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U.S. Ultimatum to South Sudanese Government: Work Towards Peace or Lose Aid

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir received US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, last month, in what was the first trip to sub-Saharan Africa by a top Trump administration official. With President Trump and his administration largely appearing to be disinterested in Africa, there were considerable expectations for this trip.

As it happened, the meeting was “tough” and “candid,” according to Ambassador Haley, who warned President Kiir that his continued unwillingness to tackle his country’s civil war and human rights abuse might put US foreign aid in jeopardy.

 Credit: REUTERS

Credit: REUTERS

The war and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has shocked even veteran observers of African conflicts, being described by some as the worst on the continent since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Nearly every actor, including the government, has perpetrated mass atrocities against civilians in what one Juba-based aid coordinator called “human rights abuses off the Richter scale.”

 The scale of mass murder, ethnic cleansing, mass rape, torture, cannibalism, and other gross violations of human rights have made four million South Sudanese flee their homes. Additionally, South Sudan has prevented aid workers and UN personnel from fulfilling their mandates.

Addressing President Kiir, Ambassador Haley made clear, in characteristically blunt terms, that “the United States [is] very disappointed in his leadership.” She further told President Kiir that the US “had invested well over $11 billion in South Sudan and into him and that we were now questioning that investment.”

In a combative Washington Post interview last month, President Kiir denied any responsibility for the conflict and accused the US of conspiring with his arch-rival Dr. Riek Machar, his former Vice President.

South Sudan is among the world’s poorest and most politically fragile countries. It has seen catastrophic violence during its two wars with Sudan from 1955-1972 and 1983-2005, and its situation hasn’t improved since being granted independence in 2011. Statistics are unclear, but it is suspected that death tolls and the number of people displaced could very well reach into the millions.

At the heart of the current conflict is the inability of many ethnic groups, clans, and factions to form anything that resembles national unity. However, unreliable statistics, shifting group loyalties, and exploitation of ethnic rivalries by individual leaders make dissecting the conflict strictly on ethnic lines problematic.

 A South Sudanese government soldier stands with others near their vehicles/Credit: AP Images

A South Sudanese government soldier stands with others near their vehicles/Credit: AP Images

Since the second civil war and initial years of independence, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) - South Sudan’s most important institution -  and government have been dominated by the Dinka tribe, the largest ethnic group, to which President Kiir belongs.  Leaders of other groups have expressed dissatisfaction with Dinka leadership on various occasions and even taken up arms against the tribe.

Political settlements sometimes bring these groups back under government and SPLA control, but they continue to oppose the government.  No one is more familiar with this dysfunctional dynamic than Dr. Machar, a member of the second-largest Nuer ethnic group who has broken off and reconciled with the SPLA at least three times.

Overall, the US visit highlighted the problems of the country but offered few solutions. There has been little if any new policy drawn up by the Trump administration towards any African country.

The trip to South Sudan suggests that one new approach is to try and coerce African governments into better performance by threatening to withdraw aid. Time will tell if this will work.