By Evan Gray, Blog Writer
It has been only three years since South Sudan achieved independence, putting an end to decades of civil war with the North. However, recent developments in the country have all but destroyed the sense of optimism that prevailed in 2011. Since December of last year, South Sudan has been embroiled in another bloody conflict – this time between rival factions within the South Sudanese government itself – that has left the country teetering on the brink of famine.
The crisis began when President Salva Kiir dismissed his Vice President, Riek Machar, due to ongoing disagreements over the direction of South Sudan’s ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). This kicked off a bitter power struggle between the two politicians, with Machar attempting to take control of the SPLM, leading to accusations of an attempted coup from Kiir and his supporters. (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/140617/alex-de-waal-and-abdul-mohammed/breakdown-in-south-sudan).
Even before independence, the SPLM was deeply divided along ethnic lines, having suffered from infighting during the latter stages of its war of independence against the Sudanese government in Khartoum. As a result, the dispute between Kiir and Machar has largely been played out through battles between tribal militias, with the majority of the fighting taking place between members of the Nuer tribe, who support Machar, and the Dinka, who are loyal to President Kiir.
In the roughly nine months since Machar’s dismissal, the brutal armed conflict has claimed approximately 10,000 lives, including those of innocent civilians and aid workers (http://www.voanews.com/content/south-sudan-aid-workers-killed-unmiss-refugee-unhcr/1972128.html). Furthermore, more than 1.4 million Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes, placing enormous strain on refugee camps operating in the region (http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/oct/13/south-sudan-potential-crisis-looms-war-peace; http://www.voanews.com/content/ethiopia-south-sudan-refugees-beyond-capacity/2497705.html). The ongoing violence and insecurity has brought life to a standstill in many parts of South Sudan, devastating the national economy and forcing thousands of farmers off of their land. As a result, many international observers have predicted widespread famine in South Sudan for the upcoming year unless there is immediate action to put an end to the violence (http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/23/starvation-south-sudan-civil-war).
While international aid has so far prevented famine from taking hold, experts such as Tony Lanzer, the UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, worry that the ongoing crises in Ukraine, west Africa and the middle east are diverting much needed funds and attention away from South Sudan at a critical moment (http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/oct/13/south-sudan-potential-crisis-looms-war-peace; http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=49092#.VEGntiLF_Tp). Although harvests in some parts of the country have been better than expected, the areas hardest hit by fighting – namely, Jonglei, Unity State and Upper Nile – are still facing serious food shortages (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/31/us-southsudan-aid-idUSKBN0IK1XK20141031). With the delivery of aid in these regions increasingly hampered by harassment and violence against humanitarian workers, it is likely that the food security situation there will continue to deteriorate as long as the fighting continues.
Unless a sustained diplomatic effort is made to forge a lasting peace agreement and repair South Sudan’s agricultural economy, the country is at risk of descending further into chaos. It is crucial that the international community not forgot the plight of its newest member at this time, as doing so could mean disaster for millions of South Sudanese.