South Sudan has now been at war since 2013, with no end in sight. And while the two sides focus on defeating each other, the humanitarian situation on the ground is only deteriorating.
The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, has announced that heavy fighting in Unity state, South Sudan had forced all UN agencies and NGOs to evacuate their staff from parts of the region. This would apparently leave around 300,000 people who still desperately need emergency relief without any access to food and medical services.
Sadly, such announcements have become commonplace since the outbreak of South Sudan’s civil war, a conflict which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced over 1.5m.
To make matters worse, the conflict’s two major belligerents, the government of president Salva Kiir and the rebel movement led (in the loosest sense of the word) by his former vice president, Riek Machar, have shown scant regard for the humanitarian impact of their war.
Back and forth
The reports of the 300,000 stranded people came just after the Kiir government rejected a UN plan to relocate more than 100,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from virtual imprisonment in government-controlled “protection sites” to areas of their own choosing.
The responses from South Sudan’s factions were predictably stubborn. The Juba regime bristled at the suggestion that it is incapable of protecting its citizens, insisting that the 300,000 people stranded in Unity state have decided to remain there themselves. Machar’s rebels, for their part, attacked this position not for its unhumanitarian callousness, but by emphasising that the citizens concerned “have lost trust in the government”.
This is par for the course in a conflict which has seen the two sides and their variously aligned militias struggle fruitlessly to defeat one another for nearly 18 months. They continue to fight a zero-sum game which has turned citizens into bystanders, pawns, enemies or hostages, turned oil reserves from national resource to campaign funds, and neighbouring states from midwives of independence into allies or traitors.
The two sides have broken countless ceasefires (eight at my last count) and brazenly used regional peace talks hosted by Ethiopia as opportunities for rest and recuperation in five-star hotels. At every step, external involvement has been cynically used to secure an advantage in the field. Few analysts think the war is likely to end any time soon, particularly across the negotiating table.
It is perhaps not surprising that Western and UN officials have increasingly expressed exasperation with the South Sudanese military “aristocracy”, which came to power on the back of a lengthy insurgency.
In September 2014, the UK’s then-undersecretary of state for international development, Lynne Featherstone, visited South Sudan and opined that “South Sudan’s leaders must accept full responsibility for starting the conflict and must work to end it.” More recently, Washington has condemned the two sides’ “lack of political leadership to resolve this man-made conflict”, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has chastised Kiir and Machar for their unstatesmanlike approach to the peace talks.
This is all an interesting departure from the late 1990s and early 2000s, where Western leaders thought nothing of taking responsibility for ending conflicts in Africa.
Interestingly, though, many African states also appear to share their Western counterparts’ frustration an endless conflict driven by the political and economic greed of a selfish elite.
Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn has labelled the war “senseless” and has accused both sides of abdicating “the most sacred duty leaders have to their people: to deliver peace, prosperity and stability” – shockingly candid language by the standards of African diplomacy.
And behind closed doors, similar sentiments can be heard from officials in Uganda, whose military intervened on Kiir’s side shortly after the conflict began. Across Kampala’s political and military elite, there’s a surprising consensus that the two leaders are feckless and their actions shameless.
Meanwhile, a report from the African Union leaked in March 2015 (since disowned as fake by the organisation) recommended that South Sudan be placed under UN/AU trusteeship to end the conflict, with any transitional government then established excluding both Kiir and Machar. If genuine, that’s an astounding recommendation, coming from from a body that has always promoted and defended African sovereignty against the interventionist machinations of the West (notably in Libya in 2011).
From one perspective, this apparent international consensus is encouraging. Leaders across the UN, the West and Africa appear to agree that the problem is the South Sudanese politico-military elite, and its creation of a destructive and extractive state that has essentially become a slush fund.
But the challenge is how to take this realisation and use it to come up with a new strategy to end the conflict.
Talks about the next set of peace negotiations and ceasefires continue within East Africa’s regional security bloc, but few involved can think outside the standard peace agreement model, which has so far failed to bear fruit. In 2014, Hailemariam reportedly threatened to arrest Kiir (then in Addis Ababa) unless he signed a peace agreement – one which was rendered worthless within days when fighting resumed.
This represents both the tragedy and promise of the South Sudan conflict: when the old architectures of conflict resolution fail, it seems no-one has a clue what to do next.