AWEIL, South Sudan — Two months after the world’s youngest nation declared a famine amid its civil war, hunger has become more widespread than expected, aid workers say.
South Sudan’s Northern Bahr el Ghazal region is on the brink of starvation, with 290,000 people at risk of dying without sustained food assistance. Humanitarian workers say conditions will only deteriorate as the lean season approaches.
In February, South Sudan and the United Nations formally declared a famine in two counties in Unity State. Northern Bahr el Ghazal’s five counties now face the same fate.
Food is delivered by the UN in South Sudan.
“All five counties are sliding into catastrophe,” said an aid worker who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. “If it wasn’t for food assistance, this place would be at a level five famine.”
Northern Bahr el Ghazal and its 1.4 million residents have remained relatively peaceful during South Sudan’s three-year civil war. But due to soaring inflation fueled by the conflict, harsh climate conditions and its remoteness, this region has become severely affected by hunger.
“I’m worried that one day I’ll die with my children because we can’t get food,” said Abuk Garang. The young mother stared at her son’s emaciated legs while he anxiously tugged at her breasts.
The boy, William Deng, was born in September, yet he looks more like a newborn. Unable to draw any milk, the child chokes back tears and begins gnawing on his fist.
Garang tries to console him, but she knows he’s famished.
“We’ve only eaten leaves for three days,” she said. “If there’s no food, he’ll die.”
When Garang heard that food was being distributed in a nearby town, she and thousands of others flocked there in desperation. After hours of waiting, she beamed and pointed to her new bag of sorghum, then shielded her face, embarrassed by her excitement.
One by one, others staggered into aid group World Vision’s food distribution compound. Some had hobbled through the bush on one good leg, while others had walked for hours with bloody feet under the sweltering sun.
A steady stream of women with weak children strapped to their backs and babies attempting to nurse could be seen for miles.
World Vision last week rolled out the first phase of a program to provide 65,000 people in Aweil East county with food during the month of April. The aim is to start with 17,000 of the most severely malnourished and vulnerable people.
Aid workers said they weren’t prepared for the level of despair.
“I was shocked by the number of malnourished kids here,” said the aid group’s South Sudan communications manager, Rose Ogola. “And the looks of desperation on the mothers.”
In the small town of Malualkuel alone, where the food was distributed, local leaders said 4,000 out of the town’s 6,000 people are facing extreme starvation.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it in 12 years in terms of food security and hunger-related deaths,” said James Maywien Aror, Aweil East county’s relief and rehabilitation commissioner. “I feel sad. I’m not happy to see people die.”
During a food and security review meeting last week in Aweil town, aid workers and government officials estimated an increase of 3 to 5 percent in the number of people in Northern Bahr el Ghazal who will face extreme hunger in the coming months.
“The region requires sustained humanitarian support,” said George Fominyen, spokesman for the World Food Program in South Sudan. “Without that, and without the improvement in the conditions of people there, you’re going to find those with the threat of moving into phase five.” Level five in global food security classification is famine.
With the onset of South Sudan’s lean season in June and July, the fear is there won’t be enough food to meet the growing demand. Local community leaders said 200,000 metric tons of food is still needed for Northern Bahr el Ghazal.
“Yesterday we didn’t eat anything at all,” said 20-year-old Adel Bol. Like so many others, she had heard there was food and quickly came running.
Cradling her 10-month-old daughter, she lifted the baby’s shirt to reveal her protruding ribs. Akir Mayen’s bald head is twice the size of her skeletal body. She flailed her arms, trying to clutch at her mother’s chest.
“If she dies,” Bol said, “I’ll never give birth again.”
Why South Sudan continues to fall out of favour with its international partners
The relationship between the government of South Sudan and the donor community is changing. International discourse on the East African country has moved from warm and sympathetic to disapproving, critical and exasperated.
The tense relationship took a hit in March when Juba stated its intention to raise the permit fees for foreign aid workers from $100 to $10,000. The fee hike, aimed at foreign workers, was perceived to be directly targeting the numerous international aid agencies working in the country. Nine of every ten foreign workers in South Sudan represent these agencies.
Perhaps it was with this in mind that the government has now announced that plans to raise the permit fees are on hold.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after a lengthy civil war. Two years later it was plunged back into conflict. The fighting has created what the UN calls a “man-made famine”, and has resulted in a refugee crisis. Basic services in South Sudan have routinely been provided by aid agencies or charities for decades.
