The second leg of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to two African nations takes him to South Sudan, a country grappling with conflict and profound poverty. A humanitarian expert with years of experience in the east African nation hopes the Pope’s presence will trigger a conversion of hearts in the political leaders and respect for their people.
By Linda Bordoni
The people of South Sudan have been, and continue to be, displaced by violence and the effects of climate change. Humanitarian organizations and faith-based groups are the ones that provide basic services of health, education and food where millions are at risk from food insecurity and even famine.
Corruption, incapacity and lack of will on the part of government leaders have resulted in an unending downward spiral, notwithstanding the hope of a new dawn when South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation in 2011 with the proclamation of independence from Sudan.
Miklos Gosztonyi is a political analyst and humanitarian expert with many years of experience in South Sudan. In an interview with Vatican News, he explained that the Pope’s presence in the country is important for several reasons and that hopefully, it will help trigger positive change.
Background to Pope’s visit
To fully understand the country the Pope will find upon his arrival, Gosztonyi said it is necessary to consider two facts.
The first, he explained, is the fact that South Sudan became independent in 2011 after fighting a civil war for 22 years against the central government in Khartoum, which since independence in 1956, had tried to impose Arabic as a language and Islam as a religion.
So, Gosztonyi continued, “Christianity has a huge importance in South Sudan, and the Pope’s visit will not only be very important for Catholics, but I would say for Christians in general.”
Noting that the cancellation of the papal visit last July “was lived with a lot of sadness”, he said the people are “really, really looking forward to a moment of joy and a moment of spiritual growth.”
The second aspect that must be taken into consideration, Gosztonyi said, “is that ever since independence, things in South Sudan did not turn out the way that people expected: “We’ve had a civil war since December 2013 that has been extremely brutal, and despite the peace agreement of September 2018, conflicts are still going on at the local level in the country.”
The violence, he said, is compounded by a humanitarian situation that is extremely serious, with more than two-thirds of the population living in a severe humanitarian crisis.
Moreover, he added, “independently from where one stands on issues of religion, this is the most important external visit that the country will have had since it became independent.”
The papal visit, Gosztonyi said, may also shine the spotlight on a country that is largely forgotten and neglected by the international community.
Basing his remarks on his experience as a humanitarian worker in South Sudan for the past four years for different organisations, he said one of the key challenges was that “the country has been largely forgotten after having been very much at the centre of international attention in 2011 when it obtained independence,” and after having received a lot of external support after “the 2005 peace agreement between the southern rebels and the central government Khartoum, which had a high level of international engagement.”
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Government of Sudan aimed to end the Second Sudanese Civil War, develop democratic governance, and share oil revenues. It also set a timetable for a Southern Sudanese independence referendum that became a reality in 2011.
But especially since the outbreak of the civil war in 2013, Gosztonyi confirmed that South Sudan has increasingly disappeared from international attention, although donors have continued to finance the humanitarian response.
It is especially from a political level that the nation has struggled to keep “international attention, focus and engagement, especially in the peace process, largely because this process, has had a lot of problems in its implementation,” he said.
The Pope goes to affirm believers in their faith, and in an extra dimension he brings a witness of fraternity together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland who are accompanying him on this “Pilgrimage of Peace.” Gosztonyi said that aside from this, Pope Francis’s presence can do much to pressure the country’s leadership to change course and work for the common good.
“If we look at the history of the country when the rebels of the SPLM launched the civil War in 1983, their message was one of undoing historical wrongs to the people of South Sudan, the fact that the government in Khartoum oppressed them, did not invest at all in the economic development of the south,” he explained.
The historical irony is that when the SPLM took power in 2005 and then ever since its independence in 2011, Gosztonyi continued, it “has really continued doing exactly the same that Khartoum used to do to the southern population, (…) which continues to be profoundly neglected, oppressed and, in many cases even killed by its own government.”
So the Pope’s visit, he continued, is an opportunity “for someone who is widely respected and admired in South Sudan, to bring a message and emphasise how we need to go back to what South Sudan, or at least the rebels, stood for in 1983.”
One aspect Gosztonyi was at pains to highlight, is the extent to which “the government does not seem to care at all about investing in public services.”
Explaining that most public services – education, health, et cetera – are provided by humanitarians today, and even though the government does receive revenue without investing any resources in the population, he said “the Pope has a unique opportunity, as someone who is widely respected, to emphasise the need for the government to start caring about its citizens.”
Notwithstanding the bleak picture just painted, Gosztonyi admitted there is something very special about South Sudan.
“If you saw, for example, the dreadful conditions in which schools are in South Sudan, you would probably wonder what’s even the point of sending children to school? And yet people in South Sudan put a lot of effort into being able to send their children to school so that they have a better future and a better life,” he said.
What’s more, he added, it is difficult to not also consider all the structural constraints that will most probably lead these children to face a lot of hardship in the future, even if they go to school.
“And yet people continue,” Gosztonyi concluded, “and people continue persevering, and things are very, very difficult. It’s very difficult for the population to bring food to their plates every day, and yet they persist, and they persist, often in a cheerful way.”