WASHINGTON – South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit underestimates the possibility that the Trump administration could turn its back on the North African country’s civil war, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said Thursday while discussing a recent visit to the region.
The South Sudan conflict continued in July 2016 despite the country reaching a peaceful resolution only two years earlier. Nearly four million people have been displaced during the conflict, which has shown evidence of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Coons and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited the region in mid-April, stopping at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda. Bidi Bidi is the most populated refugee camp on earth with about 270,000 people, despite it being only about six months old.
Coons, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that when he sat down with Kiir the South Sudan leader denied that there is anything significant happening in his country, claiming that the conflict has been exaggerated through propaganda.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, with all due respect, I was in a refugee camp in Uganda, and saw thousands of people,’” Coons said. “’Women who had lost their husbands, or brothers or fathers, who had been raped, beaten. This is not the result of a few phone calls from men sitting in hotels in other countries. This is a deep conflict that is really affecting your whole country.’”
Coons warned that South Sudan is facing a potential cutoff in resources from the Trump administration, which has suggested dramatic cuts to humanitarian aid programs. Coons said it’s very likely that Trump is unaware of the gravity of the situation in South Sudan, and that the North African nation falls very low on America’s list of priorities. Kiir was in disbelief at the suggestion, according to Coons, who said the South Sudanese president assumes he will find “a best friend” in Trump. Kiir eventually admitted there is a critical situation in South Sudan, the senator said, but he continued arguing that it has been exaggerated.
Coons and Corker also met with Ambassador Mary Catherine Phee in South Sudan and Ambassador Deborah R. Malac in Uganda, who Coons said have their hands full with other issues in the region. He said relying on regional ambassadors to push Kiir, who he accused of using hunger as a weapon of war, will not result in a peace agreement. Coons recommended a new special envoy position to South Sudan.
“This strikes me as a region that calls for (an envoy),” Coons said, calling the conflict a humanitarian crisis that deserves repeated attention. “The benefit of a special envoy is the ability to convene regionally and to press. We need a stronger, clearer roll from the (African Union) and the UN.”
At least three humanitarian workers were killed in Wau, South Sudan, the day that Coons and Corker arrived. The UN has since reported that 82 aid workers have been killed over the course of the conflict. Coons said that Kiir’s actions are dissuading foreign powers from supplying greater humanitarian aid.
“Why should the U.S. try so hard to try to deliver humanitarian assistance through many partners and NGOs, when your government and your forces are blocking our access and using hunger as a weapon of war?” Coons asked.
Coons said the basic goal of his trip to Africa was to elevate the South Sudan civil war as an issue in Washington. He commended UN Ambassador Nikki Haley for recently calling attention to the ongoing crisis. Haley in late April denounced Kiir for fueling the South Sudan conflict and famine.
“The famine in South Sudan is manmade. It is the result of ongoing conflict in that country. It is the result of an apparent campaign against the civilian population,” Haley said during a UN Security Council briefing.
Coons noted that the U.S. is a compassionate country, but its leaders want to know that its dollars are being spent well and making a difference.
“I think that President Salva Kiir and the leaders of (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) and other opposition groups need to be on notice that the United States intends to be actively engaged and intends to press for a resolution to this conflict or our ongoing support and assistance is really at risk.”