The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan continues to worsen with civilians growing increasingly desperate and conditions showing little sign of improvement. July saw the greatest number of incidents to humanitarian aid workers since 2016 and international organizations called for rapid action to prevent an already significant cholera problem from spiraling into an epidemic.

The crisis in South Sudan raises important questions over the Trump administration’s view of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy towards Africa. Key positions remain unfilled, while the administration has yet to articulate a clear policy for the continent. Against this backdrop, the State Department recently announced plans to cut more than 30 special envoy positions, including one for Sudan and South Sudan. Under normal circumstances, this reorganization could make sense, but with so many senior positions still vacant, the move threatens to undermine U.S. efforts to address a humanitarian and security emergency that demands immediate action.

A Worsening Conflict

As the fighting spreads and conflict fractures across South Sudan, humanitarian assistance is becoming even harder to deliver in what is already one of the most dangerous countries for aid workers. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy in late July, the former coordinator for the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan Payton Knopf stated that “conflict has engulfed every part of South Sudan,” and identified five distinct local conflicts taking place within the larger civil war. Fighting throughout South Sudan continued in August, including in Kaya near the Ugandan border and in Pagak near the Ethiopian border. Local officials also reported significant intercommunal violence.

The tactics used within this conflict and the disproportionate effect on civilians are especially troubling. In an August visit to the country, International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer called the scale of the suffering “staggering,” stating, “[the] style of fighting appears calibrated to maximize misery.” A week later, Doctors Without Borders reported that armed groups had looted 24 of its medical facilities throughout the country over the last 18 months. And, although UNMISS, the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, has worked to improve the protection of civilians, security remains tenuous. This insecurity has in turn led to massive displacement and refugee flows, making for the largest exodus in Africa since the Rwandan genocide. According to the UN, there are over 1 million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda alone, as well as 1.9 million internally displaced people within the country. 

Despite these deteriorating conditions and immense human suffering, the Government of South Sudan continues to impede efforts to improve security or take the actions necessary to end this crisis. A prime example is President Salva Kiir’s recent statement that South Sudanese refugees “ran to Uganda,” not because of conflict, but because of social media and a conspiracy against his government. Kiir’s government has also undermined the Regional Protection Force (RPF), a supplement of 4,000 personnel to assist the 16,000-person mission already present in the country. The RPF is only now beginning to arrive in South Sudan after receiving a November 2016 mandate to secure Juba after violence erupted in the capital the previous summer.

U.S. Diplomacy and African Policy

The Trump administration has yet to fill many key positions concerning African policy, including the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the State Department. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council remains the administration’s first choice for this position, but Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) has threatened to block Pham’s nomination over the Morocco-Western Sahara dispute. Sen. Inhofe has long championed the Western Sahara push for self-determination, which Morocco has resisted for decades. Pham directs the Atlantic Council’s African Center and enjoys strong support among African experts and leading U.S. think tanks and NGOs.

On Wednesday, the administration named Donald Yamamoto acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, suggesting that Pham will not receive the nomination. Yamamoto is a seasoned diplomat, having served in this position previously, and as Ambassador to Ethiopia and Djibouti. Still, Yamamoto’s appointment is only for one year and officials could struggle to set longer-term policy and strategic objectives. The administration has also failed to name ambassadors to influential African states, such as South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It has named Cyril Sartor, a former deputy assistant director at the CIA, as senior director for Africa at the National Security Council. Even so, Sartor was the third choice for this position, after Robin Townley failed to receive the necessary security clearance and retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rudolph Atallah had his offer rescinded.

In addition to these vacancies, last week CNN reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson planned to eliminate or downgrade as many as three dozen of the nearly 70 Special Envoys at the State Department. (Secretary Tillerson’s letter to Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, explaining this decision is available here.) Included within these cuts are the Office of the Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan and the Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, the latter having already been downgraded from a Special Envoy to a Special Representative. Special Envoys had increased significantly during the Obama administration and Tillerson’s plan aims to empower regional and functional bureaus within the State Department. While Special Envoys allow for a particular focus on a key issue or country, they also risk sidelining State Department officials already assigned to these areas and can create competing visions for addressing these problems.

Tillerson’s plan has some merit, as well as support from the American Academy of Diplomacy, but given the current lack of senior leadership in place concerning African policy, these specific cuts could have a negative effect on U.S. foreign policy and national security interests in Africa. Further, although these offices will now fall under the Bureau of African Affairs, the pressing humanitarian and security issues in both East Africa and the Great Lakes region require immediate attention and high-level diplomatic engagement.

Within South Sudan, a lack of strategic focus on African policy will not help end the conflict. Ambassador Nikki Haley has been a forceful advocate for the people of South Sudan at the UN Security Council, but a more coordinated effort and policy approach is necessary to resolve this complex and protracted conflict. In this regard, USAID Administrator Mark Green’s September meeting with President Kiir expressing U.S. frustrations over continued fighting and denied humanitarian access is welcome news, as is Green’s statement that a serious review of U.S. policy towards South Sudan is now taking place. Likewise, the Treasury Department’s Wednesday decision to sanction three high-ranking South Sudan officials connected to violence and corruption could persuade key figures within the government to reengage with the peace process.

