The Material World column from the June 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
South Sudan, the world's youngest nation, was plunged into civil war in 2013, just two years after gaining its independence from neighbouring Sudan, after President Salva Kiir dismissed his deputy, Riek Machar. During the first two years of independence, the country was producing nearly 245,000 barrels of crude oil per day, raking in billions of dollars in revenue annually which paid for this trade. South Sudan's ruling class, responsible for atrocities, have managed to accumulate fortunes while the people suffer under a civil war. The country’s competing privileged elites are sacrificing their own people’s lives to secure the political and economic benefits derived from control of the state. Peace remains a distant prospect, with Kiir and Machar seemingly hell-bent on a military solution.
The conflict has divided the nation along largely tribal lines. Kiir told the UN general assembly back in September 2014 that 'The conflict in South Sudan is purely a political struggle for power, not an ethnic conflict as reported.' Yet violence has broken out along ethnic lines in many parts of the country, pitting forces loyal to Kiir, a Dinka, against those of his former deputy Machar, a Nuer. Festus Mogae. a former Botswanan president, who tried to broker a peace, said, 'We were trying to persuade him [Kiir] that they were leaders and they should think of the welfare of the people, but they failed to do that.' The United Nations reported that government militias raped women essentially as a form of payment, under an agreement that allowed them to 'do what you can and take what you can.'
More than 3 million people have fled their homes out of a population of 12 million. The UN has declared a famine in some parts of the country and nearly half its population face food shortages. Kiir's government has continued to make arms deals even as a famine was declared. In March UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien reported that in South Sudan 'more than one million children are estimated to be acutely malnourished across the country, including 270,000 children who face the imminent risk of death should they not be reached in time with assistance.' We now witness the return of the old colonialists but instead of pith helmets, they are donning the blue helmets of the UN. 400 British troops will eventually be deployed to provide engineering and medical support to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS.)
It is true to say that this is a human-made famine but it would be more accurate to describe it as capitalist-created famine. Hunger in South Sudan is the work of politicians and elites. Up to 75 percent of the country’s land area is suitable for farming. South Sudan has vast fertile lands, abundant water and climate suitable for production of a wide variety of food and cash crops. Experts estimate that up to 300,000 tonnes of fish could be harvested on a sustainable basis from its share of the River Nile swamps and tributaries. What food South Sudan produces often is left rotting in the bush due to poor road networks to transport the commodities to the market yet chicken arrives from Brazil. Tomatoes, onions, maize flour, cooking oil, dairy products and beans are imported from neighbouring Uganda. Every year, South Sudan spent between US$200-300 million on food imports, according to estimates for 2013 provided by the Abidjan-based African Development Bank (AFDB). 'South Sudan currently imports as much as 50 percent of its needs, including 40 percent of its cereals from neighbouring countries, particularly Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia', according to AFDB.
Nationalism and sovereignty are frequently promoted as solutions to many social ills but only too often, the reality is very different. The Republic of South Sudan was declared an independent nation on 9 July 2011. The new national flag was raised, the band played the new national anthem and the countdown clock flashed 'free at last.' African nations do not share many things in common except the forcible grouping together of tribes. In the past when the continent didn't have artificial boundaries such as there are today, wars and hatred were not as rife. Nationalism imposes the idea of the nation to legitimise both the state and class rule. The problems of exploitation and exclusion that once came from the government of Sudan are now replicated in South Sudan. The Socialist Standard has often cautioned workers to be wary of simplistic nationalistic solutions. The oppressed very quickly become the oppressors.