THE greatest indictment against the political leadership in South Sudan is that around 200,000 people have returned north to Sudan, the country they fought so hard to leave. Approximately 32,000 have entered Sudan since the start of the year.
This is only a fraction of those who have found refuge in neighboring countries. Regional governments have expressed fears that violence in South Sudan could spill over its borders into their own nations. In January alone, more than 52,000 people fled to Uganda. South Sudan is now Africa’s largest producer of migrants, as more than three million people have either fled the country or become internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
The influx of people is only part of the crisis afflicting the world’s youngest nation. Civil war, famine, kidnapping of children and aid workers and warnings of genocide… everything seems to be going wrong with South Sudan. The UN has declared a famine in some parts of the country, where nearly half its population face food shortages. More than 7.5 million need assistance and UNICEF says a million children are acutely malnourished. UN says it is the biggest humanitarian crisis since the organization was founded in 1946.
Adding to the woes of the people is a government which either does not know the gravity of the situation or is doing everything in its power to make things worse. Most probably the latter. For example, President Salva Kiir is still boosting his forces using millions of dollars from oil sales, according to a confidential UN report.
Kiir is one party to a conflict that is devastating South Sudan. The fighting erupted in 2013, two years after it won independence from Sudan, when Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy Riek Machar, a Nuer, who has fled and is now in South Africa. Now Kiir wants the regional governments to treat Machar as a terrorist. Given that the conflict has split the country along largely ethnic lines, this will be treating a major tribe in South Sudan as terrorists.
South Sudan’s neighbors should not walk into this trap. Instead, they and Western powers and UN should engage directly in devising an effective political mechanism to revive the peace agreement.
The August 2015 peace deal can still be the basis for efforts to end fighting and restore peace. The accord provides for the formation of a transitional government of national unity, introducing political, economic and security reforms, and establishing a hybrid court to try war crimes suspects. All parties to the conflict, says UN, continue to commit widespread human rights violations “with near complete impunity and a lack of any credible effort to prevent these violations or to punish the perpetrators.” Those responsible need to be brought to justice.
President Kiir has called upon South Sudanese political, civic and religious entities to participate in a national dialogue to restore peace and reconciliation among warring communities. Unfortunately, his proposals seem to exclude those of his opponents who are forced to remain abroad including former Vice President Machar. The other major flaw is that the president ignores one major political component of the August 2015 deal, namely the formation of an inclusive transitional government of national unity. So instead of bridging the gulf, Kiir’s initiative may help deepen the political divide and prolong the conflict. Renewed diplomatic efforts, though essential, would not address immediate problems. Something should be done urgently to stop fighting and senseless killing. The first step should be a ceasefire honored by all.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that the risk of Rwanda-like genocide has “considerably diminished” but much fighting continues. A new UN report speaks of deliberate starvation and bombardment of civilians, as well as the use of hate speech by top officials including Kiir. A ceasefire would also help aid workers in their mission to deliver food, water and sanitation to those in urgent need of them.