Africa’s newest nation lurches towards disaster

Richard Walker

Global Insight: Food Security

South Sudan is on the brink of a human catastrophe. After months of on-off conflict between factions of the government of the newly independent country, another man-made famine is looming in East Africa


A plane at Juba International Airport, South Sudan brings cartons of food to treat malnourished children. Photo: UNICEF/PFPG2014P-0548/Pires

A plane at Juba International Airport, South Sudan brings cartons of food to treat malnourished children.
Photo: UNICEF/PFPG2014P-0548/Pires

In early July, Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) issued a stark warning: before August is out, some four million people in South Sudan could begin to face food shortages. Public awareness of the crisis remains very low, warned the head of DEC Saleh Saeed, adding that the 13-strong charity grouping has less than half the money it needs to “prevent the growing food crisis in South Sudan from turning into a catastrophe”.

For many, the question is how could such a predictable disaster be about to occur in the world’s youngest country? Only three years ago South Sudan achieved independence from what is now its northern neighbour, Sudan, after two decades of civil war. The celebrations that followed the independence referendum seemed to herald the creation of a new independent state that would ride the wave of confidence about Africa’s future – South Sudan had immense tracts of fertile land, a reserve of oil and other mineral wealth, and the goodwill of most of the world.

Those hopes have collapsed. The government of South Sudan has fractured under the strain of managing a country with little infrastructure, little human capital and no experience of independent administration.

Independence brought to power a government led by President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar. Both had played leading roles in the civil war that was ended by a political settlement in 2005, a settlement that included plans for independence. Both led factions of the rebel army that had fought the northern government, but hopes were high that with formal independence the factions would work together to build what could become East Africa’s most dynamic economy, fuelled by foreign investment and domestic oil revenues.

But last year, growing tensions between the President and Vice-President broke out into open conflict. The Vice-President, removed from office last year, is leading a rebellion that has taken control of much of the oil-producing region. There have been well-documented massacres and organised ethnic assassinations, against a background of a gradual breakdown in law and order.

Today that conflict has reached a point of stalemate. A peace deal signed in May in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa was supposed to end fighting, as the warring parties work towards forming a transitional government and, eventually, fresh elections. But the chances of the deal holding are not great – a previous peace deal agreed in January quickly collapsed and today sporadic fighting continues in many of the disputed areas to the north of the capital, Juba.

“It’s a stand-off situation,” says one foreign worker in Juba. “Before the recent conflict there was a peace and reconciliation process, but that is now suspended. The political and social divisions have become much deeper than before. It is a situation that can only be addressed by political dialogue, but there is not much sign of dialogue taking place right now.”

Meanwhile, the summer rainy season has begun, intensifying the challenges of responding to a situation of growing food shortages and spreading disease. According to Gyan Adhikari, South Sudan country director for Plan, one of the world’s biggest children’s development charities, the South Sudan conflict has now displaced as many as 1.5 million people in total, with around a million internally displaced and others now refugees in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

“Even in peacetime South Sudan is not a food-sufficient country,” says Adhikari. “There is plenty of land and plenty of water, but South Sudan still does not feed itself and now the fighting means that people have left their homes, their fields, their animals. They have not cultivated and they cannot harvest. And the communities that are stable are having to share resources with internally displaced people. The result is that by August or September there will be famine.”

The rainy season is critical to what happens next in South Sudan. When the rains begin in May, much of the economy of South Sudan shuts down. Road transport becomes virtually impossible, as the country has no tarmac road network and main transport routes become largely impassable. The rainy season should be the cultivation season – but with the exception of the south-west of the country, cultivation has been severely disrupted as refugees flee south and east from the fighting in the oil-producing states of Jonglei and Unity.

“If we had had the money to meet food needs just a couple of months ago, we would have been spending only ten per cent of the budget on logistics,” says Gyan Adhikari, speaking from Juba. “Now with the rainy season underway, we will end up spending 90 per cent of the budget on logistics. Before, it would have been possible to deliver assistance by road. Now we have to use helicopters and transport planes.”

Meanwhile, real development in one of the world’s least-developed countries has ground almost to a halt. With the oil revenues – accounting for more than 90 per cent of government income – disrupted, the government budget agreed in late June envisages no structural development at all and only covers existing running costs. Teachers, police officers and army personnel are going unpaid.

The rainy season will continue until late October or early November – and agencies in Juba say that by that time they expect to be in the grip of a serious crisis. Several of the factors defined as creating ‘food insecurity’, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), are already in place – large-scale displacement, civil strife and loss of assets. Pandemic illness may soon have to be added to that list, as cholera has already broken out in Juba and is reported to be spreading to smaller settlements. By the end of the year, says Toby Lanzer, UN humanitarian co-ordinator in South Sudan, four million people may be “on the edge of starvation”.

“This is not a natural disaster – natural disasters have natural start points and end points,” says Adhukari. “This is a protracted man-made disaster compounded by multiple problems, including weather and poor infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, foreign observers in Juba are universally pessimistic about the chances of a political solution to what was always a political problem. “It’s a new nation,” says one. “People don’t have the habits of free speech, there is no tradition of debate. The assumption is always that the first resort is to arms.”

And in the absence of the leadership needed to reverse those assumptions, the world’s newest nation continues on its path to disaster.

About the author:

Richard Walker has worked for The Economist, The Financial Times and the BBC World Service. He writes about global business, finance and investment, with a special interest in Africa


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