I visited South Sudan at the end of April, for the second time in five months. I found the world’s youngest country a different place now from the one I remember from November. A country at risk of tearing itself apart, in dire need of peace and reconciliation.
In November, I saw a country making its way in the world with optimism and confidence. Some elements of government were fragile but strengthening; the relationship with Sudan was volatile but steadying; government finances were shaky but oil exports were flowing again; government service delivery was improving; business leaders were drawn by the opportunities of doing business and excited about South Sudan’s first Investment Conference.
This time, I saw a much bleaker reality, painfully emphasised by the appalling attacks in Bentiu and on the UNMISS IDP camp in Bor that took place when I visited. Instead of investment, prosperity and growth, I saw and heard about conflict, poverty and destruction. Many towns are in ruins; over a million citizens are displaced; thousands are dead. How could so much optimism and hope for a better future simply fade away? A fuller analysis of the institutional weaknesses that plunged the country into chaos can be held in slower time. But the people in South Sudan told me that action is needed immediately to pull their country back from the brink.
Firstly, the South Sudanese people want the fighting to stop, with immediate effect. And they are right - not only to prevent further loss of life in the short term, but to stave off an impending humanitarian disaster. If people are unable to plant crops over the next couple of months, we could be looking at a famine of grotesque proportions. All the warning signs are there. We must not ignore them. All the parties to the conflict must accept their share of responsibility for ending the fighting immediately to allow farmers to return to their fields and humanitarian agencies to help them. Unhindered humanitarian access is crucially important. Without question, it should be the first duty of the South Sudanese authorities.
Secondly, people have told me that the political aspects of the crisis must be addressed, coupled with a national reconciliation process. From the early days of the crisis, the regional organisation, the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), chaired by Ethiopia, has led a mediation process in Addis Ababa, resulting in the signature of a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in January and the launch of a political process shortly afterwards. I commend IGAD leaders for their commitment, perseverance and determination to help South Sudan.
IGAD Heads of State and Government have been clear - the political process to pull South Sudan back from the brink must be inclusive. South Sudanese leaders, whether government or opposition, cannot ignore the demands of IGAD, of the international community, but most importantly, of their own people, for a genuinely inclusive political process that will free the country from the misery of conflict.
The country must address wider inter-community reconciliation issues to begin to come to terms with the terrible events that have happened and move forward together: if not, scars and fissions within South Sudan risk becoming permanent. A key part of any reconciliation process will be accountability for human rights violations and abuses. Without this, the stage will be set for the same tragic events to occur over and over again.
The UK has been a strong supporter of the South Sudanese people for many years and a true friend of South Sudan. But friends speak frankly and offer advice when they see mistakes being made. That is what I have been doing.
South Sudan’s potential has always been there for everyone to see: I saw it for myself five months ago. There is no reason why this country should not become a prosperous and stable country. For that to happen, its leaders must make compromises and resolve their differences around the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. Only that way can the brighter future that the South Sudanese people deserve become a reality.
The British Government is determined to do its part to end the terrible suffering. We have increased our humanitarian spending to £39.5 million (and are looking at plans to increase our overall contribution), we work closely with the South Sudanese government, other international humanitarian actors and civil society, and we continue to support the IGAD mediation process.
I hope when I next visit South Sudan, it will be in happier circumstances; that my South Sudanese friends will once more talk of investment and growth rather than destruction and humanitarian crisis. I look forward to hearing that goodwill between communities and strong leadership has helped to deliver that. Decisions made in the next few weeks and months will ultimately decide the direction the country will take. I sincerely hope that the right ones are made and that they are implemented quickly. The people of South Sudan deserve no less.
Mark Simmonds is the UK Minister for Africa