Indeed, the situation is entirely human-made. If South Sudan’s political leader hadn’t opted for war instead of nation building, there would be no famine today. As Peter Tibi, an experienced peace mediator, argued in D+C/E+Z last month, South Sudan has been on a road towards genocidal civil war in recent months. Letting people starve obviously fits into the pattern. It is surely not a coincidence that the epicentre of the famine is Unity State, where Dinka are the majority, as Dominic Johnson writes in taz, a German newspaper with excellent coverage of Africa. The Dinka are the ethnic group Riek Machar, the former vice president who became the leading rebel and is now in exile, belongs to.
President Salva Kiir has now pledged to grant aid agencies free access to needy people all over the country. The words sound nice, but the truth is that humanitarian workers need a minimum of safety to be able to operate effectively. Kiir’s government has not contributed to bringing about such security in recent months. Its formal security forces and the militias that support them have exacerbated the violence. Fields are being burnt and villages raided. The very little infrastructure the country has is being destroyed.
The underlying problem is that South Sudan’s leaders could not agree on how to share the country’s oil wealth among one another. They have not used it to build the nation, and that is one reason why the current economic crisis is so bitter. Apart from exporting oil, South Sudan does not have much formal economic activity. In view of dropping commodity prices, the leaders now seem to fear for their personal wealth and are trying to grab whatever they can. Hyperinflation is compounding all problems, and it results from negligent – or perhaps I should say absent – macro-economic management. It too is human-made.
South Sudan is a very depressing case of liberation-war leaders being unable to escape the mafia-kind of mindset that militia movements must develop to be able to wage war over decades. They think in terms of victory and defeat, survival and death. They are not statesmen who draft and implement policies in pursuit of the common good.
The international community has been watching this drama unfold without getting seriously involved. Yes, there is a peace mission in South Sudan, but it is ineffective and overburdened. In principle, it could get a restart. All the UN Security Council would have to do is agree on a mandate, which should be much easier than in the case of Syria – where famine has also served as a weapon, by the way. Unlike in Syria, the crisis in South Sudan does not reflect diverging strategic interests of leading Security Council members. Nonetheless, the appetite to act jointly seems to have vanished, even though South Sudan’s neighbouring countries would probably welcome such an initiative. They have a strong interest in stopping the disaster.
So far, however, African governments have not been able to do more than to get South Sudanese leaders to attend various summits that did not add up to any kind of lasting peace agreement. A Security Council decision might make the difference.
South Sudan’s leaders seem resolved to fight until one side is totally eliminated. The international community’s lack of resolve to stop them will probably mean they’ll do so. We are likely to watch another genocide.