KAMPALA – South Sudan has been engaged in a civil war since December, 2013. The main protagonists are President Salva Kiir and former vice president Dr Riek Machar. On the surface, the war has ethnic dimensions— the Dinka vs the Nuer, the two being the largest and most influential ethnic groups in South Sudan.
Wars and civil strife seem to be common in new states, especially in Africa. There are very important questions that have to be asked about South Sudan. Has the South Sudan project been a failure? The peace talks we have been following in the news since 2014, have they turned into peace jokes? Whom do these peace talks benefit?
The South Sudan project was something many human rights defenders, both in Africa and the international community, had envisaged. Why? South Sudan fought a civil war with (North) Sudan because of marginalisation. The Sudan, which was a creation of the British in 1956, set the precedent for South Sudan’s current problems, by bringing in completely different groups (such as Muslims, Christians and Animists on the one hand, and Arabs and Africans on the other hand), together. The leaders of the north seemed to be privileged or favoured during colonialism and thus imposed their chauvinism, which resulted in a war. In 2011, South Sudan voted for independence and many thought this was a new dawn. But could this have been another case of placing the cart before the horse?
As noted earlier, South Sudan was marginalised before and after independence when they were part of the Sudan. It was under-developed; there was hardly any infrastructure, education or healthcare for the population. However, that did not stop some South Sudanese such as the late John Garang and Machar, among others, from going to school and pursuing PhDs in the West. That said, it is possible that the root of the conflict is lack of development.
Also, alarming levels of corruption have been reported in South Sudan, which might be fuelling the conflict because some selfish individuals want to control and profit from the country’s natural resources such as oil. This corruption is viewed by the majority as an act of impunity perpetrated by the minority – in particular people with power derived from their positions in the military.
Let us not forget that the civil war is a conflict between ethnic warlords who use ethnicity as a bargaining chip. Another issue is that South Sudan did not establish a national and professional army; it just merged different rebel groups— this was common in post-independence Africa.
Which brings me to the question, have the negotiations between the warring parties been peace talks or peace jokes? There have been many peace agreements only for clashes to resume. History in post-independence Africa shows that warring parties rarely honour the peace agreement and absolute gain is in the interest of the protagonists. These peace talks seem designed to appease the international community but in reality only benefit the warlords, not the South Sudanese people.
Take for instance the major concessions being exchanged at the so-called peace talks. How will cabinet posts, federalism or the number of guards one person has bring development to South Sudan? Are these issues really addressing the core issue of under-development, nepotism and corruption? Remember peace is not the absence of war, so if these concessions result in some kind of peace agreement, it may only benefit a few elites and perpetuate the current semi-feudal state in South Sudan, which is a harbinger for another civil war.
The international community should also understand that sanctions do not bring peace. The warlords will still find a way of fighting to protect their personal interests (as opposed to the wider interests of the State).
What alternative remedies are at our disposal? South Sudan probably needs a fresh political dispensation – a new constitution bereft of the personal influence of the main protagonists – President Kiir, Machar and their allies. The peace talks should focus on establishing a transition and timetable for developing a new constitution that caters for the interests of all of South Sudan’s ethnic and religious groups based on principles of fairness and equity. Such a process should hopefully bring new faces of leadership to South Sudan, people who are patriotic and have a vision for the country.
The political future of South Sudan should not be pegged on the personal ambitions of President Kiir or Machar. And the new constitution should give a voice to all ethnic and religious groups and not just the two dominant tribes of Nuer and Dinka – as it seems to be the case today.
Mr Barungi is a social scientist. firstname.lastname@example.org & Twitter: @andybk82