On a blazing hot March day in the town of Ganyiel in South Sudan’s Unity state, 19-year-old Elizabeth cautiously smiled. Born in Yei, a southwestern town near the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the young woman was unafraid to criticize her country’s leaders.
“Stop killing,” she said referring to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his main rival, rebel leader Riek Machar. “We need peace.”
Elizabeth completed school — one of the few South Sudanese citizens who have done so — and speaks basic English. “Only WFP gives us food. We can’t find it anywhere else,” she said pointing at the World Food Program workers handing out aid in an open field of cracked brown dirt. “There’s not enough in the market. And there’s too much water in the land to cultivate crops.” For Elizabeth, living in Ganyiel with her young son and mother and with her husband in Ethiopia looking for work, the future was bleak.
Civil war has raged across Africa’s newest nation since December 2013. Tens of thousands have died amid horrific allegations of mass rape, recruitment of child soldiers and war crimes. Peace talks between Kiir and Machar have broken down numerous times. A recently leaked report from the African Union (AU) suggested that it temporarily take over the country and exclude Machar and Kiir from the transitional government. In South Sudan, nobody believes the AU is up to the task. In fact, many argue that it’s a ploy to steal the country’s oil and other natural resources. The AU denies making these recommendations.
Ganyiel, a relatively peaceful area, has attracted more than 100,000 civilians displaced by the civil war. But it suffers constant flooding, raising concerns about worsening living conditions. The United Nations says 2.5 million people in South Sudan are facing severe food insecurity. This number could reach 4 million by the end of the year, in a country with a population of 11 million. Meanwhile, South Sudanese leaders — almost all of them men — stay in luxury hotels and endlessly negotiate an elite power-sharing deal in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“If the men got out of the way,” said the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, “women would probably just run the country much better.”
I visited Ganyiel last month with the WFP, which was delivering tons of sorghum and cooking oil, using 10 planes to air-drop the supplies. “We constantly have to make decisions where to drop and deliver food,” one of the aid workers said, noting the huge demand and lack of resources. In other words, some needy families will miss out on the meager food handouts and have to fend for themselves under inhospitable circumstances. Temperatures can soar to 115 degrees in the summer months.
It’s easy to write off the humanitarian disaster in South Sudan as just another local conflict, a bloody African civil war with no resonance beyond its borders — a confusing mix of tribal groups fighting over land and power, disconnected from the modern world or even regional players. This would be incorrect, not least because the fingerprints of the United States, the European Union and major African powers are everywhere.
The U.N. and international nongovernmental organizations admit that they’re unable to provide more than Band-Aid solutions. South Sudan joins a growing list of quasi-nation-states, including Palestine, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which exist more on paper than in reality.
This is not to deny the South Sudanese people’s hard-won freedom from oppressive Sudan, where they were often treated as little more than chattel. In his book “The Shadow of the Sun,” the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski recalls visiting what was then southern Sudan in 1960 and witnessing the viciousness of a war between north and south that the West essentially ignored. Millions died in the following decades.
“We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day,” he wrote. Little has changed in the decades since his trip.
Except, of course, South Sudan is now an independent country, with huge Chinese and American contributions. The U.S. invested heavily in South Sudan’s independence, hoping to find a reliable strategic ally that would help counter the predominantly Muslim Sudan, buy U.S. weapons and challenge Beijing’s growing influence on the continent. China was far cleverer in its strategic aims, funding infrastructure and oil resources with an eye on the long game. Washington now appears distracted in other theaters of war. But Beijing continues to court Sudanese leaders. The United States still provides huge amounts of foreign aid, underscoring the kind of dependent relationship it hopes to engender.
But Kiir isn’t necessarily playing along with Washington’s cajoling. In a speech at a rally in the capital, Juba, recently, he appeared uncompromising toward his local opponents and foreign pressure. This did not stop a South Sudanese student from calling for Kiir to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being a “revolutionary icon and peacemaker.”
Millions of South Sudanese desperately need food, water and hygiene assistance. But that is not enough. The elite’s powermongering and apathy for peace have dispossessed millions of people, from Bor to Wai and Ganyiel to Juba. It continues to polarize citizens and erode the country’s social relations. The U.N. Security Council is considering targeted sanctions, and critics are calling for travel bans, asset freezes and denying the children of elites access to Western education. These levers of pressure may already be too late.