In the years since South Sudan declared independence in 2011, the U.S. has been its principal backer, supporting the government of the world’s newest nation despite its wars, rights abuses and corruption.
Now, with the threat of famine looming after a series of missed deadlines for the country’s warring factions to form a unity government, Washington has signaled its patience has run out.
“The people of South Sudan have suffered enough while their leaders delay the implementation of a sustainable peace,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month.
Washington signaled its frustration in November when the State Department temporarily recalled the U.S. ambassador and said South Sudan President Salva Kiir’s government was no longer suitable to continue leading the country’s peace process.
“The U.S. has gone from South Sudan’s chief backer to its main naysayer,” said Alan Boswell, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It’s a remarkable shift.”
The U.S., far outpacing other donors, has spent a total of $11 billion on the largely Christian East African nation since it claimed independence from majority Muslim Sudan, according to the Congressional Research Service. The aid was intended to help build a stable government for a fledgling nation endowed with sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil reserves.
But money and diplomatic pressure have failed to bring about a deal between Mr. Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, whose forces began fighting a civil war in 2013 that has killed 400,000 people and uprooted more than 4 million.
The conflict erupted after Mr. Kiir accused Mr. Machar of plotting a coup. Clashes quickly spread across the country, splitting South Sudan along ethnic lines, pitting Mr. Kiir’s Dinka tribe against Mr. Machar’s Nuer.
Clashes have subsided in much of the country since the two sides reached a truce in September 2018 under pressure from the U.S. and the United Nations.
But the leaders have missed a series of deadlines to form a government. When Messrs. Kiir and Machar met in Juba in December for the latest power-sharing talks, they failed to strike a deal on important issues including how to integrate rebel forces in the national army and the composition of regional states.
The South Sudan government said it is addressing Washington’s concerns and accused the Trump administration of pushing for regime change.
“Every time we are close to forming a unity government, Americans sanction our people,” said Michael Makuei Lueth, the country’s information minister, who is one of the government ministers under U.S. sanctions. “The Americans are confusing the peace process. It’s now clear they don’t want us to form a unity government.”
The government has been encouraging families to leave U.N. camps and return home, but aid officials in oil-rich Unity State said that mothers are refusing to send their children back because they don’t trust that the fragile peace will hold.
The most imminent concern is the prospect of famine.
Half of the country’s population of 11 million is now facing a potential famine early this year because of drought, flooding and political uncertainty that hampers aid response efforts and farming, according to the U.N. World Food Program.
The displacement of millions of people by the conflict has heightened the threat of extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition and deaths, according to the U.N., which in 2017, in parts of South Sudan, declared what was the world’s first famine since 2012.
“It is much worse than we had anticipated, we are literally talking about famine in the next few months,” said World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley.
Despite the truce, opposition and government forces have continued to break in to humanitarian facilities and demand payment from aid convoys at checkpoints, according to the United Nations.
Rival factions have recruited thousands more fighters to bolster their positions in power-sharing negotiations and prepare for more fighting. Seven cease-fires have collapsed since 2013. Refugee camps built with American aid have been emptied as men joined the militias, humanitarian agencies reported.
Aid agencies have been repeatedly targeted, making the country the most dangerous place to deliver humanitarian aid, according to the U.N.’s 2019 Aid Worker Security Report. Since the conflict began in 2013, the U.N. says, 115 aid workers have been killed.
Troubled relations between Messrs. Kiir and Machar was already an issue at the time of the country’s much-celebrated birth in 2011. The two men were rebel leaders during the independence war against Sudan and their forces often fought each other. Independence brought them together in a unity government.
“When you look at aid to South Sudan from a ‘bang for buck’ perspective, you see that the billions we have spent over the years have not resulted in progress,” said Erol Yayboke, deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, who spent years working in Juba. “No one seriously watching thought that this story was going to play out any other way.”
A bipartisan group of six U.S. senators sent a letter to Mr. Pompeo in November calling for the appointment of a special envoy to coordinate oversight of aid money spent on South Sudan.
“More focused, diplomatic leadership to address the underlying drivers of the conflict can help provide accountability to the American taxpayers and ensure that U.S. assistance is as effective as possible,” said the letter.
Troubled relations with its primary backer threaten the country’s cash-strapped government, which relies on foreign humanitarian aid and political support.
The hardening of the U.S. position comes as the Pentagon considers reducing the U.S. military footprint of some 7,000 soldiers in Africa as part of a shift to counter threats from China and Russia.
The effects of conflict have contributed to slash South Sudan’s gross domestic product to $4 billion in 2018, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, from $13 billion recorded by the International Monetary Fund at the time the conflict began.
The country’s war-weary, largely displaced population is bracing for another cycle of conflict with less international pressure to bring warring parties back to the negotiating table.