Tag Archives: South Sudan

Trip to South Sudan 2015

March, 2015

I’d been on the hunt for former U.S. security firm Blackwater owner, Erik Prince, for Newsweek. At the time Prince’s Malta-based logistics company, Frontier Services Group, was sending supplies and repairing oil production facilities. Contrary to some reports, sources said he’d also been training police and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – SPLA – to fight rebel leader Riek Machar and to protect Chinese-owned oil fields. The U.N. spokesman at the time was not keen to host me  apparently because a Newsweek had published an article three months previously that reflected poorly on the U.N.. They seemed to try just about everything to dissuade me from heading to the Upper Nile state, the only region producing oil at the time. I stubbornly persisted and they eventually relented. UNMISS turned out to be particularly accommodating.

Erik Prince has since pulled out of South Sudan.



Armed civilian


BDE83C6F-6B6F-40C0-ACDC-CB1210BDDAE3 F62EB14B-A46C-4606-82D7-032DF44F2B8F


South Sudan’s Ministry of Defense


Op enduring towel
“Enduring towel” that a gentleman stationed at a South Sudan military base loaned me for two nights.


View from an expensive Juba hotel – a microcosm of the divide between Africa’s elite and impoverished accelerated by international intergovernmental organizations.  Beyond the corrugated tin squalor is the leafy compound of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir.


Juba's Hummers


Chinese State-owned oil production facility.


Acres of oil tailing ponds containing toxic waters spill into the Nile River each rainy season, killing wildlife. Though workers with Chinese state-owned companies claim to deliver potable water to residents frequently, illnesses from drinking contaminated river water are still reported.


Dink IDP camp
Dinka IDP camp, where there are schools. UNHCR provides health care, women whose husbands were killed during the 2013 civil workshops are taught quilt and bead making  by Kenyans.
A Nuer IDP camp I visited was cramped and lacking in proper health care as compared with a Dinka camp. Dozens live in a small compound in open spaces. Intimacy is more or less impossible.
A Nuer IDP camp I visited near an oil production facility was cramped and lacking in proper health care. Dozens live in a small compound in open spaces, lacking privacy. Intimacy is nearly impossible and child birth is made public.

A Nuer IDP camp I visited was cramped and lacking in proper health care as compared with a Dinka camp. Dozens live in a small compound in open spaces. Intimacy is more or less impossible.

Flying over Bandingilo National Park with directors of Wildlife Conservation Society. Check out my feature for The Daily Beast about wildlife and charcoal poaching by South Sudan’s military.
Sad about Cecil? These Animals are being Slaughtered by the Thousands



Sad About Cecil? These African Animals Are Slaughtered By The Thousands – The Daily Beast


BIG GAME 08.01.15  12:03 AM ET

South Sudan’s civil war has been a disaster for humans and animals alike. Soldiers on both sides have turned the slaughter of giraffes and other animals into an industry.



JUBA, South Sudan — A hopeful myth persists in this region that “wildlife refugees”—fauna in flight from war-ravaged habitats—will return one day when the conflict is over. Would that it were so. But in South Sudan, no end of the conflict appears in sight, and amid vast human suffering, nature is being ravaged as well.

The great icons of the wild—the elephants, the rhinos, the leopards and lions (so beloved of trophy hunting dentists and the heedless offspring of the outrageously rich) are gone or going fast. Conservationists say the “charismatic megafauna” are nearly wiped out here. No northern white rhino has been spotted in the region since 1981; only 2,500 elephant remain in all of South Sudan.

But in a saga reminiscent of the novel and film The Roots of Heaven 60 years ago, environmentalists nevertheless go on fighting the good fight. “Anyone who’s seen the great herds on the march across the last free spaces of the earth knows they’re something the world can’t afford to lose!” says a defender of the elephants in the movie. “But no… We have to capture, kill, destroy. All that’s beautiful has got to go. All that’s free! Soon we’ll be alone on this earth with nothing to destroy but ourselves!”

Welcome to South Sudan.

