Civil war and deteriorating humanitarian conditions in South Sudan are driving people from their homes in record numbers, according to the United Nations. This youngest country in the world is one of the four facing the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II. The other three are Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen.
A combination of vicious conflict which shows no signs of abating, drought and famine makes the situation in South Sudan especially grim. More than 1.8 million people, including one million children, have already fled to Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic to escape hunger or violence. Latest reports speak of thousands of civilians fleeing to neighboring Ethiopia as government troops advance on a rebel stronghold in the Upper Nile region.
Given the higher than expected arrivals, Sudan is likely to soon host over one million South Sudanese refugees. Nothing illustrates the sad plight of this country better than the fact the number of people fleeing to Sudan in March surpassed the expected figure for the entire year. Didn’t South Sudanese fight a protracted and bloody civil war to win independence from Sudan?
Adding to the misery of the people, the warring parties are restricting humanitarian assistance in whatever ways are possible. Aid workers fear the government is intentionally denying aid to regions where it thinks residents sympathize with the rebels. Another problem is the attack on aid workers. In 2015, there were 31 attacks. Seventy-nine aid workers have been killed since the war began.
Aid workers often cannot reach the most vulnerable hungry people with the result that many are dying from hunger and diseases like cholera. This is in addition to those who die from the violence itself, particularly bullet wounds.
All this calls for a massive relief program. Providing emergency aid to refugees is not enough. Equally important is to support governments and communities in neighboring countries. Communities hosting refugees are among the world’s poorest and are under great pressure.
The UN refugees and food relief agencies have urged donors to step up support for people fleeing South Sudan. Despite a UN declaration of famine in February, lack of funds is hindering relief efforts.
US has announced $199 million for South Sudan and neighboring countries hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. The question is whether the Trump administration will continue to support South Sudan when the proposed White House budget seeks to cut nearly a third of the State Department budget and diminish funding for development projects and humanitarian aid in Africa.
This is not the only worry.
The Trump administration has yet to name a special envoy to South Sudan, a position that has been vacant for several months. Washington played a critical role in persuading Sudan to hold a referendum which ultimately led to the emergence of South Sudan as a sovereign, independent country.
So naturally people in and outside South Sudan expect Washington to play an equally important role to restore peace and stability in this African country.
What began as a tussle for power between the nation’s President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar in 2013 soon became a broader ethnic conflict as the two men belonged to different tribes. So just as the crisis can’t be defused without a political solution, no political solution can endure unless it brings about a reconciliation between the majority Dinka and Machar’s Nuer tribe.
A peace deal, brokered in August 2015 by the International-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African regional security organization, was short-lived. The African Union (AU), the UN, and the “troika” of the United States, UK, and Norway — the group of countries that midwifed the birth of South Sudan in 2011— should examine why it failed to bring fighting to an end. This should be the first step toward the search for an indigenous, all-inclusive national peace process.
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