Last month, UN agencies declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, making it the first country since Somalia in 2011 to be declared famine hit. The world's youngest nation is in the throes of a civil war that has not only created one of the pressing global internal displacement and refugee crisis, but also actively precipitated the famine.
As pictures of jubilant celebrations in the streets of its capital, Juba, were splashed across global newspapers a day after the country’s birth in 2011, few would have imagined that the country would be reduced to such a sorry state a mere six years later. Independence was seen as a great victory for the people, who for generations were brutally oppressed by the Arab-dominated north Sudan.
What went wrong? The answer lies in the violent, decades-long freedom struggle waged by the people of South Sudan, power lust among its principal leaders and the commodity that has made and unmade nations—oil.
There is an old Sudanese proverb, “When god made Sudan, he laughed.” Meant to refer to the incredible riches and beauty of the land, the country's violent history imbues it with dark irony.
Known to be home to valuable materials such as ebony and ivory since the 25th century BC, it had been a major trading partner of Egypt since Biblical times. In the following centuries, it saw the rise of Christianity, which gave way to Islam in the wake of Arab invasions.
Over time, the northern region, famed for its gems, saw the settlement of Arab miners and merchants. The area was laid claim to by the Ottomans in the early 19th century, and subsequently, by the great European powers, particularly the British, after the opening of the Suez Canal.
All through this, the nomadic tribes of South Sudan were taken captive by the merchants and sold, forming the crux of the Arab slave trade from the horn of Africa. Samuel Baker, a British explorer in 1862, vividly noted the role the slave trade played in the keeping Khartoum going as a bustling town. The British, who ruled Sudan jointly with the Egyptians, focused primarily on maintaining power over the north. Little interest was paid to the south, where the missionaries were allowed to operate freely.
While the British and the Egyptians finally ceded control in 1956, the prospect of Arab-led domination of the south, which comprised mainly Christians and tribes following traditional beliefs, led to a massive revolt in 1955, a year before the formal declaration of Sudanese independence.
This bloody uprising, known the first Sudanese civil war, lasted 17 years until 1972. After maintaining a fragile peace accord for a decade, Sudanese government’s declaration of the country as an Islamic state under the Sharia law sparked the descent into chaos again.
The second Sudanese civil war, led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and its military wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, lasted 22 years until 2005, making it among the longest civil wars of the modern era.
The cost of the two wars was brutal—more than 2.5 million people, about one-fifth of the population, died of fighting, famines, disease and displacement.
The southern faction, led mainly by the Dinka and the Nuer, raged internal fratricidal wars as well. However, the all-consuming need to fight for independence pushed the conflict to the backburner.
International pressure on the Sudanese government and the mounting costs of war led to a comprehensive peace agreement being adopted in 2005, which promised a referendum to the people of South Sudan after a period of six years. In 2011, when the referendum was held, the south overwhelmingly—98.83%—voted in favour of secession. On 9 July 2011, the world’s newest country was born.
As celebrations went through the night in Juba, the newly anointed capital, there was an outpour of diplomatic euphoria. “It is a reminder that, after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible,” said then US president Barack Obama, granting the newly formed country immediate recognition.
Yet South Sudan—with its ethnic divisions, chief among them between the Dinka (~35% of the population) and the Nuer (~16% of the population), dependence on oil to sustain the economy (about 60% of the GDP and 95% of government revenues), minimal infrastructure and high levels of militarization—was prone to falling into a conflict trap.
In July 2013, Riek Machar, the deputy president and a member of the Nuer tribe, was dismissed by Salva Kiir, the president and a member of the Dinka tribe, on charges of plotting a coup. Efforts to disarm the Nuer presidential guards suspected of being close to Machar led to the outbreak of hostilities.
Dinka soldiers ran amok in Juba and reportedly indulged in mass slaughter of Nuer civilians. The Machar camp retaliated and, soon enough, the country was in a state of civil war.
Since the outbreak of hostilities, the fight has often centred on oil, leading to large-scale displacements in the two oil producing regions of Unity and Upper Nile.
The human toll of the civil war has been punishing. According to data from the UN High Commission for Refugees, Upper Nile had about 140,000 registered refugees, followed by the Unity region where the count stood at about 100,000. However, the total number of internally displaced people is an order of magnitude higher at 1.85 million (one-sixth of the population) as per the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Unity region, which is Nuer dominated and the home of Riek Machar, has been at the forefront of this violence. It alone accounts for about 45% of the total internally displaced population.