So the suspension of the proposed permit fee hike is a welcome political reprieve. But it won’t offer much comfort to the Sudanese people. The UN says that more than one million South Sudanese children are malnourished. Hundreds of thousands “face imminent death”.
The March memorandum announcing the new fee stated that the dramatic increase would boost government revenue. Some might argue this is a reasonable line of argument for a poverty-stricken state with limited infrastructure.
But when you consider how the South Sudan government spends its money, you begin to question the hike. In 2016 the finance ministry confirmed that nearly half of the country’s budget would be spent on the military and national security.
Just one tenth would be spent on health, education and humanitarian affairs.
While it’s true that the South Sudanese government has been fighting a major counter-insurgency since December 2013, security is not a new budget priority for the country’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
South Sudan’s system of government is built on buying the loyalty of disaffected or anti-state actors. This system has incentivised periodic, violent “contract re-negotiations” by the ruling elite, for whom brief rebellions can mean accessing a larger piece of the pie in the longer-term.
Juba defended the fee hike by arguing that the current charge was too low compared to the fees imposed by neighbouring states. While there is some truth in that, raising the cost of a permit from $100 to $10,000 would price South Sudan out of the market.
Very few agencies would have been able afford to keep more than a handful of senior staff in South Sudan under the now-suspended arrangement.
Ruse to keep agencies out
Two interlinked issues lie at the heart of this episode.
The first is that the South Sudanese government wants to limit the access of international actors to the parts of the country most affected by the ongoing conflict.
On a recent trip to Arua in northern Uganda, I spoke to South Sudanese refugees who had lost family in the recent counter-insurgency operations in Yei. Their descriptions of the conflict were harrowing.
The UN has also described the operations in Yei as “horrific violence … against innocent and vulnerable civilians, including women and infants”.
Despite evidence to the contrary, earlier this year President Salva Kiir reiterated his government’s assurance that “all humanitarian and development organisations have unimpeded access to needy populations”.
Few believe that Juba truly welcomes the presence of international agencies and organisations, many of whom continue to draw global attention to state abuses and the dire situation that’s resulted from the conflict.
This speaks to the second issue: the tense relationship between Juba and the “international community”, which in South Sudan comprises UN staff, NGO workers and diplomats.
To put this in context, the SPLM and independent South Sudan are to a significant degree the product of international politics and patronage.
During the 1990s and 2000s, when SPLM was still a rebel movement, it survived on resources from foreign NGOs and charities. It also received military and diplomatic support from regional states and Western donors who were also opposed to the Khartoum government.
The peace talks which led to an independence referendum were overseen and supported by international “guarantors. They later played an important role in ensuring that the referendum results were recognised and implemented.
Since becoming an autonomous region of Sudan in 2005 and gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan has relied heavily on development assistance to fund its budget and host a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission (UNMISS).
It’s currently among the top ten aid recipients in the world.
Because of this close and symbiotic relationship between South Sudan and international actors, representatives of the state have become increasingly testy about the perceived influence of the western donors. This has worsened as international discourse on the Juba government becomes increasingly negative.
Shortly after the 2013 conflict broke out President Kiir accused UNMISS of being “brought [to the country] as a parallel government”.
A few months later vice president James Wani Igga told anti-UN protesters that “if [UNMISS] is a colonial system we need to fight … and I will go into the bush to fight!”.
In mid-2015 the government expelled UN humanitarian relief coordinator Tony Lanzer. There have been a number of similar expulsions in the past 18 months.
It’s in this context then that one should interpret the March 2017 comments by government spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny. Speaking about the fee increase he said that “if you can’t pay $10,000 then you hire a local person instead”.
As much as Juba benefits from international patronage there’s still simmering resentment among leaders and academics towards the perceived dominance of development, non-governmental and humanitarian organisations.
Foreign aid-workers are envied for their hefty salaries which are usually much higher than those of their local counterparts. They also enjoy benefits and protections that are not available to nationals.
It also doesn’t bode well for the government to be perceived domestically as being in the pocket of foreign powers amid a civil war.
As such, frustrating aid workers who travel around in armoured 4x4s and live in military compounds – or the country’s best hotels – could be interpreted as a low-key propaganda move by a government which has little interest in the humanitarian consequences of its actions.
Tags: Aid workers, Aweil East, Bahr el Ghazal, famine, food assistance, humanitarian, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan, South Sudan Famine, starvation, sustained food assistance, United Nations, UNMISS, Why South Sudan continues to fall out of favour with its international partners, World Food Program, World Vision