Analysis: South Sudan’s president can moan, but the UN will keep picking up his slack

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir speaks during a news conference in Juba January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is not happy with the United Nations, which he accuses of running a “parallel government” to his own. He may have a point, but if so, he’s only got himself to blame. And with his entire attention focused on saving his own political skin, he should probably be grateful that someone is remembering to look after his people. By SIMON ALLISON.

You’ve got to have exceptionally thick skin to work for the United Nations. Much is always expected of the international organisation, which tends to do its most visible work in the world’s most difficult, complicated places. And whatever it does, someone complains – usually at volume.

The latest high-profile UN critic is a certain Salva Kiir, President of the Republic of South Sudan, a country so new it’s still got that fresh-out-the-box smell. In recent months, Kiir has replaced his trademark tailored suit and cowboy hat for military fatigues – all the better to wage war on disgruntled former Vice-President Riek Machar. The fighting has left at least ten thousand people dead and displaced hundreds of thousands more, destroying in the process the stability and tentative developmental progress for which Kiir, Machar and so many others had fought so hard to achieve (the feuding pair were once comrades-in-arms in the fight for South Sudan’s independence from Khartoum).

During the current bout of unrest, the United Nations – which anyway maintains a large contingent of peacekeepers in the country, operating as the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) – sent extra troops and aid to assist the displaced civilians. United Nations camps were opened up as refuges for those looking to escape the violence; where possible, health services and food was made available too. In total, there are 8000 United Nations peacekeepers in South Sudan right now, and counting (a total of 13,823 have been authorised). Between them, they are looking after more than 70,000 civilians, of the estimated 494,000 who have been internally displaced.

But Kiir’s not happy. In an extraordinary public attack, the President used a televised speech to the nation to decry what he sees as the UN’s attempts to undermine him.

“We did not know that when the UNMISS was brought to South Sudan, they were brought as a parallel government with the government in South Sudan,” Kiir said. “They fell short of naming the chief of the Unmiss as a co-president of the Republic of South Sudan. If that is the position of Ban Ki-moon, he should make it clear that he wants the UN to take over South Sudan.”

Specifically, Kiir has been rattled by several recent instances of government officials being denied access to refugee camps. The highest-profile of these concerned information minister Michael Makuei, who wanted to visit the UNMISS camp in Bor (centre of much of the fighting). Makuei was refused entry because his bodyguards were armed. UNMISS enforces a strict policy prohibiting non-UN personnel from carrying guns on UNMISS premises.

“We are surprised if the United Nations can deny a host Minister of Information, the honorable Michael Makuei, who wanted to visit the United Nations camp. So people are wondering what was inside the UN camp that a minister of the incumbent government should not see,” said South Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer. Other officials have done more than wonder, speculating that the UN is knowingly harbouring armed rebels.

While the speculation seems off-target, President Kiir does have a point with his accusation that the UN is running some kind of “parallel government”. In light of a near complete absence of infrastructure in the country, the UN has indeed taken on roles and duties that are more traditionally provided by the state. On the UNMISS website, take a look at the core functions of the mission: Child protection, disarmament and reintegration of militia groups, human rights protection, peacebuilding. In addition, other UN programs oversee massive efforts to roll out food and healthcare to some of the nation’s most vulnerable. Government officials even have to beg rides on UN planes to get to the more remote parts of their own countries.

Should South Sudan’s government be providing these services instead? Absolutely. Can it? No. That’s where Kiir gets it wrong. Instead of criticising, he should be praising an institution which has relieved him of several of the burdens of governance; that has, in fact, masked the inadequacy of his own rule. And if he wants his people to visit their camps, he can always just ask them to put away the guns for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, the UN has been forced into a little criticism of its own, urging all parties to respect the impartiality and the sanctity of UNMISS civilian protection sites. “The Mission once again condemns any fighting taking place nearby its bases and calls on all parties to respect the integrity of UN installations and the safety and security of civilians taking refuge inside the bases and all UN personnel,” UNMISS said in a statement. This came after stray bullets landed inside their compound in Bor, killing one person and injuring several others. Earlier, secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon had appealed to both sides to stop stealing food and vehicles meant for humanitarian work.

The current mess in South Sudan is one of President Kiir’s own making. He’s had the chance to fix the deep divisions within the country, and to govern for the people instead of the elite. He’s blown it on both fronts, and now he’s dealing with the consequences. He’s looking for a convenient scapegoat, and the UN just happens to fit that bill.  Fortunately, the UN is used to criticism. They’ll just shrug it off, as they have so many times before, and continue to pick up Kiir’s slack. DM

Read more:

  • South Sudan: the death of a dream on the Guardian
  • Analysis: Was the secession of South Sudan a mistake? on Daily Maverick

Photo: South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir speaks during a news conference in Juba January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu