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Obama's Africa legacy may be judged by what happens in South Sudan

President Obama at a Ministerial Meeting on Sudan on September 24, 2010. Photo: U.S. State Department.The Economist's Matthew Bishop described this as 'an incredibly important week' for Africa. The biggest ever summit between the US president and African leaders concluded on Wednesday (August 6, 2014) in Washington DC. During the summit, President Barack Obama announced $33 billion in new investment and trade with Africa.

President George W Bush significantly grew aid to Africa relative to his predecessors, though sometimes controversially, particularly in relation to AIDS prevention. The Obama administration has continued to provide significant funds to tackle global health issues, including new health funding announced Monday (August 4).

However, there have been distinctive policies under the current administration. For example, there appears to have been a significant shift towards focusing on trade and direct investment with Africa, mirroring the shifts that have occurred in government policy in several other countries, such as Ireland and the UK. This week's US-Africa summit is important as a symbolic statement as it is practically. It recognises the continent's emerging economic power and potential over the last 15 years. The summit may be seen as an important part of the Obama administration's Africa legacy, as will its handling of the Arab Spring.

The US has also been heavily involved in the process which led to independence for South Sudan.

Sudan had been wracked by civil war from 1983 until a peace deal in 2005 between north and south. It was seen as a success of the then George W Bush-led US administration. (Unfortunately, fear of that peace process unravelling may have led to the parallel Sudanese conflict in Darfur being 'downplayed and ignored' initially.)

One of the outcomes of the 2005 peace deal was an agreement to hold a referendum on independence for South Sudan in 2011. The referendum took place relatively peacefully and the South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly to secede. That was seen by many as a major achievement for President Obama.

The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl wrote of the birth of the new nation: 'For this considerable breakthrough, substantial credit should go to the Obama administration — which has demonstrated what can be achieved when U.S. power and influence are fully engaged under the president’s direction. In Sudan, as nowhere else in the Middle East, President Obama has chosen to lead from the front.'

However, World and Media reported at the time that even if all went well South Sudan might 'need ongoing international attention and assistance for many years to come.' Many analysts warned that work was still needed to ensure a peaceful divorce with many key issues remaining to be negotiated.

As feared, the new state has not fared well since it became formally independent in July 2011. One year on from independence, and renewed conflict between north and south had created over 100,000 refugees. Eight children were dying every day in Jamam refugee camp. It was also noted that bombing had destroyed agriculture in border regions, increasing the risk of future famine. The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) warned then that emergency assistance to save lives and livelihoods was required.

Things have deteriorated since within the new country, with civil conflict breaking out in December 2013 along ethnic lines. John Prendergast, a founder of the anti-genocide Enough Project, blames the Obama administration for leaving vacant the job of US envoy to South Sudan until late 2013, by which time 'the two competing groups within the ruling party were on a high-speed collision course.' Despite peace efforts, the US seems unable to pull the country back from the brink of civil war. On a trip to the country last May, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the violence could become genocide. The acting director of the Centre for Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Cameron Hudson, welcomed Kerry's involvement but said “It is a shame he didn’t engage in this way earlier in the conflict, given the well- understood likelihood that this kind of security crisis could have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.”

We have been consistently reporting escalating food crisis warnings from FEWS NET in our media diary since December 2, 2013. At that time, FEWS NET was warning of a food crisis in South Sudan this year. In February, it was warning of an emergency. Last March, World and Media reported that South Sudan was in crisis, with over 830,000 refugees and internally displaced people, according to the UNHCR. In mid-April, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said up to 1,000,000 could face famine while UNICEF warned that 50,000 children could die from malnutrition in 2014. Shortly afterwards, on May 9, FEWS NET upgraded its South Sudan warning to that of a possible famine.

An international conference was held in May to raise funds but the UN's South Sudan Appeal is still less than halfway to its target of $1.8 billion. Yet, 'since the appeal was launched, the needs inside South Sudan have got worse,' according to GOAL CEO Barry Andrews. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, he claims that 'the UN's appeal for funding has been largely ignored'. He also pointed to the failure to provide peacekeepers: 'Fewer than half of the peacekeepers pledged in December have materialised. Of these, most have been borrowed from other trouble spots, like Democratic Republic of Congo.'

It is now estimated that 3.8 million people are in need of assistance and the UN are warning that famine is imminent. The need is such that international NGO Concern Worldwide is appealing urgently for experienced specialist staff to help with its emergency food response in South Sudan.

Oxfam’s senior press officer, Ian Bray, believes that there won't be significant international mobilisation to help people in South Sudan (or in similarly urgent crises in Somalia and the Central African Republic) until there is more media coverage. “We need a trigger - a major development in the story, and that development will be the announcement of a famine,” Bray told African Arguments in July.

It would not be true to say that there has been no response. The US has provided funds totalling €341m/$456m so far this year to tackle the South Sudan crisis. The Irish Government's 2014 total so far is €6.5m/$8.7m. The UK's projected 2014/15 aid budget for South Sudan is €165m/$220m/£131m. (It was higher again in 2013/14.)

To a significant degree, the conflict and the food crisis which it has fueled are a legacy of issues that were left unresolved when South Sudan became independent. John Ashworth, who is an adviser to Sudan and South Sudan churches, listed some of them: 'the trauma of decades of previous violence; the lack of reconciliation dealing with earlier conflicts; the Sudan People's Liberation Movement's (SPLM) slow transition from a military liberation movement to a political party; weak democratic institutions; the failure to professionalise and integrate an army loosely made up of different militia, each with its own loyalties; corruption and nepotism; and, perhaps most of all, the absence of any attempt at building a shared national identity to unify the nation.'

South Sudan's warring parties will likely take the lion's share of the blame for the country's descent into civil war and famine. Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in Foreign Policy regarding current peace talks in Addis Ababa due to finish by August 10: 'If South Sudan's leaders fail to reach out to each other and restore peace, if they fail to comprehend that our shared humanity is our greatest gift, they will forever bear the burden of this growing human disaster.'

Those peace talks are not going well. The opposition are boycotting them, while South Sudan's President Salva Kiir was at the US Africa summit this week. The White House's decision to invite him has been criticised as has John Kerry's photo-op handshake with the President. The wisdom of US relations with South Sudan's President remains to be seen.

Obama's Africa policy may be judged more by what happens next in South Sudan than by what happened at this week's summit.

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