Given that a large contingent of foreign aid workers and UN representatives has been on the scene in Sudan for a decade, why did no one foresee the current famine in southern Sudan, which is affecting more than a million people?

In fact, the number of people affected by food shortages is 2.6 million, but when you’re talking full-fledged famine, the number is about 1.2 million. There’s been a fair amount of finger-pointing within the relief community and the UN about why this was not foreseen. Some relief workers claim they saw warning signs of famine as far back as October 1997 and that anyone who has worked in Sudan could see this coming. I think that even UN organizations, who get most of the blame for not seeing this early enough, would say that it was clear in October of last year that by the middle of this year there would be a severe food shortage.

Famine is not a word that is thrown around lightly; there is a clear difference between a famine and a food shortage. Food shortages happen in southern Sudan every year at this time, and this is where the UN missed the boat in preparing for the crisis. They didn’t realize soon enough that a food shortage had crossed the line into famine. They would argue, however, that no one could foresee that the Sudanese government would cut off most aid flights to the famine area for two months.

The rejoinder to this claim is that of course we should have foreseen what Khartoum would do. For the last nine years of Operation Lifeline Sudan’s (OLS) [1] existence, the Sudanese government has seen fit to block aid annually. They use military excuses and they’re not too subtle about it. In effect, they have said “when relief efforts contradict our own military and political interests, we will stop relief aid.” They are simply doing what they always said they would do, and as we sit here in July with almost complete cooperation from the Sudanese government, we should be aware that they will inevitably find another reason to impede relief efforts. The Sudanese government regards most southerners as the enemy and sympathizers with the rebels.

Are any external pressures being brought to bear on the situation from the nine countries bordering Sudan? Is there any role for the Arab states?

First, from the UN perspective, and certainly from the US perspective, the Sudanese government is one of the most condemned governments on the face of the earth. A variety of resolutions criticizing or condemning Sudan for international terrorism or for its treatment of its own citizens have made no impact. There is a peace process, I should point out, the IGAD [2] peace process, through which neighboring states have taken the lead over the last few years in attempting to mediate an end to the conflict. It hasn’t gotten very far, but I would argue that it is still the best framework to pursue.

The best part of your question concerns the role of the Arab states. If anyone can influence the government in Khartoum, one would think it would be other front-line Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia or Egypt, although Egypt brings a lot of historical and political baggage to the table when it addresses Sudan. Certainly, the Arab states have not been as active diplomatically as they should have been, and there continue to be reports that many states, including Iran, funnel arms to Khartoum.

The government of Sudan has been very adroit over the years in playing different mediators against each other. IGAD, however, is in disarray, and if it doesn’t reorganize itself over the next year or so, then it might be time to move on to another mediating process. With Eritrea and Ethiopia, two of the main IGAD countries, now at war with each other, can IGAD present a united front as mediators with the government of Sudan? It will be a shame if they have lost the moral high ground of counseling peace to the combatants in Sudan. There is still the possibility of mediation from the governments of Uganda and Kenya.

Neighboring countries that have attempted to mediate have gradually come to see the government in Khartoum as the real regional problem. You usually look for a disinterested, neutral person or party as a mediator, and it’s difficult for the governments in Asmara, Addis, Kampala or even Nairobi to be neutral towards the government in Khartoum.

It appears that neither side in Sudan is interested in negotiating a peace. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels believe that they are on the military upswing, so they’re not interested in negotiating. Perhaps next year, when they are in a stronger position militarily, they can negotiate from strength. The regime in Khartoum seems intent on jihad.

What were the military and political events that led up to and exacerbated the current situation in southern Sudan?

The SPLA and the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) see that it is in their interest for the time being to join forces militarily and politically. Compared to 18 months ago, the NDA and the SPLA have put real pressure on the government. Some observers say that the government has unleashed some militias in the famine area around Bahr el-Ghazal in the south in retribution for the SPLA opening up the northeastern front with the NDA over the last two years. Khartoum now has to deal with two and possibly even three military fronts: the south, the Ethiopian border and the Eritrean border.

In response, the government has done what it can to thwart the rebels in the Bahr el-Ghazal region. Recently, Khartoum expelled all the relief workers who were working in Northeastern Sudan, where there had been thousands of people displaced (and it is important to note that more Sudanese are internally displaced from their homes than any population on earth). This is another example of Khartoum treating the international relief workers as the enemy.

An important trigger of the famine was the SPLA’s serious military challenge to the city of Wau in the heart of the south. The SPLA actually controlled part of Wau for a few hours, and the government has exacted retribution against local people in Wau since April. Approximately 150,000 people fled the city of Wau into the surrounding countryside, where there was already a serious food shortage. So, a military action tipped a serious food shortage over the line into a famine situation.

Even in the heart of the famine area, however, there are some people who manage to feed themselves. The southern Sudanese are presented as victims, but they are true survivors. If you were to go there, you would see people who may be thin, but many of them are getting by. A sizable percentage of the population, however, has no safety net. They have been displaced, their cattle have been stolen, their seeds have been destroyed. All their nutritional “legs” have been knocked out from underneath them. During a normal drought, when people realize they can’t depend on their crops, they resort to drinking more of their cattle’s milk. As a last resort they will kill their cattle for the meat, but they hate to do this, since they think of their cattle not as food, but as family members.

When I was in the south, I interviewed some people who had taken their cattle to swamp areas for pasturage and water, despite the risky political situation. Ten thousand head of their cattle were raided and 500 of their children were abducted by a southern militia supported by Khartoum. This is how the government fights its war against the rebels in the south: not by outright killing, but by incremental abuse. The strategy is to remove the community’s social support systems and coping mechanisms one by one. With the drought, the swamp areas are reduced, and so we have cows and different groups of people converging on smaller swamp areas. Debilitating cattle diseases spread quickly and tensions mount between people due to water scarcity, thus heightening military and political rivalries. These are the ingredients of the current famine. It’s not just due to the war, it’s also due to local tensions, slave raiding, drought and disease.

It takes a lot to destroy a society or a food system. Drought alone won’t do it. Maybe even a civil war won’t do it. Mix everything together and after a few years you have a famine. It doesn’t occur overnight and it won’t disappear overnight.

What do you advocate that the international community now do in response to the suffering in the Sudan?

The main message we’ve been conveying since returning from Sudan is the necessity for a heroic relief effort in the coming four months to keep people alive. The relief effort, however, has to be sustained. We know the harvest in October will be very poor. Very few people were able to plant, the rains were scant and many who had managed to plant were driven off their land.

We know that next spring will be phase two of the famine. It coincides with the hungry season there, which occurs every year at that time. It’s a disillusioning message. No matter how well we respond with food drops in the next four months, we can’t walk away and declare victory. Ultimately, the political dynamics that have caused this tragedy have to be addressed seriously. At present, though, this does not appear likely.


[1] Operation Lifeline Sudan is the UN relief program responsible for delivering food aid to communities in southern Sudan.
[2] The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional African body comprised of Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

How to cite this article:

Jeff Drumtra "The Political Roots of Famine in Southern Sudan," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).

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