Conflict. Famine. South Sudan’s sad story and (perhaps) what to do

It seems that at this moment South Sudan is pretty sad story. Following several years of instability parts of the country now experienced a famine. What went wrong in your opinion and how the local actors and broader international community should react on this situation? Read few comments.

Children in Juba in a bit better times. From my visit in 2011. Credit: Andrej Matisak

Children in Juba in a bit better times. From my visit in 2011. Credit: Andrej Matisak

John Mukum Mbaku, Brady Presidential Distinguished Professor of Economics, Weber State University, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

South Sudan gained independence from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011 and was almost immediately plunged into sectarian violence. The new government, headed by Salva Kiir (of the Dinka people) and Professor Riek Machar (of the Nuer people) was not able to provide the new country with what it needed the most: a governance architecture capable of enhancing peaceful coexistence of all subcultures and providing the people with the legal mechanisms to organize their private lives and engage in productive activities, which would have included food production.

Although South Sudan is endowed with significant amounts of natural resources and a relatively young population, the country continues to face many obstacles. These include high levels of poverty and deprivation; low levels of human capital development; food insecurity; lack of basic infrastructures, such as roads, water treatment plants, electricity, and communication structures; pervasive corruption, especially in the public services; and the inability of the government to deal effectively with peace and security challenges.

Without peace, the people cannot invest, for example, in agriculture to produce the food that they need. In addition to the fact that the government has neglected investment in the agricultural sector in favor of oil production, the struggle between Kiir and his supporters, on the one hand, and Machar and his supporters, on the other, for control of the country and its large oil reserves, has produced a brutal and bloody civil war that has impeded food production and made it very difficult for international organizations to provide South Sudanese with food aid.

Although there are many reasons why South Sudan is facing the type of famine that could kill many people, the most important is that the government has not been able to guarantee the peace and security needed for its citizens to engage in food production and other economic activities. War and insecurity are not conducive to economic activities—the civil war drove a lot of people away from their lands, killed a lot of young people, destroyed farmers’ basic capital (i.e., farm animals), and created conditions in which farming was no longer considered a viable activity by a lot of rural inhabitants.

After independence, South Sudan’s government engaged in the type of state formation that failed to provide all subcultures within the country with the tools to build mutually beneficial relationships with one another and live together peacefully. Instead of providing all citizens with the mechanisms to compete fairly for positions in the economic and political systems, the government made the ethnic group the basis for political and to a large extent, economic participation. This approach to state formation created conditions within the country that led to antagonisms between subcultures. Virtually all of the ethnic groups in the country came to view capture of the government as their only way to progress. This approach to governance is manifested in the often, bloody struggle between the Nuer (led by Machar) and the Dinka (led by Kiir) for control of the government.

What is the way forward? The most important issue for South Sudan is robust national dialogue on governance—such dialogue must be inclusive enough to provide all relevant stakeholder groups the opportunity to participate. Through such dialogue, the government can begin the process of genuine institutional reforms to create a governing process undergirded by the rule of law. Without institutional arrangements that guarantee the rule of law, South Sudan will not be able to guarantee peace and security for its citizens. And, without peace, there cannot be investment in economic growth, including agriculture, which is critical for food security.

In the short run, however, the international community must help the country secure the peace and then provide necessary food aid to avoid mass starvation. The United Nations, working with continental organizations, such as the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), as well as the East African Community, should help stop the fighting between Kiir and Machar. Once peace is secured, international organizations can begin the process of making emergency food supplies available to vulnerable groups. The AU should act forcefully to make certain that the deteriorating governance situation does not produce another civil war. The long-term objective should be to help the people of South Sudan build more effective institutions, particularly those that would de-emphasize the role of ethnicity in governance and instead, promote economic and political competition based on the rule of law.

David ShinnAdjunct Professor of International Affairs, The George Washington University, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and to Burkina Faso

The situation in South Sudan is sad. The problems date back several decades to the initial efforts of South Sudanese to achieve autonomy and/or independence. With a few important exceptions such as John Garang, South Sudan has suffered from poor leadership from the beginning and has a long history of endemic corruption. Recent leaders have been especially addicted to power and seem unwilling to compromise or make decisions in the broader interest of the South Sudanese people. With these handicaps, it is almost impossible to operate a government successfully. With its oil resources, South Sudan should be an economic success; instead, it has been a disappointing economic failure due to excessive corruption.

At this point, only new leadership may offer a solution, but it is difficult to see where these leaders will come from. Strong sanctions by the international community may be the only way to obtain new South Sudanese leadership.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: