The catastrophe in South Sudan may be taking place out of sight — because we choose to look the other way — but not out of mind, certainly not out of mind of those who are touched by the unspeakable suffering in a country that has come to epitomise what we these days call a “failed state”.
A failed state, often defined as an entity that has disintegrated to a point where the responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function, may carry on unnoticed for years, though broken in back and spirit. But when that entity’s ruling elites elevate their personal interests above those of their people, dispensing with the notion of a social contract between the ruler and ruled, a day of reckoning always lies in wait when the system collapses, civil war erupts and mayhem ensues. And, yes, you guessed it right — the international community then ends up inheriting the problem, propelled as it is by the need to alleviate human suffering.
Since South Sudan plunged into civil war in December 2013, pitting forces loyal to the incumbent president against those loyal to the former vice-president, tens of thousands of people have been killed, roughly three million have fled their homes and 100,000 continue to experience famine, along with a million others on the brink of starvation. Add to that the chronic violence, the ethnic cleansing and mass rape.
Just across the border from this landlocked country, there are today around 700,000 South Sudanese refugees living in dismal camps in northern Uganda, where reporter Melinda Henneberger, a columnist for the Kansas City Star and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, travelled recently. She writes how, during a visit to one camp, a queue was formed to talk to her and “woman after woman told me about seeing her husband decapitated or shot dead in front of her by government soldiers”.
South Sudan, often referred to in news reports as the “youngest country in the world”, having gained independence a mere six years ago under a peace agreement that the United States helped broker, is fast approaching the fate that befell Rwanda in 1994 — a genocidal conflict where the Hutis killed some 800,000 Tutsis, hacking many of them — often their own neighbours — to death with machetes in span of three months. Three months! It invokes an image of Joseph Conrad’s Captain Kurtz, in The Heart of Darkness, hollering “Oh, the horror, the horror!” as he laments the crumbling sanity of the objective world he inhabits in the Congo.
On top of the suffering that this new, stillborn nation in East Africa is enduring, add the surrealistic posture of its government, led by President Salva Kiir, whose officials in Juba, the capital, recently planned to charge $10,000 (Dh36,780) each for every “professional” foreign aid worker in the country, $2,000 for “blue-collar workers” and $1,000 for “casual workers”. Non-governmental organizations, whose work is essential to alleviating the plight of displaced civilians, clearly cannot afford this. And were they to go to their institutional donors to request the extra cash, the donors would be reluctant to pay because, Julian Schopp, director of the Humanitarian Practice told National Public Radio last week, “they will see it as ransom”.
And the government isn’t all that cash-strapped, it would appear, judged by the wealth accumulated by Kiir and other officials, who, according to an op-ed article in the Washington Post last Friday by John Pendergast, an Africa expert, and George Clooney, the Hollywood actor, “... immediate family members of these officials enjoy luxurious life-styles abroad, living in lavish estates while other South Sudanese suffer”.
But beyond the corruption is the issue of accountability. Last Tuesday, Yasmine Sooka, a South African national who is currently the chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, told the United Nations Human Rights Council not to delay the bringing to task of those directly responsible for the plight of this impoverished nation, inhabited by 11 million helpless people whose economy — now totally ravaged — has traditionally depended on a “cattle culture”, in which livestock is the main measure of wealth. Not prosecuting those behind the atrocities in South Sudan, she said, is “appeasement” and makes the world complicit in the continuing bloodshed there. “The challenge for accountability is that alleged perpetrators still occupy senior political and military positions”, Sooka observed. “A small coterie of South Sudan’s leaders show total disregard not just for international human rights norms, but for the welfare of their own citizens,” she added.
Meanwhile, none of the sufferings afflicting his people has left a dent on Kiir, who continues to appear in public, wearing the wide-brimmed, 10-gallon cowboy hat that former United States president George W. Bush had given him as a gift, following the signing of the Sudan peace deal in 2011, projecting an image of prowess and macho temerity. He is, after all, President of South Sudan, a nation with the highest score on the Fragile States Index, until recently known.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.
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