(International Crisis Group) - Overview: As South Sudan’s conflicts, which began in December 2013, have fragmented and expanded
, the hunger crisis has deepened and widened. Over 40 per cent of the population is severely food insecure, 60 per cent higher than at this time last year. On 20 February, the UN declared that some 100,000 people are already living in famine conditions in Leer and Mayendit counties. But some 5.5 million are at risk unless urgent measures are taken to reduce conflict and enable humanitarians to deliver more aid safely.
Conflict among various factions has prompted massive displacement that in turn has prevented farming, while looting and cattle rustling have destroyed many people’s assets. Some 1.9 million civilians are internally displaced persons (IDPs), 224,000 of whom have fled to UN peacekeeping bases. Another 1.6 million have found refuge in neighbouring countries. Currency depreciation, hyperinflation and insecurity have led to declining trade and soaring food prices.
Addressing the humanitarian crisis is hugely expensive. In its 2017 appeal, the UN requested $1.6 billion; so far, only $439 million has been pledged. Helping starving people also is perilous; 82 humanitarian workers have been killed. In the absence of bolder policy decisions to reduce fighting, humanitarian actors will remain at the forefront of the myriad internal conflicts and, with their lives at risks and budgets under pressure, be able to do less as needs continue to grow.
To mitigate the worst effects of the conflicts, the peace process oversight body – the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) – and its partners need to support ceasefire implementation, as well as local dialogue and negotiations between the government and warring factions. To prevent famine in the meantime, however, the humanitarian appeal needs to be fully funded. To ensure that the aid reaches those most in need, all actors should avoid politicizing it. Finally, the two existing and third needed humanitarian corridors through Sudan must be kept consistently open.
The origins and dynamics of the conflicts that are occurring across South Sudan differ dramatically. At the war’s outset, there were two main warring parties: the government and its allies on the one hand, and on the other, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army-In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) and affiliated groups. Despite the signing in August 2015 of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS), the disputes continue to evolve, with opposition groups simultaneously factionalising and localising. The government has offered amnesty to some armed groups, while maintaining military pressure on others. Though external policymakers have struggled to respond to these nuances, international political inertia prevails.
Fortunately, relatively few locations have experienced sustained warfare, as military dynamics tend to suspend fighting for months or years at a time. This means most IDPs and other civilians are in relatively stable camps or other refuges, and humanitarian actors can provide basic services. However, many of the worst humanitarian situations occur in areas with ongoing conflict, where civilians are often deliberately targeted, thus creating the conditions for famine. Warring parties tend to view civilians as integral elements of their enemy’s economic, political and social support system. This is particularly evident during incidents of revenge violence, when civilians are likely to be treated not as distinct and protected but as part of an armed group.
Following government combat operations or ambushes against government vehicles, it is common for soldiers to turn on local civilians. Rebels have also attacked civilians belonging to different ethnic communities.
The proliferation and fracturing of rebel groups give many of these conflicts increasingly local characteristics. The government’s strategy is to militarily pressure the disparate groups into political accommodation. Its own experience, during the two-decade liberation struggle with the government in Khartoum, leads it to believe that attrition will eventually create conditions for a political resolution. It is prepared to play a long game with what is seen as a predictable conflict trajectory, though one
with an uncertain timeline.
As opposition groups fracture and multiply, there is often no higher rebel authority than the commander on the ground. The government’s co-option of some former rebel leaders often divides communities, leading to a yet more chaotic situation, as in the ongoing conflict in Mayendit, one of the counties now experiencing famine.
Civilians in Leer, Mayendit and Koch counties in Southern Leich State (the former Unity state) have experienced extensive depredations since the civil war began. At its outset, the trigger to the humanitarian crisis was mistreatment by the armies of both sides, as well as their respective allies. Over the past year or so, the number of warring factions has multiplied, as the government has sought to peel off factions from the rebel coalition. The result is a host of armed groups, most nominally aligned with either the government army (the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army, SPLA) or an SPLA In Opposition faction.3 In the absence of tactical command and control, pillage and raiding is common, devastating communities and further complicating the search for local political solutions. Armed groups repeatedly attack civilians, leaving them without productive assets; towns are not safe; and food markets are devastated. The insecurity constrains aid groups’ ability to sustain operations.
The gender dynamics of violence confront families and communities with impossible choices for feeding themselves and their children, over 30 per cent of whom in these counties are severely malnourished. Men face considerable risk from armed groups if they travel to seek food, as they are often shot if they encounter opposing forces. This has forced women to take enormous risks for their families. When they encounter opposing forces, they are often subject to horrific sexual violence, but their
chances of survival are higher. Women were raped by fighters from several different armed groups – including fighters belonging to factions they supported – as they fled fighting in Southern Unity en route to safety at the UN base in Bentiu.4 Violence in Southern Leich state has pushed many far into the southern swamps along the Nile River, where food is unavailable and leaving to seek it is to risk attack.