I am in a Cessna 206 flying over Bandingilo National Park—which has been passing below us for almost two hours. The savannah is orange and green in the hues of camouflage cloth. Except for a few pairs of ostrich and a couple of giraffes standing in the shade of spindly acacias, we’ve seen precious little animate life.

“Gazelle, giraffe and zebra are getting hammered,” says Dr. Paul Elkan, who’s at the plane’s controls. They’re being killed for food. “The bushmeat trade is fueling the civil war,” he says.

“With a giraffe you get more bang for your bullet,” says Elkan, an American who serves as the South Sudan director for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). A single giraffe provides up to 600 pounds of meat. Slow-moving and high profile, giraffe are especially vulnerable to poaching, and their dwindling numbers in the park reflect that. These days, Elkan adds, it’s almost as rare to see a zebra or a buffalo as it is to see a rhino.

Elkan and his colleague, WCS Deputy Director Michael Lopidia, are conducting an aerial-recon survey of wildlife, and even as they take a census of the dwindling animal population they keep watch for poachers and their camps.

Overwhelmed by the civil war, the South Sudanese government has outsourced the country’s conservation efforts much as it has outsourced exploitation of its mineral resources. WCS took over management of South Sudan’s six national parks after the 2005 peace agreement that led to the country’s independence from Khartoum in 2011 after decades of civil war, and the job was daunting, given that the country is as vast as Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda combined. Bandingilo alone is 3,900 square miles.

The WCS doesn’t employ rangers of its own, but takes rangers from the government’s forces and trains them in wildlife-crime law enforcement. Its staff has made inroads providing technical and operational support. The organization works with the United Nations to clear land mines in parks, build ranger posts, and run anti-poaching and intelligence operations in partnership with the government.

WCS, as a result, is none too popular. At present, the organization cannot access and survey the northern third of the country due to the civil war.

Bandingilo, just outside South Sudan’s capital, Juba, is the site of Earth’s second-largest wild migration, behind the Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania. Its savannahs, marshlands, and wooded areas are still home to key species of antelope—including reedbuck, tiang and white-eared Kob antelope as well as giraffe. But the herds’ migratory corridors pass through combat zones.

We are heading toward a road cutting through the middle of the park. Elkan banks the plane and holds a tight circle over a stand of acacia, under which sit two white trucks. Hunting is banned in the country so it’s pretty easy to identify such a configuration as a poacher’s camp.

“They’re armed,” says Lopidia from the back seat. He holds up a pair of binoculars. “Bandingilo is a strategic base for the bad guys,” he adds, “not too far from Juba.”

The bad guys are from both sides of the country’s civil war. It’s unclear, so far, whether this crew are government soldiers or rebels.

“Looks like an SPLA camp,” Lopidia says, now snapping photos.


Internecine conflict has plagued the world’s youngest nation since 2013. Leaders of the two rival ethnic groups, Dinka and Nuer, have always agreed on the point that wildlife is a valuable resource. But human lives are, understandably, the priority.

So of course, is trying to win the war, which erupted when President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of being behind a failed coup attempt. The Dinka turned on the Nuer, killing thousands in Juba alone. Tens of thousands more have been killed throughout the country, and well over a million internally displaced. Even the government’s minister of wildlife and tourism left his job—to join the rebels.

The Salva Kiir forces are those of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the SPLA—whom Elkan suspects we’ve spotted under the acacia trees. Although they have Juba’s backing, SPLA troops are not being paid, and their food rations consist of meat from poached animals. Sudan-watchers say the ruling elite are investing oil revenues— oil being the country’s only source of hard currency—in armored Hummers and in real estate outside the country, chiefly in Kenya. Little trickles down to the government’s troops.

As the war began to drag on, soldiers from both sides—the SPLA and the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO)—resorted to subsistence hunting. Bushmeat was sold in villages, with proceeds going to fund weapons purchases, and the troops’ snaring and shooting of animals evolved rapidly from a basic hunter-gatherer economy into a commercial enterprise. Gazelle, “the French fries of the plains” for traditional predators, once were plentiful. Today, the lion must compete with soldiers for gazelle.

