Will violent rivalry tip South Sudan toward famine?

The slaughter of hundreds of civilians is just the latest act of reprisal violence in South Sudan that began as a rivalry between two politicians of different ethnic groups. Judy Woodruff takes a closer look at the root of the crisis, tensions over natural resources and the urgency of humanitarian aid and regional diplomacy with Nancy Lindborg of USAID and Khalid Medani of McGill University.

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    And we take a closer look at this continuing crisis with Nancy Lindborg. She's the assistant administrator for humanitarian assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development. She was recently in South Sudan. And Khalid Medani, he's an associate professor of political science with a focus on Africa at McGill University. And he is originally from Sudan.

    We welcome you both.

    Nancy Lindborg, what is the latest on the situation there?


    Well, as you have just seen, this is an absolutely horrifying attack.

    And it is part of what we are seeing as an escalating series of killings that began last November. And it's becoming a cycle of reprisals. It is targeting what we just saw, women and children, which is — that's a war crime. The United States is supporting the U.N. commission of inquiry and we're actively looking to identify individuals who might be charged under the recent sanctions.


    What is at stake here? Are the aid agencies like USAID, where you are, are they able to keep people safe?


    There is a giant mobilization of humanitarian assistance under way in South Sudan, both to try to reach those people who have rushed to the U.N. compounds for safety.

    There is also a huge number of people who are hard to reach in a country that has very few roads and is even in the best of times teetering on food insecurity. Our concern is that if we are not able to get assistance to people in the compounds, as well as in the hard-to-reach parts of South Sudan, that this country will tip over into famine and disease, as people are crowded into these compounds with very little ability to have clean water and sanitation.


    Professor Medani, help us understand the origin of this. We heard the country's foreign minister say that the former vice president, Riek Machar, is behind this. Is that the case?

  • KHALID MEDANI, McGill University:

    I think that it is the case that his militia, which is organized around his Nuer ethnic group, is definitely behind it, despite claims to the contrary.

    But I think that that is clearly evident with respect to the roots of the conflict that began on December 15. It is essentially a political rivalry between Riek Machar and the president, Salva Kiir, who is Dinka. So the origins and unfortunately the violence begins as early as December 15, at least in this latest stage.

    And actually the Dinkas in Juba were the ones who initiated a lot of the violence against the Nuer in the capital. And, of course, it quickly expanded from the capital into the northern areas, in two primary states, Unity, where Bentiu is, and also in Malakal, which is a town in Upper Nile state.

    So the fact is that as bad as this particular massacre is, there has been violence on both sides. And at the root of the conflict, of course, is this political rivalry between these two political leaders that are linked to these different ethnic groups.


    And how much — so how much of this is political rivalry, as you are describing it, and how much of it is ethnic between these two different groups?


    Well, I would say that it is — of course, the consequences have been, as we see, have to do with interethnic conflict of a very violent variety.

    But at the very root, I think that the real crux of the problem is political. I mean, initially Salva Kiir dismissed Vice President Riek Machar, accusing him of trying engineer a military coup against him. And of course Riek Machar, who is the head of the Nuer militia, denied that and quickly took up arms against him.

    So the political rivalry is very, very important. And also it's very important to highlight that the great kind of levels of violence that we're seeing or witnessing are essentially centered around the two main oil-producing states. Bentiu of course is the oil hub of Unity state, where a lot of the oil is exported.

    And also we have — after this massacre, there was yet another one in — a smaller one in Bor, which is in Jonglei state, also. So what we see is that a lot of the violence is centered around the struggle over resources and oil on the part of both the opposition, the guerrillas and rebels, but also, of course, on the part of the government that is trying to retain these very oil-rich areas.


    Nancy Lindborg, from the perspective of the United States and other countries who are trying to calm things down from the outside, is there a concern that this could spiral out of control and become — even though the professor said it's not purely an ethnic fight, clearly, that's an element here — that this could become another version of Rwanda, where you had ethnic killing on a massive scale?


    Well, we're — we're clearly horrified at the massacres that have just occurred.

    And the hope and the concern is that you have leaders right now who are choosing their own political power struggle over their people. They have the opportunity to pull that back. There are peace talks going on. We have just deployed our special envoy to Ethiopia to try to see if the peace talk process can bring these leaders back from the brink.

    I was in Bor, the U.N. compound that had killings last week, when I was there just a few weeks ago. I met with a woman named Mary who had a two-day old baby, along with her five other children. She's been on this compound since the violence in mid-December. We are looking at some of these places that will be underwater when the rains come. And if we are not able to reach the hard-to-reach areas through better access that is now you being blocked by both sides, we are looking at famine. These leaders need to care about their people.


    Professor Medani, we reported earlier that — and we have just referred to it again — the talks have broken down. What needs to happen for the two sides to come together, reach some kind of an agreement?


    Well, unfortunately, as you could probably surmise from the actions of both on the part of the government and the rebels, is that they are trying essentially to establish facts on the ground.

    Rebel leader Riek Machar has actually formally announced that his strategy is to try to take control of the oil-producing areas. So what they're trying to do, of course, is to establish facts on the ground so they can have the upper hand in negotiation. This is one of the reasons that this conflict has spiralled out of control and wreaked so much havoc against the civilian population.

    But I think in terms of your question, what is important is to have a much more vigorous kind of political, you know, settlement. And that requires really encouraging regional countries, Uganda, Kenya, and even Sudan up north, and of course the African Union, to energize this political process. So…


    And is that happening now?


    It's not happening now, unfortunately.

    There is — of course, the U.S. administration has talked about the possibility of sanctions with respect to particular individuals. But right now, we have Ugandan troops in — on the ground, in South Sudan, on the side of the president, Salva Kiir, and so it is very difficult for them to play honest broker, so to speak.

    So what we need is, I think, a much more energetic, regional effort that includes the African Union, but also these major players in the region who can really put pressure on these rebel groups, because in many ways they're supporting them directly or indirectly. And that is I think what is very, very important and needs to happen for these peace negotiations to stick.


    Professor Khalid Medani and Nancy Lindborg, we thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    You're welcome.

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