In the midst of the violence that has plagued South Sudan, one cannot avoid feeling exasperated at the fact that we are witnessing a senseless and largely avoidable humanitarian crisis. Accentuating this situation is the steady flow of refugees, which has contributed to the growth of Bidi Bidi, the world’s largest refugee camp. These circumstances are unflattering and at worst, downright shameful if we consider how history shall look back at these events. Not only will the conflict—and how it is currently being handled—be looked upon with deep regret; the lack of an effective mechanism to tackle such a situation is a damning indictment of the actors (or would-be-actors) both at the heart of the conflict and its periphery. This is especially true, considering the historic examples of humanitarian crises which eventually morphed into genocides—in both the 20th and 21st centuries. For regional and international bodies who possess power, legitimacy and influence, now is the time to effect change. Specifically, as it pertains to South Sudan and the overall focus of this report, it is important to examine what a bigger role for the AU should look like, taking into account the wider context of the war itself.
If past humanitarian crises and conflicts are anything to go by, violence perpetrated against the most vulnerable targets (civilians), does not happen in isolation. In fact, the events which ultimately led to the disparate conditions most Sudanese refugees find themselves in at the moment are hardly surprising. In the case of Sudan, Sudanese Vice-President Riek Machar’s attempted coup in 2013 has led to what is currently described as a “worsening conflict.” Both sides of the conflict draw support mainly from the Nuer and Dinka groups. The resulting outbreak of war has cost the lives of well over 50,000 people and the internal displacement of another 1.6 million. A failed peace agreement in 2015 has only served to highlight how far the warring sides are from actually engaging in constructive dialogue, with both sides failing to live up to the terms agreed to at the time. Coupled with the waning interest of the U.S, which can be traced back to the moment the war initially broke out, the fact that there have been several food shortages in the country makes the emergence and growth of refugee camps like Bidi Bidi more likely.
Not helping matters is the glaring question of how resources are being managed in South Sudan. Most recently, a UN report pointed out that the Kiir-led government has directed the proceeds of its oil wealth to the purchase of weapons, which is in large part facilitated by its neighbouring countries. In a move which is likely to raise questions surrounding the willingness to hold accountable leaders accused of violating the human rights of their citizens, the UN Security Council has rejected calls to enforce an arms embargo on South Sudan. At a time when numerous areas have been affected by famine, it is of little surprise that the government has vehemently rejected claims of ignoring the fact that thousands of its citizens are currently dying of starvation. The South Sudanese government has accused the Security Council of being unconcerned with the well-being of its people. The Security Council had previously failed to adopt a U.S.-drafted resolution aimed at furthering sanctions on South Sudan following warnings of a possible genocide. The prospect of alleviating the suffering has been further dampened, owing in large part to the lack of access afforded to humanitarian aid workers to key areas affected by the famine.
Having concluded that the measures carried out thus far have failed to end the violence, here are two recommendations which in my view could address key areas of the conflict under the guidance of the African Union. First, the facilitation of arms sales and the government’s ability to allocate significant oil funds into the purchase of arms should be dealt with more seriously. Owing to its legitimacy as a regional body, the African Union should task itself with initially advising its member states against engaging in arms deals with parties engaged in activities that threaten the security, livelihood and health of vulnerable populations. Failure to heed such advice should be dealt with in a punitive manner. In a region of the world where ethnic tensions tend to spill over into violent conflict, the knowledge that a regional organization can and will carry out punitive measures, could demonstrate to the guilty parties that crimes will not go unpunished.
Lastly, the burden of taking in refugees should be fairly distributed amongst neighbouring countries. The fact that Uganda has been a leading light with regard to its openness in welcoming vulnerable citizens of conflict-torn countries, is to be commended. A key question at this stage though, is how long can it maintain its steady intake of refugees without overextending its resources? With an additional 300,000 refugees from places such Burundi, Rwanda, and Somalia, the high number of refugee claimants could risk affecting local Ugandans’ ability to continue to benefit from the same social services which have be made readily available to all newcomers. A refugee intake agreement amongst AU member states would alleviate some of this pressure, especially now that the need for funds to tackle famine is heightened. Not only would this serve to inspire similar action in the future, it also helps to empower African nations and lessen the need to saddle specific countries with the task of protecting and housing refugees.
Actions taken with or without the support of the usual cast of donor nations such as the U.S., would show that a maturing and confident set of African nations is ready to lead the fight on a host of different issues. Under the umbrella of the AU, such goals of this ilk are not beyond reach.