Norway in despair over South Sudan

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Just five years after Norwegian officials played a key role in creating the world’s newest nation of South Sudan, they’re in despair as the country sinks into more violence and possible civil war. Foreign Minister Børge Brende was demanding a halt to acts of war on Tuesday, and holding South Sudan’s two rival leaders responsible.

Foreign Minister Børge Brende has been the latest in a long line of Norwegian officials trying to help South Sudan, here with President Salva Kiir in 2014. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Astrid Sehl

Foreign Minister Børge Brende has been the latest in a long line of Norwegian officials trying to help South Sudan, here with its President Salva Kiir in 2014. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Astrid Sehl

Brende, speaking on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), described the recent rash of killings as “absolutely terrible” and a huge disappointment to all those who have worked hard and invested huge amounts of money in trying to build up the country that itself sprang from the ruins of another civil war in now-neighbouring Sudan.

“We are holding President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar responsible for the acts of war in South Sudan,” Brende said, referring to the battles that erupted just as the country was supposed to be celebrating its 5th anniversary of independence on July 9. “We demand a halt to all acts of war immediately, and that they (Kiir and Machar) do everything to prevent a new civil war.”

Brende said that Norway, as part of the troika with the US and Great Britain that nurtured South Sudan, has “close contact” with representatives for both Kiir and Machar. “It’s extremely important that the leaders take responsibility for stopping the fighting,” Brende told NRK. “They must lay down their arms and create stability and security for the population.”

Former aid minister Heikki Holmås meeting with South Sudan's vice president and former guerrilla leader Riek Machar, in July 2012. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Ragnhild H Simenstad

Here’s Norway’s former minister in charge of foreign aid, Heikki Holmås, meeting with South Sudan’s vice president and former guerrilla leader Riek Machar, in July 2012. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Ragnhild H Simenstad

Brende stated on his ministry’s own website that he welcomed Kiir’s and Machar’s joint request that the fighting stop, “but it’s also these two who are responsible for seeing to it that the peace agreement from August is carried out.”

Kiir and Machar have been caught up in a power struggle that exploded into more violence just two years after the country emerged after 22 years of civil war in Sudan. The former insurgents created the government in South Sudan but then started fighting amongst themselves, with Kiir firing Machar in 2013. They signed a peace treaty in August of last year, which included the reinstatement of Machar as vice president, but now that truce is in danger of falling apart.

“It seems that the leaders are beginning to lose control over their own forces,” Hilde Frafjord Johnson, the veteran Norwegian politician for the Christian Democrats party who was among those forging the creation of South Sudan and served as the UN’s special envoy. She ended up quitting in 2014, has since gone back to work for her politial party but also just released book entitled South-Sudan: The Untold Story from Independence to Civil War.

The violence and unrest in South Sudan is a huge disapointment and setback for Norway, which sent nearly a half-billion kroner (USD 60 million) in foreign aid to the country last year alone. Most of it, according to news bureau NTB, had to be spent on emergency care for desperate residents who now once again are streaming into refugee camps, fearing for their lives.

Norway also hosted a high-level conference in Oslo two years ago to raise more support for South Sudan. Now the country is on the verge of civil war again. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Espen Røst

Norway also hosted a high-level conference in Oslo two years ago to raise more support for South Sudan. Now the country is on the verge of civil war again. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Espen Røst

Critics claim the international community should have followed up the peace pact between Kiir and Machar, which Norway also helped put in place, much more closely over the past year. Pressure from outside South Sudan can help, Brende agrees, with the UN now imposing an immediate weapons embargo on the country and sending in more troops. Around 30,000 local residents reportedly have sought refuge on the UN’s base in South Sudan.

Johnson also agrees that the UN “should have done more in the peace negotiations to reconcile the leaders in South Sudan.” Now UN peace-keeping forces are among those being killed and wounded in the fighting that has left an estimated 300 dead in the past week.

Maren Sæbø, a Norwegian journalist who has specialized in covering Africa and was in South Sudan’s capital of Juba this week, told newspaper Dagsavisen that the fighting was ongoing. She had traveled back to South Sudan last week to cover what were supposed to have been five-year anniversary celebrations over the weekend. They were cancelled.

“There’s no doubt a new war has broken out between the two sides,” Sæbø told Dagsavisen from Juba, where curfews are in place and the airport closed. “Most people don’t dare go out, they’re scared.” She said most fear they’ll now be left to themselves while international organizations are evacuated.

Johnson, who ultimately failed in her own attempts to build up a peaceful South Sudan, told news bureau NTB that a third-party now must find a solution to the conflicts.  “The most important thing now is for the two leaders to reconcile, and their soldiers must see signals about that,” Johnson said. “Job number one is to gain control over the situation in Juba.”

Brende said Norway would continue its “long-term engagement for peace and development in South Sudan.” He said Norway’s support now “goes mostly towards implementation of the peace treaty and attempts to address the enormous humanitarian needs.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund