Sudan and South Sudan are teetering: war, famine, environmental degradation, and the involuntary movement of hundreds of thousands of people have the potential to exact a dire toll on the lives of millions people. That this unfolding cataclysm is entirely man made, and entirely avoidable, points to a profound failure of leadership at home and abroad.
The numbers are staggering: In North Sudan, the United Nations now estimates that 4.3 million citizens, or 14 percent of the country, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance; in the South as many as 21 percent of the population (or 1.7 million people) is at serious risk.
The challenge in the north is being made worse by the government’s continued antipathy towards international NGO’s.Following six years of relative peace, and unprecedented developmental dividends, conflict exploded along the poorly demarcated border between Sudan and South Sudan in the period preceding and immediately after the secession of the South in July 2011. In May 2011, militia activity in the disputed oil-rich Abyei region, escalated into a full-scale military occupation by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) that displaced an estimated 110,000 Dinka Ngok people to the South. A month later the SAF attacked launched an assault on the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army North (SPLM-N) in the neighboring state of South Kordofan. This ongoing conflict has now internally displaced 300,000 people, and forced tens of thousands into southern exile. In September, the front against the SPLM-N expanded to include the Blue Nile state where over 50 percent of the population has now been affected by conflict, with 66,000 internally displaced, and a further 87,000 people have fled to Ethiopia and South Sudan.
The destabilization of Libya to the North has robbed Darfuri rebels of a safe-haven, forcing columns of heavily armed Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) militia to return to the Sudan, breathing new life into that conflict. 1.9m Darfuri citizens are now considered internally displaced; 700,000 newly or secondarily displaced through the course of 2011.
In South Sudan, conflict only tangentially related to animosity with the North has unleashed terrifying violence across swathes of the country, undermining the limited security apparatus of the new state, and the UN’s peacekeeping capacity. In Jonglei and Warrup states, cattle-raiding between the Dinka, Nuer and Murle groups has escalated into large scale paramilitary activity, killing thousands, and forcing 150,000 from their homes. Cattle-rustling is a entrenched custom in some communities (bestowing honor on young men), but the abuse and arming of ethnic militia as proxy armies through the years of civil war—together with increased competition for resources, climate change and over-grazing—has conspired to encourage a lethal cocktail of massacres and reprisals. Nuer and Dinka elders now claim to have raised an army of 30,000 from affected communities and Ethiopia to exact revenge following an attack by 8000 Murle in December.
Notwithstanding the colossal challenge posed by this violence, South Sudan is also struggling to meet the needs of the estimated 190,000 of refugees from Abyei, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, as well as the challenges posed by over 300,000 returnees (South Sudanese resident in the North), many of whom have only cursory ties to their “new” country. Khartoum recently announced that the remaining 700,000 South Sudanese living in the North (nearly 9 percent of the South’s current population) will be considered as foreigners from April 2012. Their return en masse would trigger unthinkable social destabilization.
But it is the ‘collateral damage’ of conflict that has the potential to fuel an even greater humanitarian disaster: famine. To the north, displacement and conflict has resulted in a 40 percent reduction in cultivation in Blue Nile, and 50 percent in South Kordofan, leaving potentially half a million food insecure. Heavy rain, displacement, ongoing conflict; a 25 per cent decline in cereal cultivation, and an outbreak of east coast cattle virus will mean that 3m South Sudanese will require emergency food aid through the course of 2012. Already the UN is reporting sharp increases in incidences of malnutrition and malaria, and a million citizens suffering from “severe” food insecurity.
The challenge in the north is being made worse by the government’s continued antipathy towards international NGO’s and their refusal to allow aid corridors into conflict affected areas. Some groups, and increasingly the American government, are now accusing Khartoum of using starvation as a weapon – a war crime – and deliberately destabilizing already vulnerable populations.
Food inflation in both countries is rampant, ranging from 19 percent in the North to 65 percent in the South, squeezing the livelihoods of all Sudanese, and pushing scores of new households into poverty.
In the face of such dire need, one might expect great leaders to rise above the fray to place the livelihoods of their most vulnerable citizens above all else. Instead, in a region blighted by generations of war, abduction, displacement, the raising of crops and homesteads, and deeply etched animosities, a culture of point scoring and fratricidal leadership may still escalate the precariousness of millions of poor and conflict affected people.
The recent announcement on the part of the Juba regime to freeze oil extraction in reaction to allegations of theft on the part of Khartoum may push both countries over the edge. South Sudan derives 98 percent of their foreign currency earnings from oil, raising the prospect of economic suicide. Protracted negotiations to finalize a deal on oil revenues have serially failed, with both governments to blame; seemingly intent on holding hands and diving into the abyss together.
That, in doing so, they could snuff out the lights of up to six million Sudanese livelihoods in an overwhelmingly man-made and entirely avoidable catastrophe should be a stain on the world’s moral conscience.