The declaration this week by three United Nations agencies that war and a collapsing economy have left some 100,000 people facing starvation in parts of South Sudan did not come as a surprise to those of us who are familiar with the crisis in South Sudan. What is surprising is that it has taken this long for the U.N. to make this declaration.
Many of us involved in humanitarian and charitable projects in this part of Africa have feared that this protracted crisis would lead South Sudan into the abyss. It is so sad that this richly blessed country has become a ghost land and may become another failed African state and a hotbed of terrorism like Somalia.
This is the first serious humanitarian crisis in Africa facing the new Trump regime. Many Africans are hoping that President Trump will mobilize the international community as Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election MORE did in the face of the Ebola crisis in order to stop the descent of South Sudan into the precipice. However, in order for the U.S. to play an important role in interrupting this cycle of violence, decline and suffering in South Sudan, it is important to understand the complexity and dimensions of this crisis.
As of today, the U.N. estimates that over 1 million South Sudanese are on the brink of starvation. The total number of food-insecure people is expected to rise to 5.5 million at the height of the lean season in July if nothing is done to curb the severity and spread of the food crisis. More than 4.9 million South Sudanese — 40 percent of the country’s population — are in urgent need of food and will face starvation if nothing is done urgently. This was not the dream of the citizens of this long-suffering country when they gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
At independence, South Sudan was an inchoate amalgamation of major and minor ethnic groups whose common cause was simply to break away from the Islamization policy of the Sudanese government in Khartoum after over 30 years of war.
What most Americans and the rest of the world may remember about Sudan is that it once hosted Osama bin Laden. And many people will remember that the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicated by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, including mass killings and rape against civilians in Darfur, and that his government is one of the most repressive and intolerant theocratic regimes in Africa with an ultra-conservative application of Sharia law.
The mainly Christian South Sudan broke away from the mainly Muslim Northern Sudan in 2011 to form what was expected to be an African modern state run on sound democratic principles and values. Unfortunately, since independence South has not forged any semblance of national unity. The ethnic fault lines deliberately created by successive Sudanese governments have worsened with the divisive ethnocentrism and nepotism of the Kiir government in Juba.
South Sudan since independence has not known any peace or progress. It is caught in a conflict trap: an unbroken cycle of violence and civil war. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, this happens when the conflict in a country has become acute, with the conflict growing more complex with the fragmentation of armed groups and leading to asymmetric warfare.
The unresolved tensions in South Sudan have lasted for years, depleting the resources of the land, damaging agricultural production and severely eroding the social fabric and the means of resilience and survival of over two-thirds of the population. This chaos and insecurity has affected the distribution of humanitarian and international aid. The situation is not helped by the pervasive corruption of the government of South Sudan.
Last September, an investigative report by The Sentry, titled “War crimes shouldn’t pay: Stopping the looting and destruction in South Sudan,” noted that government officials and rebel leaders have transferred millions of dollars of ill-gotten wealth outside the country, while a civil war has left nearly half the country’s people homeless or in urgent need of humanitarian aid rages.
The report concluded rather painfully that “The leaders of South Sudan’s warring parties manipulate and exploit ethnic divisions in order to drum up support for a conflict that serves the interests only of the top leaders of these two kleptocratic networks and, ultimately, the international facilitators whose services the networks utilize and on which they rely.”
While the South Sudanese government denied this report, it did not provide any counter evidence to back up its denial. What the Kiir government cannot deny, however, is that it is presiding over what the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called “one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world.”
According to one bishop in Yambio, South Sudan is in the throes of the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa in the 21st century, and the sad thing is that “we have brought this upon ourselves.” But something must be done urgently to save South Sudan, and there is no other nation better positioned to help bring this about than the US.
First, the U.N. and the African Union must increase the number of peacekeepers in South Sudan, who should be deployed outside Juba to Unity State, Yambio, Wau and Yei to protect humanitarian relief workers against attacks by rebels. This is a race against time. Second, food aid and medical supplies should be delivered directly to regional governments, faith-based organizations and local communities rather than through the central government agencies, which are cesspools of corruption.
Third, the U.S. and the U.N. must impose an arms embargo on South Sudan including punitive sanctions against the government army, the rebels and all senior commanders involved in perpetrating human rights violation especially against vulnerable populations: women and children. And fourth, there should be an immediate ceasefire in South Sudan and a process of disarmament to stop this human carnage.
Stan Chu Ilo, Ph.D., is research professor of African Studies at DePaul University and founder and president of Canadian Samaritans for Africa. He is a commentator for Al-Jezzera and Canada Television, and has written for CNN African Voices and the Chicago Tribune.
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