A wildlife survey, a difficult undertaking anywhere, is especially hard to pull off in a war zone. One technique is, figuratively,“to dive-bomb an elephant carcass,” says Elkan, taking a quick close look then getting away fast. “With armed men, who are always suspicious, you take lots of photos with a powerful camera and look at them later, to determine the types of weapons.”


We circle back to Juba, and Elkan gets us into position to land. When air-traffic control puts the Cessna in a holding pattern, Elkan is clearly annoyed.

If the number and size of aircraft contracted by various operators reflect a nation’s priorities, then in South Sudan, the humanitarian-aid industry wins hands down. According to South Sudan NGO Forum, there are 160 national and 142 international NGOs that facilitate humanitarian and development needs in the country.

“UN aircraft are taking off and landing every ten minutes,” Elkan notes. “Juba is the busiest airport in East Africa and yet there’s only one radio frequency. This is an accident waiting to happen.”

Indeed, the tarmac below us is blanketed with aircraft: a Russian-made attack helicopter, commercial aircraft, but most of the equipment we see belongs to the UN. This field is home to the largest helicopter in the world. In most corners of Juba the relentless, strained whine of jet engines is audible all day.

At the spot where Elkan parks the Cessna, now that we’re cleared and on the ground, a member of his team retrieves a bullet from the asphalt.

I remark that Juba reminds me of the Wild West.

“Juba used to be crazy,” Elkan answers. “Now, it’s just fucked up.”

With its mix of Kenyan, American, and South African cowboys running private logistics companies, aging alcoholic missionaries, Ukrainian and Chinese UN peace keepers, RayBan- and cowboy-hat-sporting MPs, armed police at the capital’s bars, Juba is part Mad Max and part Graham Greene.

South Sudan’s conflicts are not restricted to military and paramilitary combatants. Environmentalists and developers are also clashing. Supply routes and roads were cut off between Khartoum and Juba after South Sudan won independence, making it difficult for villagers to get basic foods and supplies.

While roads are lifelines for humans, they can be death sentences for wildlife. And oil concessions granted by the South Sudan government—to the French oil giant Total, for example—may expose the park to surveying and drilling.

Bandingilo is a vast reserve, but there are long-established villages, as well as promising potential oil fields, that are within the region enclosed by its boundaries. Both require overland access by heavy vehicles.

Bandingilo falls within Jongelei state, bordering Ethiopia to the east. After President Kiir reached a peace deal with a local rebel group, a new administrative area was carved out of Jongelei. But the region remains isolated. During the rains large humanitarian aid aircraft cannot land on muddy airstrips. Helicopters are too expensive to use with any frequency. Health and education are lacking. So is clean water, and for that matter bore holes are few.

Recently, a 30-kilometer stretch of road was cleared. But the government halted construction because the road passes through a national park.

Villagers at Pibor, a outpost reminiscent of the British colonial era, complain they are running out of food, and blame the government resolution suspending construction of the road for their enforced fast. Peter Guzulu, spokesman for the administrative area, denounces this road closure as unconstitutional, and accuses the director-general of South Sudan’s Wildlife Service, Maj. Gen. Philip Chol Majak, a Dinka, of leading the charge to cut off this vital conduit for food and other goods. Guzulu told a local reporter that animals should not, at such a critical time for the country, be favored over human beings.

I visited Major Chol at his office in Juba. It was festooned with ribbons and trophies from matches he won as captain of weekend soccer teams. Noting the half-dozen heavily armed police outside his building, I asked whether he felt threatened. Chol told me he continues to condemn the SPLA for poaching, and stands by the government’s decision to stop construction of the road in order to protect wildlife.


Given that wildlife in parks in Angola and Mozambique were wiped out during civil wars during the 80s, when the South Sudanese fight for independence was under way conservationists didn’t hold out much hope its wildlife could survive. Pilots and aid workers returning from relief missions told grim stories that the wildlife was all but eliminated. But after the peace deal in 2005, when the WCS and the new government conducted the first aerial survey of the region in 25 years, astonishingly, they discovered vast migrating herds. The those began to be decimated.

