South Sudan promises 'unimpeded' aid access amid famine

South Sudan promises 'unimpeded' aid access amid famine
The United Nations and others have long accused the government of blocking or restricting aid delivery in the East African nation.
5 min read
21 February, 2017
At least one million people are on the brink of starvation in South Sudan [Getty]

South Sudan's president has said his government will ensure "unimpeded access" for all aid organisations, a day after famine was declared for more than 100,000 people in the country suffering from years of civil war.

The United Nations and others have long accused the government of blocking or restricting aid delivery in the East African nation.

President Salva Kiir's remarks to the transitional national assembly came after the famine was declared in parts of oil-rich Unity state.

Five things to know about South Sudan:

Economy in ruins

Oil production – from which South Sudan gained 98% of its revenues on its independence five-and-a-half years ago – has plummeted by more than half and the country is struggling to halt rampant inflation.

War against Muslim north

Before South Sudan became independent, it was the southern part of Sudan, which was the scene of two civil wars, opposing mainly Christian and animist insurgents in the south and Khartoum's Arab-dominated government. Millions died in the conflicts.

Sudan's independence from Britain and Egypt in January 1956 caused a first war in the south against northern domination. The accords of 1972 brought an end to 17 years of conflict, and the south was given a measure of autonomy.

But in 1983, Khartoum reneged on the accords, unleashing another war between north and south. That rekindled an independence movement led by John Garang and his guerrilla rebel force, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

In January 2005, Garang signed a peace accord with Khartoum which exempted the south from sharia law and granted it six years of self-rule ahead of a referendum on independence.

Garang was killed in a helicopter crash in July 2005 and was succeeded as southern leader by Kiir.

The world's youngest state

On July 9, 2011, South Sudan proclaimed its independence, six months after voting by nearly 99% to secede from the north. Kiir was sworn in as the country's first president. The international community, led by the United States, China, Russia and the European Union, as well as Sudan, quickly recognised the new African state.

Former allies become enemies

Kiir and his former deputy Machar, were linked by a common cause during the rebellion against Khartoum before independence, but also by ethnic and political rivalries.

During the second Sudanese civil war, Machar, an ethnic Nuer, joined the southern rebel SPLA, which was up to then mainly made up of Kiir's Dinka tribe. Machar opposed Garang and his allies, including Kiir, and created a rival group which allied itself with Khartoum, before reintegrating the SPLA in the early 2000s.

Kiir nominated him as vice president, first in 2005 in the semi-autonomous South Sudan region, then in July 2011 after the South gained independence.

Threat of genocide

In December 2013, the new country descended into civil war when fighting broke out within the national army, undermined by differences fuelled by the rivalry between Kiir and Machar. In 2016, the United Nations warned of potential genocide and ethnic cleansing, pointing to sexual and ethnic violence ravaging the country.

More than 100,000 people are affected, according to South Sudan's government and UN agencies. They say another one million people are on the brink of starvation.

"A formal famine declaration means people have already started dying of hunger. The situation is the worst hunger catastrophe since fighting erupted more than three years ago," said a statement by the World Food Programme (WFP), UN children's agency UNICEF and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

According to aid groups, the number of people facing hunger is expected to rise to 5.5 million at the height of the lean season in July if nothing is done to curb the spread of the food crisis.

"Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive," said the FAO's representative in South Sudan, Serge Tissot.

"The people are predominantly farmers and war has disrupted agriculture. They've lost their livestock, even their farming tools. For months there has been a total reliance on whatever plants they can find and fish they can catch."

Read also: Famine looms in Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan

South Sudan has repeatedly promised to allow full humanitarian access across the country, but with little effect.

Some in Kiir's government have expressed hostility toward the international community, accusing it of meddling in the country's affairs.

Human Rights Watch researcher Jonathan Pedneault wrote on Tuesday that the famine is a man-made result of "conflict, warring parties blocking access for aid workers and large-scale human rights violations."

Also Tuesday, the European Commission announced an 82 million euro ($87 million) emergency aid package for South Sudan, saying this is the first famine declared in the country since it gained independence from Sudan in 2011.

"The humanitarian tragedy in South Sudan is entirely man-made," EU Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Commissioner Christos Stylianides said in a statement.

"Crucially what matters is that all parties allow humanitarian organisations to have immediate and full access to do their job and deliver aid."

Tens of thousands have died in the civil war that began in December 2013 and has continued despite a peace agreement in 2015. More than 1.5 million people have fled the country.

South Sudan also is experiencing severe inflation, which has made food unaffordable for many families.

The famine declaration also comes as millions across the Horn of Africa are going hungry due to a devastating drought following two failed rainy seasons.

The UN said Monday it is "scaling up assistance and protection" in Somalia, as about 6.2 million Somalis, or half the country's population, is in need of humanitarian assistance.

Nearly one million children will be acutely malnourished.

"The drought situation is deteriorating rapidly," said Peter de Clercq, the humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.

"Accelerated scale-up... assistance is required to avoid a dramatic rise in the number of malnourished children and a spike in mortality."

Famine last hit the region six years ago, killing an estimated 260,000 people in Somalia.

The drought has also affected food security in South Sudan, however the biggest contributor to the famine is the inability of aid agencies to reach areas where the economy has collapsed due to the war.