A week after South Sudan president Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar agreed to set up a transitional government, hailed as a breakthrough in resolving the country’s six-month-old civil war, negotiations were put on hold after Kiir accused a leading mediator of calling him and his rival “stupid.” With a chronic shortage of aid coming from the international community, the fact that peace talks are breaking down over petty insults could spell disaster for the more than one million South Sudanese driven from their homes by the bloody conflict.
On Tuesday, the government of South Sudan sent an angry letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who is also chairman of the regional organization brokering the peace talks, demanding that he take action against the group’s executive secretary for telling the press that both Kiir and Machar were “stupid” for thinking they can win the months-old civil war by continuing to fight. Both government forces, led by Kiir, and the rebels, led by Machar, have proven unwilling to abandon a military approach in favor of peaceful negotiations, repeatedly violating the ceasefire established last month. The opposition also decided to halt the talks on Tuesday, claiming they lacked fair representation. “So many voices are not represented here,” said opposition leader Mar Nyuot.
The new stalemate comes just a week after Kiir and Machar set up a timetable for creating a transitional government within the next 60 days, which the Wall Street Journal praised as an “apparent breakthrough.” While ceasefires have been declared and broken twice already in the past year, the agreement’s concrete plan for setting up a new government did seem to be a step in the right direction.
Kiir and Machar pledged to end hostilities for the next two months and allow humanitarian aid to reach the one million internally displaced by the war, or risk punitive sanctions from increasingly irritated neighbors. However, even as the talks were occurring last week, the United Nations mission to South Sudan reported heavy shelling in the contested oil hub of Malakal. Now that the talks have been delayed, there is even less of a guarantee that the leaders will make good on their promises.
South Sudan’s civil war erupted in December when soldiers loyal to Machar, who Kiir dismissed along with many other government officials the summer before, refused to surrender their arms. President Kiir accused the opposition of orchestrating a coup while Machar accused Kiir of simply making a power grab. In the months since, clashes between South Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army and Machar’s rebels have spread across the country and fueled violence between Sudan’s two main ethnic groups: the Dinka, represented by Kiir, and the Neur, represented by Machar.
The relatively short conflict has frequently seen civilians caught in the crossfire. Over 10,000 have already died and 1.3 million have been displaced. More than 77,000 are living in four massive, overcrowded refugee camps within the country administered by the U.N. As the rainy season approaches, human rights advocates are worried floods and storms will make conditions in the camps go from bad to worse by increasing the risk of epidemics. Already South Sudan has reported an outbreak of cholera in the capitol city of Juba.
Even more pressing is the threat of widespread starvation. On Saturday, U.N. aid chief for South Sudan Toby Lanzer warned that 50,000 children in South Sudan could die of starvation in the coming months. While the international community has offered a total of $740 million in aid since the start of the conflict, Lanzer insists that this is $1 billion short of what South Sudan needs to avoid catastrophe. While the World Food Program (WFP) continues to airlift food to feed tens of thousands in South Sudan, they recently raised the figure of severely food insecure people in the country to 1.3 million. “The situation is worrying and concerning, but it could be avoided if we had access,” said WFP Elizabeth Byrs, explaining that fighting has destroyed roads and ongoing conflict blocks certain areas desperately in need of food aid. The threat of imminent starvation makes delays to the peace talks all the more dangerous.
“The UN has only reached 7 percent of the over 5.6 million that it estimates have been affected by violence and need protection,” Enough Project analyst Akshaya Kumar explained to ThinkProgress. “While politicians in Addis quibble, civilians on South Sudan’s front lines are living under the looming specter of famine and ethnically charged killings.”
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.