South Sudan is in a State of Emergency, But Its President Doesn't Seem to Care

President Salva Kiir of South Sudan decided to dissolve his entire cabinet. The decision surprised even the country’s most seasoned observers. Officially, the sackings have been justified as a move to consolidate ministries in the effort to create a “lean and stronger cabinet.” But Riek Machar, the country’s former vice president who wants the top job, says the cabinet dump is another attempt to sideline political opponents. Machar was left out of the new cabinet.

Kiir would be well advised to focus less on the drama of his own political positioning, and more on the plight of his own people.

The humanitarian situation is particularly acute in the southern Jonglei state. Cyclical clashes between rival tribes, along with escalating armed conflict between the South Sudan Liberation Army and the David Yau Yau rebels, have triggered a massive population displacement. Doctors Without Borders estimates that 100,000 people are “in dire need of access to emergency medical care.”

The violent conflict extends beyond Jonglei state. Tensions remain high in the Abyei area, where tens of thousands of people are still displaced after Sudanese troops invaded in May 2011. Sudan and South Sudan contest sovereignty over this oil-rich region, and a referendum to determine Abyei’s future has been pushed back again to October. The dispute has spilled into the Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, where an estimated 20,000 people have been cut off from aid. In total, internal conflict has displaced over 350,000 people.     

The needs of refugees and returnees are pushing aid agencies to their limits. Fighting on the other side of the border between the Sudanese government and rebels has forced over 220,000 refugees into South Sudan. Refugee camps are overcrowded, underfunded, and difficult to access due to flooding.

Adding to the difficulties, almost 2 million South Sudanese have returned home since 2005, a shocking number in a country of fewer than 10 million. The International Rescue Committee reports that many returnees have come back to find their land occupied and are left stranded in inadequate transit camps. Aid agencies in South Sudan say they still need $485 million until the end of 2013 to help some three million people “survive and to rebuild their lives.” 

Food security is another issue. The World Food Program estimates that at least 4.1 million South Sudanese will be food insecure in 2013. Conflict and the influx of returnees have placed further pressure on food supplies.

South Sudan has some of the world’s worst health indicators. The country has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate: one in seven South Sudanese women die in pregnancy or childbirth, often due to preventable infection, hemorrhaging, or a general lack of access to health care facilities. South Sudan also hosts 98% of the world’s remaining Guinea worm cases. 

Malnourishment, access to safe water and sanitation, and care for the disabled are other major health challenges.

Finally, the government is facing mounting criticism for human rights abuses. In an open letter to the president, a group of “longtime friends of South Sudan” accuse Kiir of allowing human rights abuses reminiscent to those of Sudan. Prison conditions are squalid, the army detains and beats civilians arbitrarily, and security officials intimidate the press.

The challenges facing South Sudan are many and great. Kiir must rise above his own political jockeying, and address his country's challenges with urgency and resolve.