South Sudan's Next Humanitarian Crisis

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Fighting along the border is displacing tens of thousands of civilians.

Sudan Feb2 p.jpg

Sacks of food are unloaded from a UN helicopter in Pibor / Reuters

United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) deputy executive director Ramiro Lopes da Silva announced yesterday that his agency will assist eighty thousand people in South Sudan's Jonglei state, who are victims of escalating ethnic conflict between the Lou Nuer and the Murle. He also warned that the conflict in the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, in Sudan, could lead to the flight of half a million people to South Sudan if Khartoum continues to deny access to the area by humanitarian agencies.

The two crises are separate. Conflict between the Lou Nuer and the Murle predates the Sudanese civil war and the independence of South Sudan. Over the years, as now, it involves cattle theft, kidnapping, and revenge. There is evidence that neither group surrendered all of their weapons to the Sudanese People's Liberation Army when South Sudan became independent, as they were required to do. Though the fighting and resulting internally displaced population appears to be confined to South Sudan, the two peoples also live in adjacent countries, and there must be concern that it could spread.

By contrast, the conflict in Blue Nile and South Kordofan is directly related to Sudan's division last year into two states. The boundary between Sudan and South Sudan is not fully demarcated and border territories are disputed by various groups with links to Juba and Khartoum. Establishing the frontier between the two states is one of the serious, unresolved issues left over from what was hardly a velvet divorce. Khartoum and Juba accuse each other of supporting rebel groups and militias in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Khartoum continues to deny access by humanitarian agencies to large areas ostensibly because it fears that food aid will reach the pro-Juba rebels.

Large numbers of people need assistance. In addition to the eighty thousand displaced because of Lou Nuer and Murle fighting, Lopes da Silva said that during the past week, a thousand people crossed the border into South Sudan. He observed that this number was comparable to the rate of people fleeing Somalia into Kenya during last year's famine in the Horn of Africa.

The international community should take Lopes da Silva's warnings as a wake-up call and start to prepare for what could be a major humanitarian operation that will likely require additional resources for UNWFP and other humanitarian agencies.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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John Campbell, a former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, is a Senior Fellow for Africa policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Pretoria during the end of apartheid. He blogs at Africa in Transition.

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