Hopes for peace in South Sudan hinge on papal visit
JUBA, South Sudan – On the last full day of his trip to Africa, Pope Francis met with displaced South Sudanese who have borne the brunt of the conflict he has come to help resolve with direct and insistent appeals to leaders to take peace seriously.
“I am with you here, and I am suffering for you and with you,” Francis told the Freedom Hall in Juba, the capital, to hundreds of people who, like millions of South Sudanese, have been through what he called “the common and collective experience”. to live in sprawling camps for displaced people.
Calling South Sudan “the largest persistent refugee crisis on the continent”, afflicted with widespread hunger, especially for women and children, he lamented war, ethnic conflict, violence against women and floods aggravated by climate change that had endangered and uprooted them. of their traditions and cultures.
But while Francis, who visited the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier in the week, has used all his clout, moral capital and international fame to push for peace in South Sudan – the most of the largely Christian and still war-torn world – it is unclear what kind of country the displaced people Francis sympathizes with can hope to return to.
South Sudan’s natural resource wealth remains a persistent magnet for plunder, conflict and corruption. The patience of international donors is wearing thin. Ethnic conflicts, violence and floods are increasing. And global attention, though intensified with Francis’ visit, is capricious and fleeting in a world that is not short of significant conflicts and threats.
“We hope it will matter,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, a potential successor to Francis who oversees the Roman Catholic Church in Asia, Africa and other mission territories, said of the meeting. the presence of the pope on Friday at the presidential palace, where Francis pushed the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, to make a concrete commitment in favor of peace.
“We hope this visit will highlight the beauty of these people and also their suffering,” Cardinal Tagle said. “And we hope that it is not just the churches, but the international community that will come together. Unfortunately, we need events like this to get on the radar.
And when the pope returns to Rome on Sunday, the country’s woes will remain, both in the violence that bloodies the land and in the treasure buried in the ground.
South Sudan has Africa’s third-largest oil reserves, which were supposed to ensure the country’s prosperity after it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Much of the oil business is run by foreign multinationals that have been criticized for their corrupt or unethical practices, such as funding militias. accused of atrocities. But the country’s leaders, considered among the most corrupt in the world, also have a lot to answer for.
Numerous investigations by foreign organizations have documented how billions in oil revenues have been embezzled by South Sudanese leaders with the help of foreign companies, oil traders and banks. Instead of building up the country, oil became a factor in its downfall, fueling the infighting that exploded into a five-year civil war.
“Throughout Africa, where oil is produced, it is a curse,” said Johnny Ohisa Damian, Governor of the Bank of South Sudan. He expressed hope that the Pope’s visit and his efforts for peace would show stability and encourage more international financial investment. He also hoped it might persuade the United States and other Western donors to redirect some of their strong emergency aid to development.
But Mr Damian said the country could not rely on oil alone. The government estimated that its reserves would be depleted within the next 11 years. It needed to diversify, he said, using its millions of acres of arable land for large-scale agriculture and cattle ranching.
Particularly given the war in Ukraine, Damian envisioned South Sudan, parts of which were officially declared famine-stricken in 2017, as a breadbasket for Africa. But he said that for the country to move forward and the displaced to return home, “politicians must stick to peace”.
Francis echoed that point on Saturday afternoon, envisioning jobs “in agriculture and livestock” for the displaced. The disappearance of oil revenues is also a sore point for Western donors who pump billions of dollars into South Sudan each year to feed its starving population and provide minimal health services.
Nearly eight million South Sudanese, or two-thirds of the population, will suffer from an acute lack of food by April, the United Nations recently predicted, including 1.4 million children who will suffer from malnutrition. The United States, which played a key role in South Sudan’s independence, is the largest donor to South Sudan, spending about $1 billion a year.
Frustrations over its leadership’s failures after independence have made the country a “toxic” topic in Washington, said Alan Boswell, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group. But, he added, the Americans were also partly responsible.
“They argued that the country was viable because of its oil,” Mr Boswell said. “But that’s ultimately the price South Sudan’s leaders fought for.”
According to local Catholic Church officials, the fighting has prevented the country from exploiting its resources.
“You cannot manage your resources in wartime,” said Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla, the Archbishop of Juba, who also said there was plenty of gold to be mined.. He said Francis needed to remind the country’s leaders that “despite all the greed or all that oil money,” he was there to “help people.”
Archbishop Ameyu added that outside interests and local elites ‘who don’t care about the poor’ were exploiting the oil, but the church, with its focus on the poor, sees peace and reconciliation as the only way allowing people “to share in the great, great national resources that we have here.
The transformative potential of these resources was on the minds of leaders as they watched Francis and other religious leaders boldly demand more from Mr. Kiir in the presidential garden on Friday.
“This is an opportunity,” said Atoroba Wilson Rikita Gbudue, the king of the Azande Kingdom in southwestern South Sudan, who said the country was endowed with oil, gold, diamonds and of fertile land. He said peace was desperately needed to save lives and allow displaced people to return home, but also “to be able to identify other resources that we need in this country”.
But the country’s main need, according to the Vatican, is peace enforced by international pressure and attention. On Thursday, at least 27 people, including five children, died in clashes in Central Equatoria state. Gruesome sexual assaults are on the rise, as are child abductions by armed cattle herders in eastern Jonglei state.
Francis on Saturday morning told a meeting of his clergy that they should not sit on the sidelines. “We too are called to intercede for our people, to speak out against injustice and abuses of power that oppress and use violence for their own ends amidst the cloud of conflict,” he said. at St. Peter’s Cathedral. Thérèse, adding, “we cannot remain neutral in the face of the pain caused by acts of injustice and violence”.
The pope himself has repeatedly tried to raise awareness of these inequities, not only working to end a conflict that has killed more than 400,000 people, but also dramatically attracting international attention in 2019 when knelt in the Vatican to kiss the shoes of Mr Kiir, a formal rebel who has ruled South Sudan since 2011, and his rival, Riek Machar.
“It was huge – I don’t know how to explain it. It showed that we were in the Pope’s heart,” said Alokiir Malual, who represents civil society groups in South Sudan. canceled her trip last summer due to mobility issues, she said the country feared he would never come. “We were all worried: age, distance, health,” she said declared. But his arrival highlighted “the importance of us” in his pontificate. And his arrival in Juba intensified this spotlight.
This attention is not necessarily flattering for Mr. Kiir.
Activists have called on the pope to confront Mr Kiir’s increasingly repressive regime, whose security forces are routinely accused of detaining, torturing and killing human rights defenders. Even those fleeing abroad face threats from the South Sudanese government, according to a report by Irish-based rights group Front Line Defenders.
Elections are scheduled for the end of 2024, although few believe the country is ready. A unity government formed by Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar in 2020 is plagued with mistrust.
Religious and civil leaders in South Sudan hoped that the visit of Francis, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, the head of the Church of Scotland, could change that.
Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, former primate of the South Sudanese Episcopal Church, said he hoped political leaders would “learn to come together” from united religious leaders and understand that “this is the time to forgive”.