South Sudan is entering ‘extremely dangerous phase,’ expert warns

A government soldier mans a vehicle-mounted machine gun in the oil-rich town of Malakal, South Sudan. (AP Photo/Jacob Zocherman)

As South Sudan nears a resolution to its violent and disruptive civil war, one expert warns that the country is entering “an extremely dangerous phase.” Alex de Waal, head of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University says that political stability is needed to ensure South Sudan can get on the right track while it faces a combination of economic, security and political crises that contributed to and were worsened by the civil war.

“The leaders of South Sudan need urgently to reassess their political strategies because they are heading for collective destruction,” warns de Waal, in a recent briefing. “Although individually they may appear trapped in the logic of violent competition, they need to explore ways in which they could collectively escape that trap.”

The fundamental concern is that the conditions that allowed for a broad peace agreement in 2005 do not exist now. Various factions and groups came to an agreement a decade ago in order to help foster independence from Sudan. At the time, oil flowed freely and all parties involved in the government stood to benefit from its revenues. That money began to dry up in early 2012 and caused the fracturing of the government.

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Fighting that started in December 2013 has persisted since an agreement in August between the government and rebels, led by former Vice President Reik Machar. The deal returned Machar to his VP post in February, but it has not led to his return to the capital city of Juba nor the formation of a transitional unity government. The country is going “over a fiscal cliff,” said de Waal, because the government is taking in virtually no revenue.

The economy of South Sudan experienced a significant downturn last year because of falling oil prices and the political crisis escalated by the civil war. Wild swings of economic growth in recent years makes the situation all the more precarious. Worse yet, a real political deal seems far off.

On the political front, de Waal said that the medium-term nature of the government itself and the economic woes make for a lot of uncertainty among political elites. That in turn, makes last year’s peace agreement unlikely to be realized. And it makes for a situation fraught with little prospect for progress. The head of the regionally formed Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission recently expressed dismay a the slow pace of peace.

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“Let me be frank and tell you that the patience of the international community – as is my own – is being tested,” said Festus Mogae, according to AFP, last week. “I remain concerned at the ongoing delays, at the ceasefire violations that continue, and in the deteriorating economic situation.”

More than 2 million people have been uprooted from their homes over the course of the conflict and tens of thousands killed. Mogae warned that militias across the country are still fighting, making the problems more difficult and limiting the ability of the new government to solve them even if it is formed.

Warnings of hunger and famine have been cyclical in recent years for South Sudan. With inconsistent rains and so many people displaced, the potential for famine has been evoked on a few occasions. Currently, 2.8 million people are at emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity. Stabilizing the country and getting it back on track to the progress it was making early on is crucial to the future of South Sudan and its citizens.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.