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.