How, now, to save what’s left? Elkan advocates a version of the private-game-ranch model deployed in Kenya. There “the government realized what a pain in the ass it is to manage wildlife in parks,” he says, pulling his baseball cap down tight on his head. “Especially during war.”

Private ranches, he explains, have taken a huge burden off the government in efforts to manage South Sudan’s remaining rhino in the forested western parts of the country. His vision is to lead management away from the government-anchored model and decentralize wildlife management.

On July 9, South Sudan marked its fourth year of independence, and rebel leader Machar reportedly vowed to carry on the fight until President Kiir is overthrown. Wildlife may be returning, due to the arrival of seasonal rains, but remain vulnerable.

Africa’s national parks are like states, and only as strong as their security apparatus.


I caught up with Elkan recently by phone. He told me he recently flew over herds of migrating tiang and Kop antelope following the long rains in May and June. He said a second radio frequency has been added for pilots navigating Juba International Airport. “I’m happy about this, because a C-130 Hercules military transport plane nearly crashed into my parked Cessna the other day.”

And in Boma National park, he told me, a WCS-trained deputy game warden and former SPLA commander arrested a group of SPLA soldiers in possession of 150 kilos of bushmeat—and burned it.

Finally the OCS war to save wild animals from war is paying off.

I asked Elkan and Lopedia if I could call them the Blackwater of wildlife. They cracked up. They didn’t say no. “But non-profit,” they said.



Alice in the Heart of Darkness – South Sudan

Juba, South Sudan
Juba, South Sudan
South Sudan, about the size of France, is located just northwest of Kenya
South Sudan is about the size of France and located just northwest of Kenya

Last March, before leaving Nairobi for Juba, I met with Mariano Deng Ngor, South Sudan’s ambassador to Kenya. The embassy is situated in an area called Upper Hill, which happens to be near the Nairobi Hospital, the Fairview Hotel, and the Israeli Embassy. A convenient location since I had a doctor’s appointment around the corner that afternoon.

The ambassador is an elder statesman, a Dinka from the country’s ruling elite. That day he wore an expensive-looking dark blue pin-striped suit and matching blue silk tie, decorated with a Chinese-style dragon. Perhaps a gift from one of China’s state-owned oil companies, keenly interested these days in Africa.

Ngor said he was an anthropologist and warned me he might talk for a while. For him, the origins of South Sudan take shape in the 1920s, when his father, a Christian, was captured and sold into slavery. The appalling historical treatment of Sudan’s black African southerners by the Arab north, he explains, was one of the main driving forces behind the creation of South Sudan. In the ‘80s, John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, fought for separation of and independence for the south. That pursuit was ramped up after 9/11, when the US scrambled for new approaches to conflicts, underway virtually all over the world, that involved Islamic fundamentalism.

The US-brokered talks between the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the South Sudan Liberation Army (SPLA) resulted in a peace agreement in 2002. But the South Sudanese leadership consisted mainly of former military men whose motives involved a high level of greed and/or tribalism, not the will to implement capacity-building.

Evangelicals from America’s “Christian belt”, Ngor told me, had influenced the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. As it happens the former owner of a private military company had also pushed for independence, pressing Dick Cheney, then US Vice President, to lift economic sanctions.

“The people believe George W. Bush saved the south from Islamic powers,” said Ngor.

Birth of a Nation


The actor George Clooney, however, is credited with putting the Darfur genocide on the world stage. Still, some residents and policy-makers say the 2006 Darfur peace agreement and the star’s global campaigns did little to quell suffering on the ground. In a 2011 referendum, 98% of the south voters cast ballots for independence.

Hopes dashed in December of 2013 when South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, accused his former deputy, Riek Machar, of plotting and starting to implement a coup. Overnight the world’s youngest nation erupted into civil war. The Dinka people, the main tribe of the government’s Juba-based ruling elite, went from door to door looking for Machar’s fellow tribesmen, the Nuer, and killing them. All told, at least 10,000, of multiple tribes, were shot and/or hacked to death in the ensuing conflict. More than 1,000,000 have been displaced and over 400,000 have fled to neighboring countries.

