On the morning of January 8th, a spokesman for the government of South Sudan accused former military chief of staff Paul Malong of joining rebel forces and ordering troops to attack government positions around the country. He also accused Malong of ordering the attacks last week which ended a fragile ceasefire brokered late in December. Whatever truce may have existed for two weeks over the New Year is over; the civil war continues.
For millions of South Sudanese, the news could scarcely be worse.
The country is on the verge of famine; the government is unable to guarantee the safety of citizens in the capital, much less in farther-flung provinces; infrastructure has crumbled; and, South Sudan has the second most displaced citizens of any nation in the world, at around 4 million. The only country ahead of them is Syria.
NPR’s correspondent in the region predicts the problem getting worse, with a 400,000 person spike in refugees in the last two months.
Oxfam estimates that half the South Sudanese population is malnourished, with the economic freefall brought on by the civil war only exacerbating the average civilian’s difficulty accessing food. The problem is compounded by warring factions driving agrarian communities off their land and into neighboring Ethiopia, Uganda, DRC, and CAR. What food reserves exist are being appropriated by government and rebel forces.
The situation in South Sudan is hardly fresh news – the fighting began in 2013 – but I must confess that, until the ceasefire was brokered on Dec. 24th of last year, I had no notion of what was going on. This conflict might be the most underreported crisis on the planet today.
While there are certainly arguments to be made for my ignorance in this field, I cannot help but believe that this conflict is too ugly and complex to garner major news attention.
But major attention is exactly what it needs.
As of this article’s publication, the 4,000 UN peacekeepers on the ground are woefully unequipped for the task they have been given. Their time is mainly spent securing roads and protecting civilian convoys in an effort to get food to the starving population. There are simply not enough resources to devote to ending the conflict.
For those unfamiliar, the conflict began in 2013 when Vice President Riek Machar was dismissed by President Silva Kiir. Machar is an ethnic Nuer, the largest minority in South Sudan, while Kiir is an ethnic Dinka, who make up the majority of the South Sudanese population. While their initial disagreement stemmed from allegations of corruption, the subsequent conflict has divided the country along racial lines.
Though data is scarce, the BBC reported that “tens of thousands” of killings have been carried out along ethnic lines.
In 2015, President Kiir dissolved the founding 10 states of South Sudan and reconfigured the country into 28 new states, some along racial lines. This move has widely been considered to have had a negative impact on the conflict, and has fueled violence in some areas.
When a national “Unity Government” was formed following peace talks in 2016, a government which featured both Kiir and Machar, there was little reduction in violence. There have been reports of sexual violence on both sides and the use of child soldiers by the rebels.
Last year, the government was accused of restricting freedom of expression after two reporters were beaten and murdered by the National Security Services. The Nation Mirror was shut down by the government after it published editorials critical of Kiir.
A ceasefire was brokered in Ethiopia in December of 2017, the most recent of many failed ceasefire attempts, but collapsed almost immediately amid renewed violence in Juba.
The estimated death toll in the conflict ranges from 50,000 to upwards of 300,000, but the reality is that no one knows for sure. A spokesman for Human Rights Watch said, “We’re kind of guessing in the dark. We’re just seeing tiny slices of a larger conflict.” Less than 15% of South Sudanese have access to the internet and so getting a sense of the reality is difficult.
If the picture painted by all this information is insufficiently bleak, it may surprise the discerning reader to know that no major nation has imposed any manner of sanction against South Sudan; meaning that the influx of arms into the country is not even through the black market or private channels. The United States and Britain, among many others, have threatened sanctions if the violence does not abate but have yet to implement any.
While the conflict is clearly complex and intractable, I struggle to imagine a situation that more clearly demands the intervention of the global community. The lack of sanctions by any nation, the lack of commitment of resources by the United Nations, and the lack of coverage in the press amount to a tacit endorsement of butchery, starvation and genocide on the part of the global community.
The future of South Sudan remains uncertain; the question is what is anyone doing about it?