In May 2018, the White House announced it would begin reviewing U.S. assistance to South Sudan to ensure that funds do not prolong the civil war, or enable predatory or corrupt behavior. Then, in December, the national security adviser John Bolton announced the administration’s new Africa policy. In his statement, Bolton labeled South Sudan’s leaders as “morally bankrupt,” noting they prolong “horrific violence and immense human suffering.”
Yet the administration has neither released the outcome of its review, nor outlined a policy to address the ongoing man-made crisis in South Sudan. The delay or failure to make public this information begs the following questions: Does the United States still care about South Sudan? If so, where is the policy?
Nearly six months after South Sudan’s main foes, President Salva Kiir and rebel chief Riek Machar, signed a “peace agreement,” South Sudan continues to bleed from a civil war. The United Nations reported it has documented that at least 134 women and girls were raped, and 41 suffered other forms of sexual and physical violence, including victims as young as 8 years old. The UN report indicated these horrific atrocities were committed by armed forces.
In recent weeks, fierce fighting broke out in Yei in the Equatoria region between a combined force of the government and Machar, aided by Ugandan troops, and the National Salvation Front led by Thomas Cirillo Swaka, who is one of the non-signatories to the agreement. The UN Refugee Agency reports the fighting has displaced 8,000 civilians, forcing an estimated 5,000 to flee into the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Many of South Sudan’s woes are not new. Since its independence in 2011, South Sudan has not been able to transition to a state and a nation. The peace deal was expected to end the war and engender reforms. Its avowed purpose, however, was to legitimize the government, secure Sudan’s and Uganda’s economic interests, and silence opposition voices — in particular, those who are raising concerns about the credibility of the agreement and the leaders’ fitness to lead.
The United States and its allies — the United Kingdom and Norway — have expressed alarm at the escalating conflict but, for justifiable reasons, have refused to support a peace agreement that had no chance of succeeding. But naming the perpetrators of the conflict, labeling them as morally bankrupt, and withholding funding are not tantamount to an effective policy in the long term. In fact, the U.S. disengagement heightens suffering for the people of South Sudan.
The absence of a U.S. policy regarding South Sudan has created a vacuum that other regional or international actors cannot fill. The East African region is divided, consumed with economic and security crises. The permanent members of the UN Security Council — in particular, China and Russia — are complicit in perpetuating the conflict by aiding South Sudan’s government. In addition, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan seems unable to fulfill its mandate to protect civilians.
Hence, the United States must take an active role in seeking a permanent solution to the crisis — beyond the strategy of “African solutions for African problems” adopted by the African Union and the United Nations approach of crisis management. Such failed policy positions embolden South Sudan’s political and military elites to tighten their grip on power, while using the country’s valuable national resources to protect themselves from domestic and international pressure to seek genuine political reform.
The Trump administration could take three steps immediately to prevent South Sudan from fragmenting into warring ethnic enclaves:
- First, publicly release the outcome of the review of U.S. assistance to the country.
- Second, outline a substantive policy position on South Sudan that takes into account the important issues of democracy, political and civil rights, and leadership transition.
- Third, move quickly to appoint a special envoy with a clear mandate to engage the region, the international community, and South Sudanese actors in a political process that leads to a credible, inclusive peace agreement, an interim government with new leadership, and a plan for South Sudan to become a viable state and a nation.
Ultimately, such a process would safeguard U.S. strategic interests in the region.
Amir Idris is a professor and chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York.