Hilde Frafjord Johnson, a former Norwegian politician, was all smiles three years ago when South Sudan declared its independence in the summer of 2011. Now, three years later, the smiles are long gone and the UN’s leader of peacekeeping efforts is calling it quits as the country continues to decline into violent conflict and famine.
“It makes me sad that it can’t be stopped,” Johnson told newspaper Dagsavisen this week. “It makes me sad that the country’s leaders collectively have let everyone down. That makes me also angry.”
Johnson, who once was Norway’s government minister in charge of foreign aid for the Christian Democrats before moving on to the UN, insists she’s not leaving her post because of criticism leveled against the UN operation and her personally. “Absolutely not, I have said publicly here (in South Sudan) that if the negative campaign against the UN and the leadership had continued and the war had continue to escalate, I’d stay,” Johnson said. “A captain doesn’t leave the ship when the storm is raging. I’ve been very clear that the UN won’t let itself be pressured in any way, nor will I. So no, I’m not leaving under pressure.”
Instead, Johnson said, the “negative campaign” has abated, the conflict level has declined and “cooperation is back on a better track.” The new mandate for the UN’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) involves what Johnson calls a “restructuring of the whole operation.” That means, in her opinion, “a new mandate, and a new chief.” She planned to leave when her contract ran out and now it’s simply time to go.
Norway, and Johnson herself, was heavily involved in the process that led to the end of years of civil war in Sudan that cost at least 2 million lives. The peace pact that was agreed in 2005 called for a referendum on independence for South Sudan, in which 99 percent of the population in the south vote in favour. The country became the world’s newest on July 9, 2011, the UN committed to the peacekeeping operation and Johnson was named to run it.
It didn’t take long for new conflicts to break out between Sudan and South Sudan and among the nearly 9 million people living in South Sudan who are split among several different ethnic groups. The two men leading South Sudan started quarreling, too, with President Salva Kiir firing vice president Riek Machar after a long power struggle. They mobilized their respective ethnic groups, which in turn led to horrific violence that’s left thousands dead and an estimated 1.5 million forced from their homes. A ceasefire was finally hammered out and an August 10 deadline looms for a new transitional government to be formed.
Less than two months after Norway hosted a major pledging conference for South Sudan, Johnson remains deeply worried, claiming that the timeframe “is very short” to save the country from imploding. “There’s danger of a massive famine and that war can break out again,” she said. EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva also warns of more political chaos and an enormous humanitarian catastrophe, conceding that the world’s expectations for South Sudan were way too high. “We wanted so badly for things to go well for the people of South Sudan,” she told Dagsavisen. “In fact, we were hoping that the ethnic conflicts that had developed over several hundred years would disappear in the space of a few years.” That proved unrealistic.
Johnson admits that “three years being caught in a constant storm” has taken its toll. “It’s been constant crisis management, the whole time,” Johnson told Dagsavisen. “Right now I like to think it’s good that I fulfilled my three years, and stood in the storm for the duration. It’s actually fine to turn over the helm to someone else.”