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The real reasons behind South Sudan crisis

The escalating crisis proves that secession is not a panacea for peace and democracy.

Last updated: 27 Dec 2013 11:12
Mehari Taddele Maru

Mehari Taddele Maru is an International Consultant on African Union affairs, and a Research Fellow at the NATO Defense College.
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South Sudan is on the brink of a civil war [Reuters]

While the situation in Somalia remains fragile, the Republic of Sudan and the State of Eritrea face a precarious future. Most dreadful for the entire region, however, is the possibility of another state failure in the form of South Sudan.

With the closest scrutiny by the Pan-African community, together with relevant international actors, a referendum held in line with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) peacefully delivered the newest nation on July 9, 2011. Globally welcomed as the world's newest state, the hopes and wishes of the international community for South Sudan were far from what we are now witnessing. The current crisis in South Sudan amounts to a failure of the international community to ensure that this new state develops into a democratic and stable nation.

On December 15, an armed confrontation erupted at the centre of the South Sudanese governmental authority, the presidential palace in Juba - a confrontation between army officers loyal to President Salva Kiir and disgruntled soldiers backing his ex-deputy Riek Machar - that has now begun to deteriorate into a civil war.

Borne out of a post-independence political indulgence and inclination marked by the absence of any credible and meaningful reform, it was not surprising that the crisis in the SPLM erupted at the top echelon of political power.

Coup or crisis?

While the African Union (AU) and IGAD characterised the situation as a 'crisis', Kiir claims that it constituted an attempted coup. The president then arrested several former ministers and officials of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) - who were dismissed in July - in his cabinet, including Taban Deng, Oyayi Deng, John Luk Jok, Majak D'Agoot, Gier Chuang, Deng Alor, Pagan Amum, Peter Adwok, Alfred Lado, Cirino Hiting Kosti Manibe and Chol Tong. From an undisclosed area, the fugitive former Vice President Machar announced that no one had attempted a coup, and accused Kiir of employing state power for the illegal purpose of silencing dissent within the ruling party, the SPLM. 

Easily exploitable ethnic markers, particularly in the form of the Dinka and Nuer, are being employed for political gains and dominance within the party. With thousands reportedly killed, and tens of thousands displaced along ethnic lines, South Sudan is on the brink of civil war. In this situation, spoilers from and beyond the region may exploit the situation to their advantage. Unless managed responsibly by all factions within the SPLM and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement Army (SPLA), and with a concerted effort by the international and Pan-African community, this crisis could lead to a civil war.

To be sure, this tension has been brewing for some time. Since the middle of 2012, schisms within the SPLM have become public. In July, in what the public considered as autocratic and in some aspects unconstitutional move, Kiir dismissed the entire cabinet and some state governors elected by the public. Machar, the former vice president was one of those dismissed. On December 14, a meeting of the National Liberation Council - the top leadership of the SPLM accelerated the final rapture within SPLM. Nonetheless, the root cause of the crisis lays in a lack of willingness to democratise and low levels of delivery of basic services to the public.

Unhinged alliance

Borne out of a post-independence political indulgence and inclination marked by the absence of any credible and meaningful reform, it was not surprising that the crisis in the SPLM erupted at the top echelon of political power. During the armed struggle for independence, the glue that kept the various divergent forces of the SPLM intact was their common enemy in Khartoum and their aspiration for self-determination and independence.

Now, that glue is not strong enough to hold all divergent views together, and the SPLM is no longer a liberation movement. It is a ruling party, and as such should behave democratically to allow the South Sudanese people to exercise all the rights for which they fought. The SPLM has to discharge its responsibilities on behalf of all the functions of the state. Once independence is achieved, unless transformed into a democratic political force, it becomes only a matter of time before liberation movements face internal divisions and even total rejection by their various supporters.  Post-independence Africa, including the recent example of Eritrea, attests to this development.

It was a matter of time before the SPLM leadership had to face the mounting grievances of the population. After independence, Juba became the centre of South Sudan with its own peripheral areas inhabited by diverse communities demanding constitutional accommodation in one state. In post-liberation period, being a majority in number should not be construed as a majority in power with a license to do whatever one wishes. Juba, under the current leadership of SPLM, failed to take this into account. Disregarding the increasing discontent by the minority within SPLM, the leadership style of the top leaders of the SPLM focused on winning routine political scuffles and abandoned the task of nation building. 

Political instability has been accelerated by rampant corruption that is symptomatic of the country's weak legislative, regulatory and enforcement mechanisms. Without military, legislative and other state institutions being resistant to abuses and misuse by the political wing of the relevant liberation movement, autocratic elements of the liberation movement may take over.

Follow our in-depth coverage of South Sudan

Wider implications

The current crisis has grave consequences and implications for South Sudan and the Horn of Africa. SPLM is left with two options: democratisation - like that of South Africa after apartheid, despite facing similar challenges of a liberation movement, ANC remains a democratic party; or authoritarianism - like Eritrea which after independence became more authoritarian to the point of being considered as an example of a pariah state under Isaias Afeworki's two decades of rule. The latter would prove more difficult given that Kiir will find the struggle to monopolise state power much more difficult compared to Afeworki who has exercised absolute power for the past two decades. Previous efforts and current interests of the international community in determining the fate of South Sudan would also make it almost impossible to maintain any authoritarian state in South Sudan.

With its record of successful and unsuccessful secessionist movements, the Horn of Africa cannot afford another state failure. Potentially detrimental to the future ambitions of Somaliland, another democratic albeit not yet recognised as de jure state that has declared independence, the current South Sudanese crisis may indicate that secession is not a panacea for all divided nations. In view of the experiences of Eritrea and South Sudan, Somaliland must be aware that secession is not a guarantee for peace and democratic stability. This may be used to suppress secession movements in Darfur and other areas in the region. 

Above all, IGAD, the AU and the international community need to ensure that the political leadership of the SPLM and the military command of the SPLA take reform seriously. For the long-term stability of Africa's newest nation, democratisation is necessary, but also insufficient. Delivery of public services and economic development will be critical. It is for this reason that the transformations of the SPLM into a democratic party, and the reform of the SPLA into a state army, are prerequisites for a stable South Sudan. 

Mehari Taddele Maru is an International Consultant on African Union affairs, and a Research Fellow at the NATO Defense College. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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