Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Stay of Expulsion

The government may not be kicking international aid workers out of South Sudan after all, but rising tensions between the two are getting worse -- and hurting the people who desperately need their help.

SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images)

JUBA, South Sudan — South Sudan is facing what the United Nations Security Council has called the worst food crisis in the world -- the result of the now-nine-month conflict between the government and rebels led by former Vice President Riek Machar.

Though the earlier, more severe talk of famine was temporarily tamped down, new numbers out this week from the country's agricultural experts predict more than 800,000 people in a country of roughly 10 million could suffer emergency food shortages by the start of 2015. The situation would be worse were it not for the combination of this year's good harvest and the expensive food drops that the World Food Program is running throughout the country.

So, when Labor Minister Ngor Kalong Ngor circulated an order to aid agencies and other businesses on Sept. 16, demanding they "notify all Aliens working with them in all the positions to cease working as from 15th October 2014," humanitarians quickly went on the defensive, arguing the mass firing would cripple their response and leave thousands more people unnecessarily hungry.

JUBA, South Sudan — South Sudan is facing what the United Nations Security Council has called the worst food crisis in the world — the result of the now-nine-month conflict between the government and rebels led by former Vice President Riek Machar.

Though the earlier, more severe talk of famine was temporarily tamped down, new numbers out this week from the country’s agricultural experts predict more than 800,000 people in a country of roughly 10 million could suffer emergency food shortages by the start of 2015. The situation would be worse were it not for the combination of this year’s good harvest and the expensive food drops that the World Food Program is running throughout the country.

So, when Labor Minister Ngor Kalong Ngor circulated an order to aid agencies and other businesses on Sept. 16, demanding they "notify all Aliens working with them in all the positions to cease working as from 15th October 2014," humanitarians quickly went on the defensive, arguing the mass firing would cripple their response and leave thousands more people unnecessarily hungry.

Within 48 hours, Foreign Affairs Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin was making a hasty retreat from the ban, promising that, "the government of South Sudan is not expelling any foreign workers in this country." And a new labor ministry press release urged NGOs not to worry, assuring them that the government’s original order was a misstatement and the aim was really just to fill low-level positions at banks, hotels, and the like with local hires.

Revoked or not, some in the international community see the original circular as part of a broader pattern of government hostility toward international humanitarian workers, which includes legislation currently in front of the National Assembly that would give the administration broad control over how and where non-governmental organizations operate. It could even be interpreted to give the government the power to kick NGOs out without explanation.

Some administration officials readily acknowledge the growing hostility — prompted, they say, by the constant criticism leveled at the government since fighting started in mid-December. There are indications that the friction could come to overshadow ongoing aid efforts.

At the moment, the U.N. and international NGOs are already propping up vast swathes of the country on the back of a $1.8 billion funding request. And needs continue to grow — nearly 1.8 million people are displaced from their homes and fighting has flared again in some parts of the country.

The question now is whether they can maintain that level of response — one the country so desperately needs — if their relationship with the government continues its steady decline.

While the government and the international community have sniped at each other regularly since South Sudan’s 2011 independence, the in-fighting has become decidedly more strident since Dec. 15, 2013, when fighting erupted at a military barracks in the capital city, Juba, pitting forces loyal to Machar against government troops. President Salva Kiir charged Machar with mounting a failed coup, a charge Machar denied. Regardless, within days the former deputy was in open rebellion and the clashes, which rapidly took on an ethnic dimension, had spread across the country’s eastern half.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting, though that estimate is almost certainly too low, and hundreds of thousands more are displaced or cut off from assistance and forced to live on boiled leaves or water lilies. Until a massive food distribution started last week, Charles Chuol Chot, an official in a remote part of Jonglei state near the ever-shifting frontlines, said that his was one of the areas that had not had any traders or aid workers since the fighting started. "We are seeing many people are dying," he said.

From the beginning of last December’s fighting, the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) opened its bases to those people fleeing the violence. The move quickly earned them the government’s scorn. In a January press conference, Kiir accused the mission of sheltering rebels and former UNMISS head Hilde Johnson, personally, of attempting to run a "parallel government." The charge, which can still be seen on the government’s official Twitter account, was one of the first public signs that the relationship between the two institutions had soured.

In March, the national army discovered weapons in an UNMISS shipment bound for contested Unity state. UNMISS is not allowed to ship weapons by land and the mission declared it a mistake. That did not stop government supporters from organizing a rally in Juba to accuse the U.N. of arming rebels. Protestors carried signs with images of Johnson, a gun Photoshopped into her hand, demanding to know why she ‘kills people of South Sudan?’

