Blog / 15 Dec 2014

South Sudan’s raging conflict: Britain must view the crisis with a wider lens

One year of conflict, 1.9 million people displaced, thousands dead, and £149 million in UK humanitarian aid spent. These are the numbers that will dominate the coverage of South Sudan in the coming days.

But if the British government wants to turn that £149 million into long term recovery, it must look at the last year with a wider lens. Because even these starkest of statistics do not do justice to the damage wrought by the last 12 months. This was also a time of questionable oil deals, side-lined parliamentarians, intimidated journalists and $1 billion in industry-backed loans.

While the UK government is rightly focussed on servicing urgent humanitarian needs today, these setbacks pose a deep threat to development and prosperity for the next generations of South Sudanese. This “distraction effect” is not new: while humanitarian aid poured into Angola in the nineties, the country’s oil wealth was sold, loaned and leased, enriching a tiny elite and leaving everyone else in the dust. Many remain there today.

South Sudanese soldier

Britain, as one of South Sudan’s biggest donors, must act now rather than awaiting the signature of an elusive peace deal. The UK government must call on South Sudan’s presidency to withhold from signing multi-million pound extractive deals in this time of crisis. Britain must work more closely with civil society to ensure the freedom of South Sudan’s press.  And Britain must provide support to South Sudan’s elected parliament, so that it can act as a representative of the will of the South Sudanese people.

The reasons why are clear. In an already deeply divided nation, the entrenchment of high-level corruption, and those who perpetrate it, will provide kindling for future sparks of conflict. And the risk of corruption, while no one is looking, is indeed on the rise in South Sudan. Last week, the country made an appearance on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, clocking in at 171 of 175. Perhaps one of the reasons South Sudan’s citizens are finding it hard to trust in their government is that management of the oil industry, the country’s only source of wealth, is being quietly hidden away.

In October, Global Witness reported on the government’s negotiations with Spanish-based oil company Star Petroleum. The company seems to be on the cusp of signing a contract for a huge oil concession – 45,000 square kilometres – in the cash-strapped state, yet citizens know next to nothing about it. While both the government and the company refuted our concerns about the deal, neither has made significant moves to demonstrate to citizens that it is in their best interest or to make the details of the deal publicly available.

This comes at a time when the government is borrowing $1 billion dollars from oil companies. That’s almost one third of the total budget being bankrolled by the petroleum industry. Despite obvious risks with this arrangement, the terms of those loans remain in the shadows.

As transparency wanes, those who question the government are side-lined and silenced.  Journalists have been the subject of threats and intimidation: told what they can report on and how, arrested, questioned and seen entire runs of their papers confiscated. MPs face similar intimidation tactics and critical decisions are being made without their consent. The National Security Bill, giving an already overzealous security service sweeping powers of arrest and detention, was put to the vote in October. Despite 224 of 309 MPs boycotting the vote, the bill it was declared passed, sparking heavy criticism from the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Without the checks provided by a free press and parliament, corruption is free to thrive while donors are distracted. Corruption keeps people poor, it provides the grievance necessary to pick up a gun, and it suffocates economic growth – depriving people of the opportunity to do anything other than fight to survive.

Three years ago, President Salva Kiir’s inaugural address proclaimed: “Our people want peace, for without peace there shall neither be good governance nor development.” International donors could do with reminding themselves of those words now. Kiir neatly makes the point that many seem to be missing – that war has not only sparked a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, but a rapid shrinking of political space, and a rapid growth of corruption risk.

There are critical points at which donors must say enough is enough; business as usual is not for today. Now, one year into a brutal conflict, is such a point. The British government must call for a halt to the oil deals, and stand up both for the rights of a free press and an unimpeded Parliament. Our message is this: Do not let today’s crisis in South Sudan undermine its future.