Compelling, and accurate, as this account is, there’s another line to the story. The events that have both given birth to and plagued South Sudan have as much if not more to do with oil and minerals as with religion and right-wing anti-Islamists. Independence put 75% of Sudan’s oil reserves in South Sudan, under the watchful gaze of western and Christian interests.

Chinese state-owned oil production facility, Upper Nile state
Chinese state-owned oil production facility, Upper Nile state

Landlocked South Sudan has possession of vast underground wealth, but lacks the means of exporting commodities like oil, except through Sudan’s major port, Port Sudan, on the Red Sea.

99% of South Sudan’s government’s revenues are oil derived. So, this set of contradictions means that revenue has slowed to a trickle.

Rebel leader and former president John Garang (left) and current president Salva Kiir.  Following the 2005 peace agreement Garang was killed in a helicopter crash.
Rebel leader and former president John Garang (left) and current president Salva Kiir.
Soon after the 2005 peace agreement was signed Garang was killed in a helicopter crash. A pilot I know who said he often flew Garang from Juba to Nairobi by plane told me recently the politician “emanated pure evil”.

Thanks to the civil war, meanwhile, all South Sudan’s oil-production facilities have shut down, too, save for one in the Upper Nile State.

As an alternative South Sudan’s potential customers’ have a strong interest in a mega-port proposed in Kenya, near Lamu island, a World Heritage Site.

Ambassador Ngor admitted independence hadn’t worked so well so far. Thinking of Somalia as much as Sudan, and the grisly outcomes, ongoing, of interventions there, I noted that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Ngor laughed, but the sound was much like a car battery turning over, finally, after a long, cold winter. He said he’d never heard the phrase before. My watch told me I had to take off, for that medical appointment.

His Excellency shook my hand and assured me that the powers that be would be waiting for me in Juba.

Reporter’s Notebook: Kenya’s Black Gold, ‘Texas Tea’

Kenya’s Black Gold, ‘Texas Tea’

Last week Nairobi hosted the 3rd annual East Africa Oil and Gas Summit at the Kenya International Conference Center ( #KICC ).

Among attendees at the two-day confab were independent exploration and production companies Simba Energy, Milio International, Halliburton, Africa Oil Corp, Tullow, and Horizon Energy. Government petroleum and mining ministers from Uganda, Somalia, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Madagascar and Kenya attended, too, along with representatives of private security companies that protect oil companies’ infrastructure and onsite personnel.

Seismic studies for oil and gas reserves along Kenya’s coast, as well as discoveries in the Rift Valley by London-based Tullow, indicate that Kenya may soon be a big player in the global energy market. Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Energy and Petroleum Davis Chirchir said the country’s recoverable oil reserves in the Rift Basin will likely exceed one billion barrels.

Southern Sudan, by comparison, had 3.5 billion barrels of proved oil reserves as of January 2014 according to a report .

Where infrastructure is concerned, however, experts characterize Kenya as an “immature” player in the oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) market.

A brochure for one international company describes its services as “specializing in upstream, midstream, and downstream operations and infrastructure, often in complex and challenging environments.”

Kenya certainly makes the grade in the “complex and challenging” category.

Be that as it may, Tullow has struck oil and, according to experts, is producing 10,000 barrels/day. However, it doesn’t yet have any means of transporting that oil to the global market. The Cabinet Secretary asserts that Kenya’s Petroleum and Energy Ministry is reportedly “fast tracking” construction of the Uganda-Kenya crude oil pipeline, and promises that a Nairobi-to-Mombasa pipeline will be completed within the coming 18 months.

Gulf Energy reportedly won the tender to develop a 960 megawatt coal plant in Lamu County, the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum announced last month. However, the great unknown is not whether the 32-berth Lamu port will be up and running, but when. The Lamu port is to serve as the terminus of the greater Lamu-Port Southern-Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor.