By July, the president’s office was putting out orders restricting the U.N. and other aid agencies from making "any independent or unilateral statements on the food and nutrition situation" in the country. Meanwhile, a long-gestating bill that would give the government more oversight of the agencies has been tabled in the current session of the National Assembly. Aid workers worry that the vaguely worded legislation will give the administration broad powers to regulate their work through a government-dominated oversight board.

The bill aimed at NGOs smacks strongly of legislation in neighboring Sudan that has been used to suspend aid groups working in that country. No surprise, said Cameron Hudson, as Juba’s moves are "all out of Khartoum’s playbook," learned in the decades before South Sudan’s 2011 independence from the north. Hudson, who spent two years as chief of staff to the U.S. envoy to Sudan starting in 2009, said this has "been on the horizon for a long time."

So by the time the labor ministry circular appeared on Sept. 16 ordering NGOs to replace their international staff, members of the aid community were already feeling besieged.

"It seems that it’s a lot at once," said a source who works for an NGO on the ground in South Sudan that has been training health workers since the fighting started. "In terms of hostile relationship, it’s politically there and any type of engagement, it’s there," though so far, it is only verbal. "I haven’t yet felt it in any of our activities," the source said.

If the NGO bill passes, this aid worker is worried that will change.

Despite the increasingly fraught relationship, the U.N. and other members of the international community have not shied away from confronting the administration for its role in creating and, as peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia continue to drag on, perpetuating the crisis. Shaming the government — and the rebels — is one of the few tools available for returning peace to the country.

UNMISS’s Johnson offered one of the most scathing indictments on her way out of office in early July, warning, "If there are further delays, and the blame games go on, whether from those wanting to remain in office or those wanting to get back in, we can only draw one conclusion: that this is only about a scramble for power."

The Chinese have also overcome their normal reticence about speaking on another country’s domestic affairs. Lan Kun, the attaché at the Chinese embassy in Juba, told Foreign Policy, "The whole world saw frequent violations of several peace agreements," and his government was among those "frustrated by the two parties, although we’re optimistic we’ll see some progress."

And Jean-Louis de Brouwer, a senior official in the European Commission, struck a similar note during a visit last week, reminding reporters at a press conference: "This is not a natural disaster. This is not a Sahel-type famine. This is a manmade disaster."

De Brouwer said the donors who are funding the response and the humanitarians who are implementing it have a responsibility to hold the government accountable for its commitments. Those now include several ceasefire agreements and a pledge to at least draft a viable interim government strategy with the opposition.

But he was quick to add that government officials "have no problem whatsoever in accepting that message… I would not like anybody to leave this room with the feeling that there is growing dissatisfaction, growing discontent between us and the South Sudanese government."

Some members of the government don’t agree. Dr. John Ogoto Kanisio said he has been worn down by the critiques. Kanisio sits in the office of the president, where he is the secretary general of South Sudan’s Food Security Council. He is also the author of the July letter requiring aid agencies to run all food security statements through the government.

The move followed a flow of requests he was receiving to respond to NGO statements about the severity of the food crisis and the government’s role in creating it. At the time, his thinking was, "Why should we be crucified by statements made about the country by people who are not part of us?"

He charged the international community with attempting to perpetuate the narrative that the government is incapable or unwilling to take care of its own people. "That is what we are battling now," he said.

Though the past months have seen a steady increase in tensions between the two camps, they have managed to continue to work together, providing aid to 3.1 million people and possibly averting a famine. But the looming showdown over the NGO bill could be a turning point — offering the government legal cover to punitively respond to agencies that are perceived to be too critical or too independent.

It is unclear when — or if — that showdown will come. There are only a few weeks left in the current parliamentary session and it’s not certain lawmakers will find time to debate and pass the legislation, which also has to be approved by the president. Several parliamentarians declined to say whether they expected a vote this session and, if it didn’t happen, whether they expect the bill to be tabled again.

Even if the bill does pass, Jok Madut Jok anticipates it will do little to change the status quo in the short term. Jok is a researcher with the Sudd Institute, a South Sudan think tank. "They know the international community will feed their people," he said of the government, especially since they don’t have the capacity to.

The crisis has cut South Sudan’s oil production — the country’s primary source of income — by more than a third. As a result, the government is basically running an austerity budget and leaving the bulk of the humanitarian response to the U.N. and NGOs. That, Jok said, was unlikely to change — both because humanitarians weren’t likely to walk away and the government wasn’t going to force them out, at least for the time being. Instead, the international community would just find a way to work within any new restrictions that arise.

As to the question of whether it will even be tenable to continue to work under these conditions, Hudson said it is anyone’s guess. In the midst of ongoing fighting, the government is scrabbling to control the agenda, which means, "It’s difficult to anticipate what the next moves are going to be." Though, "if you’re not pessimistic, then you’re not following what’s going on."

Andrew Green is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. Previously, he was based in sub-Saharan Africa for more than five years.

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