Why I’m Launching a Hunger Strike for South Sudan
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President
May 17, 2015(Nyamilepeda) — South Sudan only exists as an independent country today thanks to the United States of America. Being a native South Sudanese man and a U.S. citizen, I should feel nothing but pride over my new country’s role in midwifing the birth of South Sudan—indeed, as an activist, I helped push the U.S. government to play a more active role in the region—but instead today I feel only shame, embarrassment, and sorrow.
Following the senseless renewal of civil war since independence, approximately 70,000 South Sudanese are dead, 2 million are displaced or refugees and, according to the United Nations, some 4 million are on the verge of starvation. One million have fled to Northern Sudan and another 110,000 thousand are under United Nations protection in South Sudan.
On a short list that includes Nepal, Yemen, Syria & northern Iraq, South Sudan is among the most urgent humanitarian crises in the world today—and sadly there appears no end in sight. While the attention of the world is focused elsewhere, the violence in South Sudan is only escalating.
It is true that other nations (and the United Nations) were valuable players in creating this new nation, but it was the pivotal role of America during President George W. Bush’s administration that made an independent South Sudan a reality. In the words of current Secretary of State John Kerry, the US helped to “midwife the birth of this new nation.”
Yet in the intervening years, it is as if South Sudan was an infant left to fend for itself. While we were present and active for the whole process leading up to the birth, afterwards we turned away, washed our hands, and moved on.
It is beyond time for the U.S. to step up, take charge, and protect this precious baby we brought into the world. No other country can play this role.
When 98.8 percent of South Sudanese voted for independence in the 2011 referendum, they believed that their new leaders—many of whom, including President Salva Kiir Mayardit, had once earned respect fighting in the two-decade civil war with the north—would finally bring peace and stability. They trusted their new government would deliver clean drinking water, roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, security, and the all-important tools of civil society and democratic governance.
The collective vision was to move forward into the modern world together.
Today, Southern Sudanese no longer even see themselves as one country. The nation’s major tribes no longer believe that they can live together in peace, unity, and harmony. Those not already fighting are arming themselves and preparing for war.
At its roots, this war resulted from an intra-party dispute between President Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. Unable to solve their problems with words, they turned to violence, and began the vicious cycle of attack and counter-attack, spiraling the country into an abyss of chaos.
It began with members of the presidential guard fighting among themselves in Juba, the capital. Soon some 2,000 Nuer people (Machar’s tribe) were slaughtered in house-to-house ethnic cleansing by the Dinka (the president’s tribe).
Wholesale ethnic violence has spilled far beyond Juba, and there have been atrocities and grave human rights violations on both sides. For example, my family, who live far from the capital in Upper Nile State, are part of the Chollo or Shilluk people. We are neither Dinka nor Nuer, and had nothing to do with the political conflict in Juba. Yet within the past few months, the Chollo population has been decimated in targeted ethnic violence. People, allegedly from Nuer, have razed the capital Malakal and villages throughout the region to the ground. It is no exaggeration to say genocide is already taking place.
My 9-year-old niece and my great aunt, the eldest member of my family, along with five other family members, were brutally murdered a few months ago. When a few survivors returned to the villages, they found human remains rotting in the streets—bones picked clean by dogs and birds. UN observers said they had never seen anything like it.
How did we get to such a terrible place? How could we have fallen so far from the jubilation of independence? And what can be done to save South Sudan?
In short, the lack of U.S. leadership is in part to blame, and renewed U.S. leadership is the only solution.
Following independence, the U.S. took a decidedly hands-off approach to South Sudan. Obama Administration officials, when pressed, argued that we were doing our part by sending aid money. In fact, we provided millions of American dollars to build hospitals, schools and infrastructure, but untold millions of that money were lost through mismanagement and a staggering degree of corruption.
How could we have expected anything less? These rulers—I can no longer bring myself to call them leaders—had been at war for decades; many had never worked a normal job in their life. All they know is fighting. How can we expect them to do the right thing right away?
In early May 2014, Secretary Kerry finally stepped in and brought both the president and the former vice president to the bargaining table in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Mr. Kerry’s involvement added a great deal of pressure to the two parties to sign an agreement to stop the hostilities. But it was violated within 24 hours—and with few repercussions.
Kiir and Machar caused this catastrophe. They can either end it, or get out of the way. In my opinion, Secretary Kerry—or you yourself, Mr. President—must bring them back to the bargaining table and say, “This nation shall not perish because of you, Mr. Kiir, or you, Mr. Machar. You walked away and violated your agreement. For the sake of your people and the nation that you fought for, you must now return to the table. We Americans, the UN, the European Union, and the African Union insist. You have no viable alternative.”
Kiir and Machar and other leaders of the Sudan People Liberation Movement (the country’s one ruling party), must be brought together and told in no uncertain terms that they must end the war or face dire personal consequences. They must be reminded about the International Criminal Court, and told with all seriousness that South Sudan’s sovereignty may be temporarily ignored, and that the architects of war are at risk of being forcibly taken to the The Hague for trial—or worse. National sovereignty is abrogated by genocidal policies.
We must make threats to impose harsher sanctions—including on South Sudanese oil exports—and be unafraid to follow through on them. We need a serious arms embargo, and there must be negative consequences for countries that insist on playing a nefarious role in South Sudan’s tragedy (such as Uganda). We need real leadership from the United States.
Mr. President, you are the only person in a position to stop the carnage. Before your planned trip to Africa in June, you must speak to South Sudan’s rulers with force and conviction.
With or without Kiir and Machar’s participation, we must help South Sudan to create an interim government in which all stakeholders are represented, the rule of law is instituted, and human rights are respected. Without a doubt, there are capable leaders within SPLM party and throughout South Sudan who can restore trust and confidence and begin building the nation. These people must be identified, emboldened, and supported over the long term.
Another critically important step will be to appoint an American envoy to counsel the new government, help monitor how aid funds are being allocated, and report directly to you. It must be someone credible and well-respected, who already knows the problems—not someone who needs to learn on the job. I propose someone like former Senator John Danforth, who had a central role in negotiating the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which led directly to South Sudan’s independence. Or perhaps former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright or Colin Powell. A high-level envoy directly accountable to the President will show the seriousness of our commitment.
We also must help to implement the very difficult work of reconciliation, following tried and true methods such as those of South Africa or Rwanda. There must be a tidal wave of forgiveness reaching to the villages, to the people who have been so terribly hurt by the disaster brought upon them by those in Juba. Institutions must be built from the ground up based on the idea that no tribe is better than another, no religion is better than another, and everyone is equal before the law.
Only the sustained commitment from the world’s only democratic superpower can achieve the results so desperately needed.
I call on you today to prove your commitment to the people of South Sudan. You alone can force a peaceful end to this insanity. It will not require “US boots on the ground,” but it will require consistent engagement, seriousness of purpose, and a willingness to both make threats and follow through on them. In short, it will require your leadership.
That is why I intend to put my life on the line to petition you to act in order to save the lives of untold multitudes of Africans and their country, the world’s newest nation, South Sudan.
Mr. President, starting on May 15th, 2015, I will be starving myself outside the White House until the U.S. makes perfectly clear that the war in South Sudan is unacceptable—and we will not stand for it.
We brought freedom to South Sudan. It is our baby. We cannot allow it the freedom to fail.
Former Sudanese Slave and Human Rights Activist
+1 (917) 698-5440