By Brian Adeba
News that a famine has been declared in South Sudan is yet another stark reminder of the ever evolving nature of war-induced fragility in Africa’s newest country. As the world rushes in to feed a starving population it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of the root causes of this famine.
The three-year-old war is instrumental in fermenting the conditions that birthed the famine. In fact, it’s not a coincidence that the epi-center of the famine is in Unity State, the scene of the heaviest fighting between government troops and the armed opposition since the outbreak of the conflict.
While immediate needs must be addressed, the famine is but the symptom of a much larger problem—war. For the international community to extricate itself of the obligation of treating the symptoms of a serious disease, it needs to understand the ailment afflicting the patient.
At independence in 2011, South Sudan’s political elite installed a kleptocracy in power. In this system, corruption is not an aberration but the very essence of government itself. Institutions to hold public officials accountable were hijacked and stymied of their effectiveness.
For instance, no public official who was investigated by the Anti-Corruption Commission, has ever been prosecuted in a court of law in the history of the country.
The South Sudan National Audit Chamber, another oversight institution, has not publicly produced any audits of government accounts since 2012 and suffers from a serious backlog. The 2012 audit was for the year 2008. As a matter of fact, since South Sudan’s independence, there has been no audit of government accounts by the Auditor General.
The country’s politicians argue these anomalies in accountability are due to “lack of capacity,” an issue they stress is inherent in new states. In reality, there is no political will to fight corruption. As a result, the ability of institutions to investigate or prosecute corrupt officials, has been deliberately undercut, through various methods, including starving them of the funds they require to operate.
The absence of accountability fostered a free-for-all looting spree of public coffers. An estimated US$ 4 billion was stolen by top politicians and their network of collaborators. Since 2013, Transparency International has ranked South Sudan as one the world’s most corrupt countries. Of the 176 countries surveyed in 2016, South Sudan ranked number 175.
Subsequently, the state became the most prized asset in the eyes of the politicians, an object of intense competition by rival camps within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), who all aspired to seize control of it in order to help themselves to the gravy train of state funds and resources. Poor management of the ambitions and expectations of competing factions within the SPLM that were vying to capture the state, resulted in the contest being expressed in violent terms.
In essence, therefore, unfettered corruption created a high-stakes competition for state capture in which violence was used by rival factions to outdo the other. This is how South Sudan was plunged into war in December 2013.
It is still worth reminding ourselves though, that the backdrop to the unfolding famine is the collapsed peace deal midwifed by the IGAD countries in August 2015. After plenty of foot-dragging by the government and the armed opposition, hope seemed to be on the horizon when both parties agreed to form a transitional government in April 2016. Barely three months later, the agreement unraveled and Riek Machar, the head of the armed opposition, was forced to flee Juba, subsequently ending up in South Africa where his freedom of movement has been restricted.
Despite the fact that the peace deal has collapsed and serious fighting continues in many parts of South Sudan, the government, including the African Union (AU) and the IGAD member states, believe the peace deal is working.
Meanwhile a significant number of troops in the armed opposition have refused to endorse Deng. As the charade that the peace agreement is alive continues, war rages unabated producing the conditions necessary for the famine in the country.
As long as this charade continues, South Sudanese will continue to pay the ultimate price. The international community will be forced, yet again, to raise millions of dollars to treat the symptoms of the disease rather than its root causes.
An honest and realistic assessment that aims to get the actors in the conflict talking again is needed at this time.
To create a conducive atmosphere for peace talks and ensure aid reaches to the needy, the AU and IGAD should use their clout to realize a nation-wide ceasefire. A new round of talks should be initiated to review the shortcomings behind the collapse of the agreement, especially the components on power sharing and security arrangements. Lastly, an inclusive process of negotiation should ensue. The unintended consequence of killing the peace deal is the emergence of new armed actors into the conflict. For a credible process to ensue, these actors must be included in the talks.
The famine should be a wakeup call for the international community, the AU, and IGAD to take a reality check.
Reviving the peace deal and stopping the war is key to preventing famines in South Sudan.
Brian Adeba is Associate Director of Policy at the Enough Project in Washington D.C. Reach him on Twitter @kalamashaka