South Sudanese refugees queue for water.

South Sudan

Ignore Trump for a second and look at what’s happening in South Sudan

What was supposed to be an African success story is now a humanitarian crisis.

One of the great tragedies of the Trump campaign is that it’s hogging all the news bandwidth. His potential election is a crisis, no doubt. But he hasn’t killed anyone.

Part of an ongoing Latterly series on the global refugee crisis

In South Sudan, meanwhile, there’s a real crisis, the life or death kind. Children are wasting away from hunger, and breastfeeding mothers can no longer produce milk; 2.6 million people had to leave home to find food or safety, and 4.8 million still don’t have enough to eat.

Why? Just politics, really.

Sure, things Trump says are shocking. But sometimes I wish we lived in a different kind of world, where we could be suitably shocked by something a mother said on Al Jazeera this week:

“I just want my kids to have food and something to drink.”

Worse, both sides of the conflict, but mainly the government’s it seems, are using systemic rape as a form of total war. Those same starving mothers sometimes have to choose between watching their families starve to death, or venturing out of the refugee camp to find affordable food at the risk of being raped by soldiers waiting by the side of the road.

Why is this happening?

The civil war in South Sudan is an oil war with ethnic battle lines.

On one side is the government that the United States helped to create in 2011. You might remember pictures from 2006 of George W. Bush in the White House meeting with a guy in a cowboy hat. That guy is Salva Kiir Mayardit, president of South Sudan, and the hat was a gift from Bush. Kiir is a Dinka, the largest ethnic group.

His rival is Riek Machar, who was the vice president before starting a rebel faction and is a Nuer, another large ethnic group. Each group has its own languages and traditions, but they don’t fight because of that.

They fight because of power. And in South Sudan, oil is power. The New York Times explains it:

Instead of governing through strong institutions, many power brokers and generals in this nation still essentially command their own forces, their loyalties to the government often determined by their cut of national oil revenues.
“It is an extortion racket with bargaining ongoing on a regular basis, with either violence or the threat of violence” as a form of negotiation, said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

From 2011 to 2013, things were OK. South Sudan had liberated itself from the violent regime of Sudan, a primarily Arab nation whose ruler benefits from divisions to the south.

But even in the early days, there were signs that without a common enemy to the north, factions in the new South Sudan would eventually turn on each other. John Prendergast of the anti-genocide Enough Project told The Washington Post that the Obama administration took its eyes off the road by leaving its top envoy job vacant while “the two competing groups within the ruling party were on a high-speed collision course.”

The collision happened in December 2013. Since then, the war has produced 900,000 refugees and 1.8 million internally displaced people. The number of people killed hasn’t been counted, which tells you something about how much the world cares; it could be 50,000, but it’s probably closer to 300,000.


In April, there was a peace agreement to try to bring Machar’s people back into the government. So that’s what they did, physically relocating all his political leaders and fighters from the countryside back into Juba, the capital.

That was a bad move. Here’s de Waal said in an interview with Bloomberg before the fighting even started:

“Remilitarizing Juba—having the armed forces of the two contending parties in the city—is insane.”

De Waal predicted that because oil prices were falling, a coalition government wasn’t going to work. In other words, if you want to put Kiir and Machar in Juba at the same time, you’d better have enough oil money to keep them happy.

The leaders, for their part, said they had no control over the confrontation between government and rebel soldiers that tore apart the peace deal July 7. That could be true. Either way, the war is back on.

Not enough food

Down at ground level, nobody gives a shit about that because they’re starving. Kids with dead parents and nothing to eat are showing up in Uganda looking like skeletons, having tagged along with an evacuation convoy for Ugandans.

“Kenya and Uganda are reporting rising cases of severe malnutrition, particularly among very young children,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. “Those found to be suffering are being placed on food nourishment programs to bring them back to health.”

Even in U.N. camps, there’s not enough food because food supplies are low, driving up prices. Also, humanitarian supply trucks are being stopped at military checkpoints or struggling along crummy roads.

The solution to the immediate humanitarian crisis is to increase private and public international aid to South Sudan, through UNHCR and other NGOs working on the ground who don’t have enough funds to properly respond.

The solution to the underlying political problems may also have a solution: oil monitoring. This is from Reuters in 2014:

“If there is a clearer control of oil revenue, that may remove from the table one of the incentives over which people are divided or will fight,” said one senior Western diplomat, close to peace talks being held in the Ethiopian capital.
“How do you turn the resource question into a confidence builder as opposed to a conflict creator? That’s the challenge in negotiation,” he told Reuters.

The Enough Project has just published a comprehensive report on the South Sudan conflict based on field research. The researchers concluded the government actually has highly qualified functionaries—smart public servants who know their jobs and want to do good work. But they’re “undermined every step of the way, underfunded and disempowered by leaders who have intentionally disintegrated state capacity for governance and transparency,” said Brian Adeba, who wrote the report.

Kiir and Machar benefit from chaos. It’s easier to rob a bank when the bank is on fire.

Adeba’s recommendations involve empowering those good public servants and boosting accountability. One idea is to tie aid to transparency. There’s a basis for such a thing in Liberia, where foreign donors, including the International Monetary Fund and USAID, worked with the government to create GEMAP, the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program.

Results of GEMAP are mixed—there’s still corruption in Liberia—but it’s a step toward accountability. If human rights and starvation don’t move South Sudan’s politicians toward good governance, maybe some strings attached to incoming money might.

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