Heightened Human Security Concerns in South Sudan May Lay the Foundations of Great Power Competition in North Africa

Heightened Human Security Concerns in South Sudan May Lay the Foundations of Great Power Competition in North Africa

A South Sudanese famine, exacerbated by recent large-scale flooding, is threatening to deal a shattering blow to the world’s youngest state. Wracked by domestic instability and with a government refusing to acknowledge the danger faced by its people, the potential for a humanitarian disaster is enormous. Now is the chance for the UN and the West to reaffirm its commitment to stability in North Africa. 

South Sudan: The Uphill Battle

South Sudan, being an extremely new state, does not have the infrastructure to protect its people from the extremes of war, displacement, and food insecurity. The civil war which broke out in 2013 has resulted in the deaths of approximately 400,000 citizens. Now, the people of South Sudan are struggling through a famine, massive displacement, flooding, and a government unwilling to acknowledge the scale of the crisis, let alone combat it effectively. 

Despite the efforts of international aid groups and the UN, the food security crisis is rapidly worsening. The Integrated Food Safety Phase Classification Review Committee’s recent Acute Food Security analysis found that a large portion of the population of Pibor County is in IPC Phase 5, otherwise known as ‘Famine Likely’ or ‘Catastrophe’ . Unfortunately, food scarcity is far from the only problem currently facing the individuals in this region of South Sudan. 

Covid-19 is also having an impact on the area. While deaths from the virus are relatively low, the travel restrictions in place make it even more challenging than usual to deliver measles and malaria vaccinations, potentially pushing the death rate of children under 5 beyond the IPC Phase 5 threshold. A missed harvest, low levels of livestock ownership and quality, and extremely poor availability of food and supplies at ‘market-level’ make it almost impossible to maintain the bare minimum of food required to survive. Flooding has also severely increased food security concerns and is now displacing more than 60,000 people, putting further strain on the people and infrastructure of the region. 

The Response of President Kiir’s Government

The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is threatening to destabilise the state itself. President Salva Kiir’s administration has consistently downplayed the severity of the food security issues, claiming that as little as 11,000 civilians are facing starvation. This figure is approximately a tenth of the amount estimated by food security experts (IPC suggests 105,000). 

By denying the crisis and refusing to endorse the findings of external investigations such as those conducted by the IPC, the South Sudanese government is being actively obstructive. National Bureau of Statistics chairman, Isaiah Aruai, argued that a publication of findings collected from international investigation would be a “violation of [national] sovereignty”. The relationship between the government and the United Nations is weakening as the crisis progresses, making future aid work increasingly difficult and compounding the problems already facing the South Sudanese population. 

The Future of a State in Crisis

It is entirely possible that the turmoil in South Sudan will make it an inviting prospect for powerful states keen on gaining a foothold in the region. China’s history of bribery and corruption in African states is well-documented . Patrick Ho, former Hong Kong secretary for home affairs, was convicted of international bribery after his corruption on behalf of the China Energy Company Limited in Chad and Uganda was discovered in 2018. One year prior, the ‘Dance of the Lions and Dragons’ report by consultancy firm McKinsey claimed that between 67% and 80% of Chinese companies had illegally obtained a license for business transactions through bribery in Africa. This statistic demonstrates the methods widely employed by Chinese business on the continent. 

As the situation worsens beyond all expectations, the UK Government’s recent decision to cut aid to South Sudan from £110 to £45 million is guaranteed to worsen the position of the population. Largely neglected by their own government and on the brink of enormous famine, they are relying on the assistance of any state in a position to help.

While the growing instability within South Sudan suggests imminent collapse, it is more likely that the state and its government will become increasingly reliant on external benefactors, such as the UN, US, UK, and China. Operation Trenton, the UK’s contribution to the UN Mission to South Sudan, provided vital infrastructure support in the region, including the construction of 2 hospitals. As the food security situation in the region teeters on a knife edge, these efforts will require redoubling rather than downsizing, if the West is to prevent South Sudan turning to China for relief. 

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative has shocked many in the West due to its unprecedented scale and ruthless execution. African governments are at particular risk of being coerced or bribed by China in order to allow Chinese companies to expand their operations in the region. The BRI is already one of the most significant challenges to Western economic hegemony, and the more entrenched vulnerable states become in the project (by taking on enormous debts to China in exchange for infrastructure, aid, or military equipment), the more difficult it will be for the United States and its allies to combat the rise of China. 

The recent global pandemic has also provided an opportunity for the expansion of Chinese ‘soft power’ within international institutions, such as the United Nations (where it is now the second-largest provider of ‘assessed contributions’, after the United States) . As Western states struggled to mitigate the effects of Covid-19, China has been able to maintain a relatively steady economic growth and has taken on a larger role in the international system in general. It is now being reported that more states are turning to China for supplies of vaccines, for example . 

All of this means that South Sudan is a likely candidate for receiving Chinese aid and falling under its influence. While international aid has been effective in South Sudan, in the form of Operation Trenton and others, if the aid stops the South Sudanese people and government will look elsewhere for support. The question is, from where will the South Sudanese people receive the aid they so desperately need: West or East?


Categories: Africa, Covid-19, Politics

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