What does it mean for the international community to be more engaged? Is that more peacekeepers? More food? Pressing to end the civil war?  

Yemba: First, I would like the international community to engage with peacekeepers. There are not enough peacekeepers in South Sudan. We need more in the cities to protect the civilians, as well as in the large villages.

Number two, I would like the international community to engage with the leadership – the  President, Vice President, generals in the army, those people who are responsible. We have several leaders in the opposition who are living outside South Sudan. Those people have a role to play for peace in South Sudan. I would like to see the international community engage the government and opposition leaders to resolve the conflict. 

And third, the international community should visit the country. Let them hear from the people. There are thousands in refugee camps, even inside the country. Go and hear from them. Those people are citizens of South Sudan. If the international could listen to them, that would give them the picture of the nation’s conflict. 

Goergen: A neutral third party, such as the United States or someone in the international community, is critical to success. But buy-in is necessary from both parties. 

Yemba: The peace treaty that was signed in 2015 needs to be revisited again.  

"There are thousands in refugee camps, even inside the country. Go and hear from them. Those people are citizens of South Sudan. If the international could listen to them, that would give them the picture of the nation’s conflict."
-Michael Yemba

Beyond the international community, probably many people in the West wonder what they can do as individuals or organizations. What are the best strategies? 

Goergen: Americans and others can inspire the young people. Transforming hearts and minds for the future is essential.  

People might find engaging in East Africa overwhelming, but go where there’s opportunity. Many organizations are doing great work that is supporting the South Sudanese. The South Sudanese NGO community is flourishing. The South Sudanese leaders coming up with solutions are flourishing. It's finding those people and those organizations and letting them know that you care.  

I went in April and visited our leadership academy and the refugee camps in northern Uganda, and the students told me it’s meaningful to know they’re not forgotten. That’s true for refugees or people living in conflict anywhere in the world. 

Talk about what that means. You hear today that we have enough problems in this country. We don’t have space in our brains to deal with conflict in other countries. Why should we have space in our hearts and brains, whether you are an American, a German, an Australian, or a South Sudanese? 

Goergen: I have one thought. We should have space because we won the geographic lottery.  We live in peace, not by choice but by birth. We live in freedom, not by choice but by birth. We live in economic prosperity. There’s an obligation to others who have much less, who weren't born in the same place.

Yemba:  I would go with what BJ says, but I think being an American, living in this peaceful country, you will have a space for other people when you see those suffering in a place like South Sudan. It changes your perception. What you see there will change the way you see the world. 

The other point is, engage people about what’s going on in South Sudan. There are people in the refugee camps, but they don’t get enough food. Americans can mobilize people to get enough food sent to South Sudan. 

Young South Sudanese graduates who left the country during its decade of civil war are returning, trading their comfortable lives in the developed world to be part of a rebuilding process in South Sudan. (Giulio Petrocco/AFP/GettyImages) Young South Sudanese graduates who left the country during its decade of civil war are returning, trading their comfortable lives in the developed world to be part of a rebuilding process in South Sudan. (Giulio Petrocco/AFP/GettyImages)

Goergen: The international community is trying. On my recent visit, I met with the director of the largest refugee camp in the world (located in northern Uganda), and he said the challenge has been the number of people that keep coming. The UN budgeted for 200,000 people to live in the camp, but 272,000 have shown up and every week more keep coming. As a result, a lot of people end up going without.  The same thing happens with water.  They’ll plan for water for a certain number of people, but then there’s not enough water to actually live on.  

And there is a danger in extremists taking advantage of these opportunities?

Yemba: Yes.

Goergen:  They’re already there.

What is going on?

Yemba:   People in the camp are desperate to get anything.  We are going to lose a generation here because of lack of education. From 2013 up to now, a generation has not been in school as they have grown up.

People in the camp wonder: “What do we do now?  Who is coming to see us?  Who is giving us anything?”  Whoever steps in and says, “I can do this for you,” people will be very much open to it.

Not dissimilar to the gang situation in the United States.

Yemba:  Yes.

Goergen:   Absolutely, very similar. 

If I could do anything, I would put out a call to entrepreneurs in the U.S. to go invest their skills in Uganda, in South Sudan, and in East Africa. A generation of young people will need to create their own jobs. Transferring the entrepreneurial skills and spirit in this country would impact and empower a new generation there.

Yemba:  For many years, people have depended upon what is coming from the West. But the West should start thinking of how to train this generation to do things for themselves.

"If I could do anything, I would put out a call to entrepreneurs in the U.S. to go invest their skills in Uganda, in South Sudan, and in East Africa. A generation of young people will need to create their own jobs. Transferring the entrepreneurial skills and spirit in this country would impact and empower a new generation there."
-BJ Goergen

What impact will technology have on farming practices? And what impact might that have on the economy?   

Yemba:   South Sudan is blessed with soil, but even after we got independence, there has not been an opportunity for farming. Engineers are working in several areas in South Sudan, but agriculture has not been really exposed. We have a big land that could even supply East Africa if people are well-trained in farming and have the equipment to produce.

Goergen: These technologies exist, and young people on the continent have leapfrogged the rest of the world in their use of technology. People pay and do business by phone.  They don’t necessarily log onto a computer in a traditional way. Everything is on a handheld device. Even selling goats and animals happens by phone.

Kids in rural communities probably need access to technology first, and they’d be able to take advantage of it.  It is a matter of opening up access and information.

We've been talking about change from the top down as well as from the bottom up.  Which are you most optimistic about?  Or is it both?

Goergen:  In my opinion, the young people in South Sudan will lead to long-term change and long-term peace in the region. The future of Africa rests on the shoulders of the youth, so any investment in them is a real investment in the future.   

Yemba: For me, it’s both the old and younger generation. Our culture values all people, but we need to leave access to the young generation.  We are in the 21st century. Things are not like even 10 years ago.  I would like to see young people take positions in the government, in the ministries, and in the army. We have young people who have come to the West.  They have gone to school and they have the potential to invest their minds in our culture. They could transform it.

But, as a country, we are still too young. We are only six years old. We need international help. That’s why South Sudanese open their ears to what President Bush says about South Sudan. We consider South Sudan to be President Bush’s baby.  

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