While the world’s attention has focused on Syria and the concerns of leaders of Europe and the US, the horn of Africa, among the poorest regions in the world, is facing a particular strain by catering to almost a million refugees, mainly arising from South Sudan and Somalia.
Ethiopia has borne a lion’s share of this burden, hosting close to 750,000 refugees, making it the fifth highest refugee destination in the world.
The human toll of the war in South Sudan has been compounded by the economic consequences which has been disastrous for the country.
Its oil production, the lifeblood of the economy, has seen a precipitous decline. From a high of half a million barrels of oil production per day in 2011, South Sudan now pumps a quarter of that at 130,000 barrels per day.
With the government's resources rapidly drying up, exchange rates have deteriorated sharply, sending prices soaring and the economy into a tailspin (see chart below). The hyperinflationary conditions have ensured basic necessities are either unavailable or simply unaffordable to the locals.
Large-scale displacement due to conflict has worsened the impact of soaring inflation. Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglie (another critically affected province) contain 40% of the country’s total cropland.
With the population almost entirely dependent on agriculture, large-scale displacement has wreaked havoc in local ecosystems and the agricultural economy, affecting supply and access.
The geographic, economic and political conditions have created the vortex that has thrown South Sudan towards this man-made famine.
As seen in this figure, the situation is grim across the country, with 100,000 people in Unity state facing starvation due to famine. Close to a million are on the brink of a famine and almost half the population, 5 million, is at crisis levels of food insecurity and worse.
The declaration of famine is not a straightforward act. It is made collectively by multiple parties: the affected country’s government, agencies of the UN and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, set up by the US government in 1980s to collect and analyse data from various sources.
Given the multiplicity of parties, there are always multiple viewpoints to contend with. Moreover, the declaration itself contains political undertones and implications. Countries often find it hard to outlive the international stigma of a famine. A case in point is Ethiopia. Famine in 1980s and its media coverage has saddled the country with a misplaced reputation of mass poverty, even though it is presently the fastest growing economy globally.
The second challenge is that of data itself. Officially, famine is declared when the following three criteria are met:
• At least one in five households face extreme lack of food
• Thirty per cent or more of the population suffers from acute malnutrition
• At least 2 in every 10,000 people are dying each day
Given the specificity of the requirements and challenges of data collection in an unstable region, UN agencies and the country's government have to be convinced that the situation has indeed escalated enough to deserve worldwide attention. This happens to be the case in South Sudan. The fact that famine has been declared implies that people have already started dying of starvation.
The response has been on expected lines, with relief agencies stepping up their involvement. WFP (the World Food Programme) has been airdropping supplies in affected areas, the Food and Agriculture Organization is giving survival kits and Unicef has set up hundreds of feeding centres to cater to kids facing malnutrition using ready to use therapeutic foods such as peanut-based wonder snack Plumpy’nut.
President Kiir has promised unimpeded access to humanitarian efforts to ensure that supplies reach the ones in need. Yet, the humanitarian agencies are nowhere close to reaching their target of $1.6 billion to provide lifesaving assistance to an identified population of 5.8 million. The conflict itself shows no sign of abating, with Riek Machar, currently exiled from South Sudan, continuing to direct opposition forces remotely from South Africa.
Amartya Sen in his seminal work Development as Freedom made a powerful argument that functioning democracies do not see famines due to the pressures of electorate faced by democratic governments.
The idea went on to change the prism through which famines were viewed. An example in India illustrates the contours of this argument. Bihar faced a situation of food shortage in 1966. Monsoon failure led to harvest season yields being only 50% of what was estimated.
In response, the government declared a state of famine. Keeping in mind the general elections scheduled for the next year, the government and the state machinery mounted an impressive response.
Large-scale feeding, income-assistance programmes and work-for-food initiatives were undertaken. At the end of it, a major catastrophe was averted and the number of recorded deaths stood at about 2,300, a remarkable achievement for a poor and relatively nascent state.
In 1974, political upheavals faced by the Awami League in Bangladesh, following the initial years of independence, led the economy into a decline and caused a sharp spike in in prices of basics. Flooding in the same year led to massive food shortages, and eventually, famine was declared.
Multiple coup attempts were made and, by 1975, Bangladesh was under a martial law. Limited state capacity, low levels of accountability, and political instability led to an insufficient response which resulted in a loss of about 40,000 lives from starvation and famine-related diseases.
State capacity and functioning political system in a way, proved to be the ultimate differentiator. As conflict continues unabated in South Sudan, its leaders have the choice of the path they want to lead their country towards. One hopes that the right choice is made soon. Millions of lives hang in the balance.
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