Revitalizing the Peace Process

The Government of South Sudan and the largest armed opposition group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), signed a peace agreement just over two years ago on August 17, 2015. Despite this agreement and a subsequent unilateral ceasefire declared by the government in May, fighting has continued. Indeed, numerous regional experts have long concluded that the agreement has collapsed and that the country is now even worse off than it was before the peace agreement.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade and development organization consisting of eight East African states, was crucial to completing the peace agreement and positioned to oversee its implementation through a Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (JMEC) chaired by Festus Mogae, a respected statesman and former president of Botswana. However, since the signing of the peace agreement, some officials have criticized IGAD, both publicly and privately, for internal divisions that have contributed to prolonging the conflict.

This summer, IGAD took several steps to revive the peace process following an Extra-Ordinary Summit between regional heads of state and the South Sudan government. Most notably, this summit called for a High-Level Revitalization Forum between parties to the peace agreement to restore a permanent ceasefire, fully implement the peace agreement, and develop a realistic timeline for democratic elections. (Currently, elections are scheduled for 2018, but few believe that this timeframe is realistic given the present conditions.) IGAD’s Council of Ministers was tasked to convene this forum and conducted two Extra-Ordinary Sessions concerning South Sudan in July. Finally, in August, IGAD’s South Sudan office convened a two-day meeting to discuss specific requirements and ideas for revitalizing the 2015 peace agreement. Participants included academics, civil society members, and various humanitarian practitioners. Mogae also attended, as did members of the African Union Commission, the UN, and EU.

Since announcing its initiative to revitalize the peace process, IGAD officials have stressed the importance of inclusiveness. IGAD has also supported the Government of South Sudan’s National Dialogue and on August 31, The East African reported that leaders of various armed groups have expressed a willingness to join that process. In addition to Machar, Lam Akol (National Democratic Movement), Joseph Bakasoro (National Movement for Change), and General Thomas Cirilo (National Salvation Front) have engaged with the National Dialogue’s steering committee, although these leaders have dismissed the National Dialogue previously and set preconditions to ensure their participation. IGAD’s own consultative meeting between the South Sudan government and the armed opposition is scheduled for September.

Amongst these developments, stories have emerged that exiled former Vice President and SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar could return to the region, although questions have arisen over the credibility of these reports. Last week the SPLM-IO announced that Ethiopian and Kenyan leaders intend to end Machar’s confinement in South Africa so that he may rejoin the peace process. Predictably, Kiir criticized this idea and said that Machar’s inclusion in the National Dialogue would create regional instability, although some South Sudan organizations, such as the Center for Peace and Justice, have also called for Machar’s inclusion in the peace process, arguing that his exclusion will only exacerbate the situation and prolong the conflict. Though seemingly unlikely, even the possibility of Machar’s return is a significant development, as reports from late July concluded that Machar was politically isolated and sidelined from the peace process.

Many commentators are understandably pessimistic that the High-Level Revitalization Forum will succeed given the lack of restraint shown by the government and the armed opposition. As Alex de Waal notes, neither party to the peace agreement trusted each other in 2015 and certainly do not now. Still, Aly Verjee, a visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace and former member of JMEC, notes that even a “troubled regional mediation process” is better than no process, since without an “avenue for genuine political dialogue, violence will be pursued.” Likewise, de Waal argues that the inability of any party to win a decisive military victory may push the government and the armed opposition to negotiate a political settlement.

Lasting Peace

A lasting peace in South Sudan will require regional cooperation and continued pressure on the Government of South Sudan and the armed opposition to accept that a political settlement is the only viable option. And while IGAD should be commended for attempting to revitalize the peace agreement, it is unlikely that this effort will succeed without strong support from the African Union, UN, U.S., and other key states. A U.S. foreign policy that views Africa almost entirely through a hard security and counterterrorism lens will not succeed, as diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and development are also necessary to achieve peace and stability. Whether the Trump administration will acknowledge this reality is an open question, but the lethargy it has shown for filling key African policy positions raises doubt.

Finally, while South Sudan may not seem like a national security priority for the United States, national security officials ignore this conflict at their peril. The Rwandan genocide not only produced unconscionable atrocities and suffering in that country, but also contributed to a broader continental war in neighboring Congo that ultimately included nine African governments and the death of 4 million people. The South Sudan crisis already shows unfortunate parallels to that conflict. In addition to the mass exodus of refugees, powerful regional states and U.S. allies like Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, as well as counterterrorism partner Sudan, risk being drawn into a military confrontation over this crisis. A broader regional war would not only have disastrous humanitarian consequences, but could also lead to key U.S. partners on African security and counterterrorism taking sides against one another. Further, such a scenario provides the space and opportunity for militant groups and transnational criminal organizations to take hold. To avoid these and other vexing security challenges in the future, the U.S. must prioritize ending South Sudan’s conflict now. This means filling key positions and using all diplomatic and political leverage to pressure the government and opposition to reengage in the peace process, while adhering to an immediate cessation of hostilities.

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