Food Security

FAMINE AND CONFLICT IN SOUTH SUDAN

South Sudan is suffering a severe famine.  As of March 2017, some 100,000 people face starvation, and 1 million others are approaching that state.  Last year UNICEF treated nearly 200,000 children under five for severe acute malnutrition.  About 5 million people are now facing some degree of serious hunger.

The reasons are complex but include a major drought in a part of Africa subject to periodic dryness; political conflict that disrupted agricultural production for three growing seasons in a row; and for the past year, open armed conflict that has engulfed more and more of the country.  These factors have created large numbers of refugees and internally displaced people who are now consumers of relief food, rather than producers of food.

South Sudan is a very rural country of subsistence agriculture and herding.  In the dry season it is very hot and dry, and in the rainy season, there are large areas of flooding, mud, and inaccessibility. Good roads are extremely few.  These chronic conditions have been worsened by the political history.

There was a civil war for decades inside the Republic of the Sudan, of which what is now South Sudan was a part.  The northern part of Sudan (whose capital is Khartoum) sought to maintain control of the whole territory.  The north was populated and led by people of Arab descent, who were primarily Muslim.  The southern part of the country was mostly non-Arab (black) Africans, following African Traditional Religions or Christianity.  Leaders in the south mounted an armed movement for independence of  their region from the Republic of the Sudan.  In response, the government from the north bombed and attacked the south for many years.  Although people in the south were divided by ethnic groups (with historic rivalries over grazing, water, and other resources), having the common enemy from the north kept them together.  Oil (mainly found in the south) was a contentious resource fueling the conflict:  Who would control oil revenues in this large but poor region?   After much fighting and negotiation, in July 2011 a referendum was finally held in the south and independence was chosen by its people for that section of the country.  A new nation, South Sudan, was born from the Republic of the Sudan.  Much of the international community celebrated this event.  The U.S. was among them, and among those who had contributed large sums to assist the birth of the new nation.  The former armed independence movement became the new Government of South Sudan.

However, only two years later, by late 2013, internal conflict had broken out in South Sudan.  The President accused the Vice President of plotting a coup.  These two men were from different ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer respectively, which had for generations been at odds.  Thus ethnicity or tribalism quickly became a central factor.  There was no longer a reason for groups to stay together, and many reasons to pursue personal and ethnic wealth and dominance, for the individual leaders and for their ethnic groups.

By 2016 there was fighting in many parts of the country, and it reached the capital, Juba, in July 2016.  The UN peacekeeping mission was unable to stop the conflict, and people were killed or attacked—even humanitarian workers, and people in internally displaced camps guarded by the UN.  Peace agreements that had been signed between the ethnic groups were violated. The economy went downhill fast, as inflation rocketed to more than 800%.   Some 1.5 million fled as refugees to neighboring countries (such as Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia), which often had their own civil conflicts and drought crisis.  The South Sudan conflict has now become Africa’s largest refugee situation.  Others who fled became the 2.1 million internally displaced inside South Sudan.  More than 1/4 of the population has now fled their homes.

There is no sign of peace, despite the appeals and efforts of some South Sudanese religious leaders and outside diplomats. One proposal is for the African Union to take over South Sudan as a temporary mandate, with peacekeepers, until peace is restored, the constitution is revised, and elections held.  This proposal has not been accepted yet.

Meanwhile, famine gets worse and millions are threatened with death by hunger. By some measures, 5 million do not have food.  The UN says almost 8 million of the total population of 12 million does not have enough to eat.  Certain areas are labeled “catastrophic” in terms of hunger or malnutrition.   As militias fight and multiply, villages are burned, residents raped and killed, and children forced to become soldiers.  Three growing seasons have been missed, while relief supplies and vehicles are increasingly attacked and looted.  It is very hard to prevent hunger in these circumstances.

Yet organizations do try.  Among them:  Catholic Relief Services; UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund); the World Food Program; the Enough Project; Mercy Corps; Oxfam; and Solidarity with South Sudan.  With donations and help, they try to respond.

Other countries in this arid part of Africa are also suffering from drought–notably Somalia, northern Kenya, and Ethiopia.  They too have many thousands facing hunger, in difficult and remote terrain.  Famines in two other parts of Africa are also occurring:  Nigeria, and parts of southern Africa.

                                                                                                        Stephen Price

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