South Sudan is a nation in turmoil
Alongside the horrors of war around the anniversary in Ukraine, one remarkable African event stood out in early February: the ecumenical visit to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
Tens of thousands turned out to see the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of Scotland Moderator in an extraordinary joint mission to bring the message of peace to a land of conflict and poverty.
As a propaganda coup produced by the Vatican media team and Associated Press the visit could hardly have achieved better news coverage for Africa. But to the citizens of South Sudan it had a vitally important humanitarian objective, which through the ministry of the church was to raise the hopes of millions who have become the victims of civil war and hunger.
Instead of bringing wealth, the presence of oil has also been a cause of corruption and violent clashes
South Sudan is less than 12 years old, having separated from Sudan to become Africa’s 55th country, and the world’s youngest nation, on 9 July 2011. This followed 20 years of civil war and a referendum in which 98.83 per cent of those registered voted for independence.
The country has enormous economic potential, with one of the largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa. Oil is pumped to Port Sudan and brings revenue to North and South. But instead of bringing wealth, the presence of oil has also been a cause of corruption and violent clashes around the oilfields. Divisions and new boundary disputes between and within the two main ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, exacerbate the conflict.
All this makes South Sudan one of the world’s biggest disaster areas, named the most dangerous country for aid workers. The UN say that of a total population of 12 million, 74 per cent are in need of humanitarian assistance and 63 per cent are dependent on food aid. Four years of floods have doubled the number of people displaced to 2.2 million. One census showed 46 per cent of the population is under 15.
These figures paint a picture of utter destitution in areas of the South where local conflicts or violence have taken their toll. One common cause is climate change, with sudden floods and persistent drought leading to the forced migration of semi-nomadic families into settled areas.
“In a world scarred by divisions and conflicts,” the Pope said, “this country is hosting an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace…. an opportunity for South Sudan to resume sailing in calm waters, taking up dialogue, without duplicity and opportunism. May it be for everyone an occasion to revive hope.”
To the political leaders – including President Salva Kir and Vice-President Riek Machar – the Pope presented a historical image of the Gift of the Nile, whose waters now needed to be refreshed. “You, distinguished leaders, are the springs…that water the life of the community, the fathers and mothers of this young country. You are called to renew the life of society as pure sources of prosperity and peace.”
The church leaders also spoke out strongly against domestic violence against young women, rape and forced marriages – all further causes of ethnic conflict. To reinforce the point, about 60 Catholic women walked for nine days from Rumbek to St Theresa's Church in Juba to meet the Pope and to be welcomed by singers and dancers.
The APPG on the Sudans, chaired by Vicky Ford MP, have concluded that there was enough potential leadership in South Sudan if only the leaders would live up to their responsibilities, disarm the warlords, and govern. There was no shortage of international support or even of humanitarian aid. And there was a road map, strongly backed by neighbour states and the African Union.
But the process has to begin – or begin yet again – with civil society, including the active youth groups, the vibrant women’s groups, and the churches. Several of the bishops are already engaged in an active programme of reconciliation but they need constant encouragement from their counterparts around the world.
Earl of Sandwich, crossbench peer
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