By Amir Idris
April 6, 2014- We all remember that South Sudan gained its political independence in July 2011 after long devastating liberation struggles against the central government in Khartoum. The liberation struggles were a response to economic and political marginalization, exclusive vision of national identity, and discriminatory and racist practices.
After securing their political independence, the people of South Sudan expected their new state and its political leadership to avoid the ills of the old Sudan. In addition, they also expected their government to attend to their social, economic, and political aspirations. No doubt, the new state from its inception has been besieged by heavy burden of its recent and past history. On the one hand, the history of its long costly war against the North becomes visible in the conduct and the performance of the newly independent state. Many political, economic, and social challenges have emerged including the absence of a clear vision of economic and political development, weak institutional capacity, inter communal conflicts and tensions, common practices of corruption and nepotism, and growing tendencies of undemocratic practices within the government and the ruling party, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), among others. On the other hand, the nature and the orientation of its political leaders has shaped how the government responds to these challenges. A lack of inclusive vision, political commitment and political will coupled with deceit and mendacity seem to be the main qualities of the political leadership.
In turn, the gap between the society and the political leadership has begun to widen. Hence, feelings of alienation and frustration among the masses have grown rapidly. To preserve their political interests many political leaders took refuge into their ethnic and regional affinities at the expense of their national roles as representatives of all people of South Sudan. The distribution of national wealth, allocation of political offices, and access to economic and political powers are defined and shaped by these narrow parochial identifications. The ongoing political violence not only exposes the failure of and inability of the state to mitigate conflict in a divided society but also raises questions about the meaning of political independence. South Sudan independence has to proceed on the basis of the cultivation of agreed constitutional principles as well as a national consensus on economic and political development. History has taught us that political independence cannot be an end in itself. Like nationalism, political independence is not enough to guarantee a stable and prosperous post-independence South Sudan. Post- independence South Sudan has its own challenges which require an inclusive, democratic, and transformative vision articulated in a socio-economic project geared towards the realities of the society.
Against this backdrop the deadly events of December 15, 2013 should be analyzed and understood. The violent conflict which led to the death of over 10,000 and the displacement of nearly 1 million people internally and externally was a manifestation of a political crisis led by the collective failure of political leaders who seek to preserve their political power and privilege through violence. The rise of ethnic tension is a symptom of a political crisis. This is not a crisis of ethnicity, but ethnicity punctuated the crisis. Ethnicity is the lens through which people come to perceive the way the crisis is developing. Hence, we should differentiate between the ethnically driven violence and the political crisis which led to the ethnically driven violence in the first place. Otherwise, we will run the risk of condemning the cultural heritages and demonizing the ethnic particularities of the people of South Sudan.
The quest for national reconciliation and justice for the victims in the aftermath of political violence is always a political process. South Africa and Rwanda offer insightful lessons for South Sudan. Let me first note that I am aware that the history and the circumstances of both countries, South Africa and Rwanda, differ from South Sudan. But the processes of reconstructing the polity after the demise of the apartheid regime, and the civil war in South Africa and Rwanda respectively have shown how national reconciliation, seeking justice for the victims, and political reform are linked.
The success of forging national reconciliation and seeking justice for victims of violence through the mechanism of a power sharing agreement in a divided state such as South Sudan requires that both the political leadership and the rest of the society understand that they will have to coexist in order to avoid a return to political violence. But to do so, those who accept to live together in South Sudan must also have the ability to withstand the pressures of extremists that seek to mobilize on divisive issues for their own political gains. Power sharing cannot be about a coalition between friends, but rather it must be reconciliation between adversaries. The government of national unity in South Africa included all major political parties in a proportional system. But I should note that the political leadership should be committed to peace negotiation, a shared common vision of a democratic state, and a willingness to compromise. If these conditions exist, then power sharing can be a practical option for a democratic political reform.
It is clear to me that a power sharing government is not a desirable option for the current crisis in South Sudan, for the necessary preconditions are either two weak or absent at the moment. Political leaders of both factions have shown little commitment to negotiate political settlement; and they have exhibited an inability to forge a common vision about the future as well as to restrain their hardliners. Similar to Rwanda, a power sharing government in South Sudan most likely will lead to a political arrangement that will satisfy the narrow vested interests of warring factions. That will not end the conflict, for it assumes that the political stability can be restored if the two warring factions or ethnic groups agree to share political power. It also marginalizes the role and the participation of other ethnic, civic, and political groups in the current peace talks sponsored by the Inter – Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
What is desirable then is the formation of an interim government that gives the people of South Sudan an opportunity to return to the drawing board of cultivating a consensus on the fundamental principles of governance and citizenship. This interim government should be given a clear mandate to carry out specific tasks of ending the war, restoring law and order, returning the displaced, writing a new constitution, and conducting fair and credible national elections. Above all, the interim government should call for an inclusive national conference to bring together delegates from all states to debate the future of South Sudan.
In conclusion, South Sudan does not possess the political leadership to resolve the current crisis of governance and citizenship. But, the state can be saved from its demise if political leaders and the people accept to form an interim government that will enable them to address the vital issues and questions that they did not address immediately after independence. If they do so, surely South Sudan can produce a committed leadership, with a shared destiny, and a willingness to compromise for the sake of all South Sudanese.
Professor and Chair of Department of African and African American Studies, Fordham University, New York, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]