A month has passed since ethnically targeted killings and an alleged coup broke out in South Sudan’s capital city of Juba, triggering an escalating humanitarian crisis. Two of the State Department’s top diplomats for Africa appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, and were met by allegations that the Obama Administration turned a blind eye to a crisis bound to happen.
“The current Administration has ignored numerous warning signs within South Sudan,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, Republican of New Jersey, citing longstanding reports of corruption and ethnicly targeted violence. “Concerns over lack of inclusion in the constitutional process by those outside the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation movement were dismissed as a problem that was being addressed,” he added.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, defended U.S. engagement with South Sudan prior to the outbreak of recent violence.
Characterizing U.S.–South Sudanese relations as having a “special history,” Thomas-Greenfield noted that “high level meetings” between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and US officials occurred on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly held in September of last year. Thomas-Greenfield’s testimony, however, did not specify whether concerns of insecurity were addressed in the September meetings.
Since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, the world’s youngest nation has been fraught with political and ethnic tensions, which reached a tipping point last month. South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, a former rebel commander turned political leader, has faced allegations of corruption and authoritarianism. Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, the nation’s most populous tribe, was criticized in July 2013 when he dissolved his cabinet and fired the then-vice president, Riek Machar. Machar, an ethnic Nuer, the nation’s second largest tribe, was largely viewed as the president’s sole political rival.
President Kiir alleges that his former Vice President responded to the firing by staging a coup attempt on the night of Dec. 15. Machar denies the claim and U.S. officials have expressed skepticism towards the coup allegations.
Violence since has convulsed seven of the country’s 10 provinces – sparking a humanitarian crisis that has forced over 400,000 civilians to flee their homes, according to the UN.
The U.S., South Sudan’s largest aid donor and chief Western supporter, responded to the sudden conflict with a $50 million increase in humanitarian aid. Insecurity and a lack of state capacity, however, have limited the ability of UN agencies and NGO partners to access South Sudanese civilians displaced by the conflict
“The challenge is getting humanitarian supplies into the areas where IDPs are,” said Earl Gast, USAID’s assistant administrator for Africa, in reference to internally displaced populations. As it stands, roughly 200,000 IDPs, half of South Sudan’s entire displaced population, need immediate humanitarian assistance, according to USAID.
The US channels humanitarian funding through a network of UN agencies and partner NGOs to improve efficiency. Nevertheless, even when reaching IDP populations, humanitarian responders have faced significant challenges.
The WFP – the UN food assistance program – estimated on Monday that 10 percent of their food stocks, which could feed up to 180,000 people a month, have been looted. Moreover, dozens of IDPs seeking shelter in a UN compound in Malakal, a northern port city along the Sudan-South Sudan border, were wounded when stray bullets entered the compound, according to the UN Mission in South Sudan’s twitter feed. The UN has yet to confirm where the shots came from.
“The UN does not have the capacity at the moment to provide full protection,” Thomas-Greenfield told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.