Residents on Kenya’s north coast, particularly across the channel on Lamu Island, are concerned about the effects that oil production and the construction of the proposed deep water [facility] might have on the fragile environment and its traditional Swahili culture. Residents in the area rely for their livelihoods on tourism and fishing. (Nearby Kiunga Marine Reserve is a UNESCO Biosphere and Lamu Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). They decry a culture of secrecy at top levels of government, compounded by lack of information, and say these have kept residents mired in a swamp of rumors and half truths since the government began talking seriously about the port project in 2009.

One Dubai-based multinational owns two oil concession blocks covering most of Lamu County and Tana River County. I chatted, on a no-name-in-the-story basis, with its chief operating officer, a tall, poker-faced Texan with more than 40 years’ experience in the oil and gas business. This seasoned COO questions LAPSSET’s financial viability and compares the project’s challenges with those encountered in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system’s constructing, during the 1970s.

“Reserves attached to the Alaska pipeline were 20-plus billion barrels of oil,” he drawled. “So, what we’ve got here at the moment is a discovery that was thought to contain 600,000 barrels, but now we have to build an 1100-km pipeline to get to the coast, at a cost of maybe USD 5-to-7 billion. That’s quite high. I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the [LAPSSET] pipeline. I don’t think it’s going to happen in the near term.”

The COO said he’d put his money on Lamu County’s gas reserves, where exploration is already underway.


But the region’s only concerns aren’t only whether there’s oil and gas and logistics. With Big Oil and Big Gas, there’s always politics in the mix. But in this case, the politics are more than tricky.

The Texan COO’s company had to stop seismic studies after Somali militants slaughtered over 60 people in a small, mainly Christian-populated area of the mainland. “Mpekatoni is right in the middle of our block,” he added, referring to the town that bore the brunt of the bloodletting. But, he says, he’s not worried. “We plan to [resume] studies and exploration early next year.”

A Kenyan politician I spoke with at the summit denied that security is or would be an issue in the area. He described the Mpekatoni attack as a “one off,” “If [insecurity] continues we put Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) to protect the oil infrastructure”. Still, the question remains: Will the company’s presence in Lamu County make the area more or less volatile and vulnerable?
Culture, demographics and environment are serious issues on the table, too.

“If government allows us to handle the local content issues appropriately, it will dampen many problems and frustrations,” the Texan said. “They’re [locals] are gonna have jobs. When we go into the area we always improve infrastructure, they will have better access. It’s a good thing.”

This may prove to be a tall order.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced plans to revoke 500,000 acres, where the port infrastructure will be constructed, for title deeds acquired since 2010.

Indigenous peoples – mainly fishermen and farmers – have already been displaced and not yet compensated. Other residents fear government heavies, mostly ethnic Christian Kikuyus, won’t give any jobs to locals, most of whom are Muslim.

County Fisheries Executive Salim Atwa told me,“We no longer have access to the fishing grounds.” Fish-breeding zones have already been allocated to LAPSSET.

“We need to be compensated,” the chairman of the Lamu Fishermen Association told a local reporter. “We will block any construction until the money is released.”

Although Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the Mpekatoni attack, President Kenyatta immediately accused a rival leader, Raila Odinga of being an instigator, with the help of an ad-hoc local militia. The allegations sketch a sort of rent-a-terrorist scenario. Ten days later police arrested Lamu County’s governor, Issak Timamy.

Tensions increased when Kenya’s Inspector General slapped a curfew on Lamu Island residents. Locals say they feel the measure is purely punitive and unfairly singled out.

The already endangered tourist industry is now nearly extinct. Curfew hours restrict fishing activities.

“The [Mpekatoni] massacre took place on the mainland, not on Lamu island,” notes Atwa, and asks, “So why are we being punished?”

Lamu’s governor has, for lack of evidence, since been released on bail. And while the island has been peaceful since the attacks, the Inspector General of Police this last Tuesday extended the curfew another month.

Meanwhile land rights violations in Lamu County continue to grow.


Men playing Bao, a traditional board game, Lamu town
Men playing Bao, a traditional board game, Lamu town


Dhow races Lamu Cultural Festival, 2013. #dhow
Dhow races Lamu Cultural Festival, 2013. #dhow


Turtle hatchling
Fragile eco-system: turtle hatchling on Shela Beach, Lamu Island