Beyond Southern Leich, even peaceful areas such as the Aweil region on the Sudanese border in the north are at risk of famine. This is the outcome not only of drought (in both South Sudan and neighbouring countries) and other climatic challenges, but also of fighting elsewhere in the country. South Sudan’s economy deteriorated dramatically in 2016, as the government struggled to respond to the global drop in oil prices and borrowed heavily to fight the war.5 This triggered hyperinflation, even as spreading conflicts in places such as the formerly peaceful Equatorias contributed to 2017’s 40 per cent national decline in food production from the same February-April period in the previous year.6 More broadly, insecurity has increased costs for both traders and humanitarian actors. Poor people already living on the edge now face low food production due to erratic rainfall and far higher prices for what food there is in the markets.
After extensive negotiations with Khartoum, aid agencies opened two of three proposed humanitarian corridors through Sudan in an attempt to increase available imported food and reduce the cost of moving food aid to South Sudanese border areas. Sudan’s cooperation is a tangible, welcome outcome of its ongoing negotiations with the U.S. over sanctions relief. A priority now is to open a third corridor, to carry food into Aweil.
The warring parties at times have sought to use humanitarian assistance as leverage over civilian populations by pressuring aid agencies to provide food for civilians in areas they control.8 At others, they have refused to halt fighting to enable access to those populations. Many combatants believe aid inevitably will support not only civilians, but also the opposing side’s fighting forces. Accordingly, both government and opposition groups have presented aid agencies with bureaucratic impediments. Still, South Sudan is one of the only conflict countries where humanitarian organisations are able to negotiate access directly and mostly successfully.
It is not easy. In addition to the government, the negotiations must involve neighbouring countries and dozens of rebel leaders. Yet, in part thanks to joint pressure from neighbours – Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – as well as from the U.S., China, the African Union (AU) and UN, all warring parties endorse the principle of impartial humanitarian access.
This further illustrates that the primary access constraint, as well as cause of the famine, is the conflict. Where active fighting takes place, humanitarian workers face looting and harassment. They must frequently evacuate staff who do not receive the special protection from warring groups to which they are entitled and which they negotiate with the government and rebel leaders. Sometimes they are directly prohibited access to locations during and immediately after fighting. As a result, assistance can be inadequate or delayed. Some civilians fleeing constant violence are unable to remain in one place long enough to receive sustained assistance.
There are other challenges as well. Food cannot be pre-positioned in conflict areas lest it be stolen. Humanitarian groups are the only international contacts some rebels have. In a handful of cases, humanitarian workers have brokered unpublicized local ceasefires in order to deliver aid. Negotiations take time and money, but more costly options can usually guarantee aid workers’ security. In some cases credible security guarantees cannot be made to enable access across front lines, for example, so expensive airdrops are necessary. At a time of shrinking budgets, however, tradeoffs directly impact how many people will receive assistance. It is thus imperative that the UN’s humanitarian appeal be fully funded.
International Political Paralysis
Following the bitter July 2016 fighting in Juba, international actors struggled to influence internal peace and conflict dynamics. While the overall policy is to support the government, there has been little tangible engagement other than with the international institutions related to the 2015 peace agreement. Most donor funding goes to international peace and ceasefire monitoring bodies which have relatively little impact, while that for South Sudanese institutions, such as the Joint Military Ceasefire Commission, is almost non-existent. There are no simple solutions in South Sudan, and moves toward genuine peace require compromises both among South Sudanese and between international actors and the government. Given the multiplicity of factions, peace is more likely to be a local affair, in which progress in some areas may occur at the same time as stagnation in others.
There is little appetite beyond South Sudan’s immediate neighbours to support local dialogue, however, whether to promote peace, reconciliation or humanitarian access. Recent statements from President Salva Kiir and the government in support of dialogue and a unilateral ceasefire are a welcome change in rhetoric. The modalities required for implementation are technically complex, however, and require direct international assistance as well as political will.
Greater political support and ceasefire-oriented technical assistance could help mitigate the impact of the current crisis, provided they do not come at the expense of the funding and effort needed for humanitarian operations.
UN officials and diplomats outside South Sudan have made high-level calls for a ceasefire. Yet, they have not put forward realistic ideas on how it might be negotiated among the government and multiple opposition factions, and no tangible work on a ceasefire is being done in-country. Such focus as there is has been on how a ceasefire might enable temporary humanitarian access. That would be welcome but by definition have limited utility. Any ceasefire, whether national or local, should be developed in such a way as to create conditions for dialogue and with an aim of achieving sustainability.
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