Famine relief in Sudan: How many more will die hungry before United Nations rules are changed?

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HERE we go again. Starving Africa pictures on television. This time in Sudan - again. Hundreds of thousands of people, maybe a million, face starvation. And here, in the next frame, are the aid workers telling us how bad it is but how, with our help, they can save lives. Bob Geldof is back in business, too, suggesting that the Red Cross send an expeditionary force of aid workers to solve the problem. In the newspaper the aid agencies use the most ghastly picture of hunger as advertisements to press home their pleas for money.

Once again the circle is complete. The aid agencies call the television stations, give them free lifts to the hunger zone and tell the story. We watch, our hearts are touched and the aid agencies recoup their efforts and expenses in a fund-raising appeal. A benign circle? It seems like one but for the lack of an answer to this question: are the television stations and the aid agencies telling the whole truth about this famine?

No. The famine in Sudan is in one province, Bahr el Ghazal and it has been caused, quite deliberately, by one man, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol.

Bahr el Ghazal has been in the front line of the north-south civil war in Sudan for 15 years. It was already sinking below subsistence level. Last year Mr Kerubino, a rebel commander from Barh el Ghazal, defected to the side of the Sudanese government. With its blessing he spent the rest of the year razing his own region, killing hundreds of people and stealing their cattle, food and seed corn. His savagery forced thousands more to flee from their homes with only what food they could carry. Then in February this year when the survivors most needed food aid and seeds to plant for this year's harvest, the Islamist government in Khartoum refused the United Nations permission to fly to Bar el Ghazal. The ban lasted two months. The result - famine.

Kerubino, nicknamed "the Fool" in Bahr el Ghazal, meanwhile changed sides again, largely because he was not given a sufficiently important title by the government. He has been welcomed back by the rebel movement, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, SPLA, though in Bahr el Ghazal, not surprisingly, they want him dead.

The UN and the aid agencies were aware last year of the depredations of Kerubino and new that the flight ban by the Khartoum government would probably mean a lot of people would starve. But in Sudan the UN's humanitarian operation, known as Operation Lifeline Sudan, operates only by agreement with both the Khartoum government and the SPLA. Under the agreement drawn up in 1991 between the UN, the government of Khartoum and the rebels, the UN and aid agencies working under its umbrella, must have permission from both sides before they can move a grain of food to a starving village. Every single aid flight, its destination, exact content and personnel accompanying it are subject to inspection - and so the whim - of government and rebels, including of course Mr Kerubino and his ilk.

The main aim of both sides is to direct as much food aid as possible in the direction of their own troops and as little as possible to areas where the other side might benefit. The UN is reduced to a puppet being jerked around by both sides having to balance the provision of real need to an area on the one side with a dubious delivery to the other. The government is worse at imposing restrictions on Operation Lifeline Sudan than the SPLA but both armies help themselves to UN aid. To this extent the UN and the aid agencies have fed this 15 year-long war.

If the price for this was that the civilians in Sudan were also fed, it would be worth paying but they are not. Worse, the rules of Operation Lifeline Sudan prevent the UN telling the truth about the causes of starvation and the truth about people like Kerubino. When he was laying waste to Bahr el Ghazal the UN was silent. In February the government's ban on food aid to Bahr el Ghazal was mentioned only twice in UN publicity and only as a "cause for concern", hardly the sort of language to create the scale of outrage needed to create international pressure on the Khartoum government to get the ban lifted. Only now when the Khartoum government sense bad publicity from pictures of starving people does it choose to allow the UN to make more flights into South Sudan. And the reaction of the UN? An unctuous thank-you to Khartoum for its "timely approval".

Operation Lifeline Sudan, now nine years old, has failed to deliver food when and where it was needed even though it knew famine was developing. Unlike some, I am not one of those who believe that the aid business looks after its own interests by deliberately waiting till people start dying before they bring in the cameras. But I do believe that in South Sudan, Operation Lifeline Sudan is in danger of complicity in famine.

So why doesn't the UN just tear up the book of rules, ignore the Khartoum government and the rebels and fly food when and where it is needed, daring the government to shoot the planes out of the sky? That is what some small aid agencies operating outside the Operation Lifeline Sudan do, and they find pilots and companies willing to risk their lives and planes to do so. Not one has been shot down so far.

The problem is national sovereignty. UN rules insist that the authority of the Sudan government is respected even though it has not ruled some of those southern regions for 15 years. It is clear now that they never will again. Whether or not the south splits off as an independent state, the Arabised Muslim north will never again be able to dominate the south.

That makes Sudan a "failed state" and until a new dispensation is sorted out, the UN should regard it as such. It should reject the "sovereignty" of the Khartoum government outside areas it does not control. Instead it should mandate its aid agencies to intervene for humanitarian purposes whenever and wherever necessary.

A more determined UN which spoke truth and recognised reality instead of diplomatic niceties might also find donors more willing to provide the funds it desperately needs.

The author writes for The Economist.

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