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Walking on broken glass
22 May 2014

A seemingly small remark can sometimes be very revealing. So it was at the international South Sudan pledging conference in Oslo this week. Donors pledged over US$600 million of the US$1,8 billion that the United Nations (UN) estimated it would cost over the next year ‘to prevent the crisis from becoming a catastrophe,’ as host country, Norway’s, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Børge Brende put it.

Such words are relative. Some might say South Sudan is already a catastrophe. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died since a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, erupted into wider fighting between their political factions of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) and their tribesmen on 15 December. Toby Lanzer, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan who is driving the campaign for donations, said that by year’s end one in two South Sudanese would have fled the country, or would be facing starvation or dead.

The anger nearly boiled over at Benjamin's gross trivialisation of the conflict

Four million would be facing ‘alarming’ food insecurity, up to 1,5 million would be internally displaced and the numbers of refugees in neighbouring countries would have risen from the current 346 000 to about 838 000. And that’s assuming no additional serious fighting takes place, and that Kiir and Machar’s forces would give humanitarian workers unhindered access to the areas they control.

Those are big ifs as the second ceasefire, which Kiir and Machar signed on 9 May, is already starting to crumble. The world’s youngest nation, which had only seceded from Sudan on 9 July 2011, descended into chaos very quickly over the past five-and-a-half months.

Atrocities committed were disturbingly reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide: civilians murdered merely due to their tribal affiliation, young girls raped, patients killed in their hospital beds, people pursued relentlessly even into UN bases, and – in an echo of the infamous Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines – the medium of radio being used to incite further killing.

In short, it is a horror story – at least to the humanitarian donors gathered in Oslo. But it is evidently not a horror story to the protagonists in the fighting – at least not judging by the remarks of South Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Barnaba Benjamin.

Kiir and Machar would probably have known that the donors have no choice

He used an appallingly inappropriate metaphor to describe the situation, telling the humanitarians that his country was like a young child who had broken a glass. For this, the child should be forgiven not punished, he said, appealing to the donors not to abandon the naughty child.

Benjamin’s remark gave new meaning to WH Auden’s words, ‘A crack in the teacup opens up a lane to the land of the dead.’

Was this just an inept speech, or did it offer an unintended glimpse into the reasons why some leaders continue to inflict this sort of terrible cruelty upon their people? Was this a Freudian slip telling donors that political leaders like himself and his boss, Kiir, simply fail to comprehend the seriousness of what they are doing? That they don’t see their people as autonomous human beings, but merely as agents of their own ambitions?

And, incidentally, how could the foreign minister of an African country, even if it is the continent’s youngest, himself liken it to an irresponsible child – when so many racists through the ages have dismissed Africans as ‘children’?

Donor anger and fatigue were already bubbling just below the surface before Benjamin spoke. Several rich countries pledged very little, evidently because they felt Kiir and Machar were so clearly personally responsible for all the suffering. 

The anger nearly boiled over at Benjamin’s gross trivialisation of the conflict. US Assistant Secretary of State, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the situation was a lot more severe than a child breaking a glass. ‘You have to deserve our help,’ admonished an angry Erik Solheim, a seasoned peace mediator and the former Norwegian aid minister, who is now the Chairperson of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee.

The Norwegians, who have been the most dedicated to South Sudan over the years, certainly in proportional terms, have understandably been the most disappointed. Liv Tørres, Secretary General at Norwegian People’s Aid, which has been there for 28 years through the ups and downs, said this was ‘the lowest of downs.’

‘For those of us who have had such close relations, this is not good enough. We need leadership,’ said Tørres. Yet, Kiir’s government has not even published a budget to prove that it is at least making a token contribution from its own resources to tackle the humanitarian crisis for which it as at least partly responsible.

Among the largest pledges of aid were US$291 million from the United States, bringing its total contribution to the crisis to about US$450 million; US$200 million from Egypt; 55 million euros, (about US$75 million) from the European Union, bringing its total contribution to the crisis to about US$145 million; 60 million pounds (about US$100 million) from the United Kingdom; and US$63 million from Norway, bringing its total contribution to about US$90 million.

The outcome document from the conference, along with others, demanded unhindered access for humanitarian aid, by road and by barge along the Nile, and the removal of bureaucratic obstacles delaying the delivery of food and other forms of assistance. The many checkpoints on roads, the poor condition of the roads and the refusal of the authorities to allow transit on the Nile have forced the humanitarians to deliver most of the aid by air – at about 10 times the cost.

Barnaba and representatives of Machar were part of that agreement; but whether or not it will be implemented remains to be seen. As the very smallest sign that they are taking adult responsibility for the consequences of their action, Kiir and Machar should have been required to come to Oslo themselves to get the money and hear the criticism in person.

Maybe the organisers asked them and they refused. The two leaders would probably have known, quite cynically, that the donors have no choice. As Brende said, the victims of this calamity – the children, the girls, the women, the elderly and the ordinary people – are innocent of any responsibility for their fate. So they don’t deserve to suffer more because donors withhold aid to punish their leaders.

For all the responsibility that the South Sudanese leaders are taking, this might as well be a natural disaster, a tsunami or an earthquake. And that is how, in the end, the donors unfortunately have to regard it too.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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