The crisis in South Sudan is the outcome of a deadly cocktail of personal ambition, state failure, high level corruption and neglect of service delivery to the people, political manipulation of negative ethnicity and failure to transform a revered liberation movement into an accountable ruling party. To start with, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement should be dissolved
As the fighting continues in full swing in South Sudan, there is a growing amount of commentary that has been made and more is still in the making about the genesis of the problems and how best they can be resolved.
Two accounts have been given as to how the problems started. The government of South Sudan has impressed upon the idea of a coup – the intention to overthrow a democratically elected president. The rebels, led by Riek Machar– on the other hand –are trumpeting the line of a “cooked up coup” – aimed at dressing up the actual root cause of the crisis – which they claim lies in President Salva Kiir’s authoritarian proclivity.
Both accounts seem believable – at least – to anyone who is not conversant with South Sudan’s politics. In fact, even South Sudanese themselves, who have known both President Kiir and Dr Riek Machar for a very long time, are confused as well. They do not know what and who to believe.
Some observers of South Sudan’s politics have concurred with Machar’s narrative. That the “coup” tale was President Kiir’s twisted lie to prevent a democratic movement within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). In other words, to them, it’s a good intention gone wrong. Depending how well you know the personalities behind the “democratic movement”, it’s up to you to believe their account or not.
Of course, it is true that President Kiir has been sleeping on the job. He sat on a recliner and forgot about ethnic sensitivities in the country. The president also became extremely complacent about the personal ambitions of Dr Machar. The president forgot about Dr Machar’s attempt in the past to overthrow the late SPLM leader Dr John Garang during the days of the struggle against President El Bashir’s north. The president also forgot about the history of the country and the reason why South Sudan seceded from the larger Sudan in the first place. In short, it is true President Kiir went completely nuts and became absolutely authoritarian.
But what about Dr Riek Machar himself: why should anyone believe his account of a movement for democratic transformation within the ruling party? There is no clear reason to. Let me shed some light on the key figures behind the democratic movement. We begin with Dr Riek himself. Enough has been said and written about Dr Riek Machar. It is obvious he is a very ambitious man. He wants to be the president of South Sudan by all means. His lofty ambitions are mainly encouraged by the predictions allegedly made by a certain “prophet”, Ngundeng, who lived around the 19th century. “Prophet” Ngundeng had allegedly “foreseen” that a left-handed man with a gap in his teeth was going to ascend to power and propel his country to glory. To Dr Machar and his supporters, these physical features are visible in him. He is the one foretold in Ngundeng’s prophecy. He is not going to let anyone stop the “prophecy” from materialising.
This is not to say Dr Machar does not mean well for the country. But often, his intentions are overwhelmed by his actions and high-end ambitions. He is impatient. Dr Machar also knows that he has the backing of his tribe, the Nuer, to support his quest for the top seat.
The other key leaders behind the “democratic movement” are SPLM veterans but their records are murky. Pagan Amum Okiech, the former SPLM Secretary General has his own political ambitions. He wants to become the president of South Sudan as well. But his performance as the SPLM Secretary General has put him at odds with the party stalwarts. He is seen as the reason behind the poor performance of the SPLM and the party’s loss of vision. It is also said that Pagan used the party machinery to strike commercial deals and amass wealth for himself.
There are also figures like Deng Alor Kuol, Kosti Manibe, Oyai Deng Ajak, Gier Chuang et al, who are part of the “democratic movement”. Some of these individuals, before being detained, were under investigation for corruption. They are also victims of the government reshuffle – which was intended to curb government spending to accommodate austerity measures. In one way or another, it is difficult to believe that they are genuine agents of democratic transformation in the country. In any case, they are disgruntled old guard who are crying foul for the loss of prestigious seats at the high table. Why did they not agitate for reforms when they held plum ministerial positions in the government? In fact, every bit of what they are complaining about happened when they were still ministers. But none of them ever raised their hand in protest.
Perhaps, the only two members in the “democratic movement” who have legitimate claims as being victims of President Kiir’s authoritarianism are the two former governors: Taban Deng Gai (Unity State) and Chol Tong Mayai (Lakes State). These two individuals were unconstitutionally ousted from the positions they were democratically elected into. Under the constitution, the president can only remove an elected governor for reasons of national security. There were no such threats of national security in both cases.
But the real crux of the matter now is not about who started what and the reason for doing so. It is about finding the solution to the problems. An untold destruction has been exacted on the people – in lives, property and hopes. People are desperate. The on-going talks in Addis Ababa will only provide a temporary solution to the problems. The talks are important. They will provide a respite to the suffering of the people. It will help end hostilities, at least, for now. The international community must continue to exert pressure and provide leverage to the talks. But the permanent answer to the South Sudanese problems does not lie in the agreements that will be reached in Ethiopia; the answer is in the SPLM itself.
The SPLM is in essence, out-of-date and unconstitutional. As much as it is a historical movement with symbolic undertones, it is the source of the problems in South Sudan. It is legitimate machinery for perpetration of violence, corruption and assorted depravities. If South Sudan cares about its prosperity, is serious about ending the current violence and preventing its reoccurrence in the future, it must do away with the SPLM. The movement must be dissolved.
In the current South Sudan’s political climate, one’s hierarchy in the SPLM determines one’s influence in the country. If you are high up the ranks in the party, you are guaranteed a decent size of the national cake. You can hire and fire anyone. You can ascend to any position. The latter is the reason why the current problems started in the first place.
Riek Machar desperately wants to be the president of South Sudan. But he cannot become one unless he is the chairman of the SPLM. Chairmanship guarantees the holder an automatic ticket to run for presidency as the party’s candidate. And once you are an SPLM candidate, you have presidency under your sleeves. This is the only reason why Riek Machar is fighting hard to replace President Kiir. The President does not intend to vacate the position yet. He has powerful individuals that are steadfastly pushing for him to stay in the office as long as possible. They are beneficiaries of the system and they do not want the system to be taken over by someone else. President Kiir is an implement of other people’s ambitions.
For this reason, no one should expect the president to vacate the chairmanship for any one any time soon. Dr Riek Machar, of all people, has zero chance of occupying that office. If the international pressure comes to bear on President Kiir, he would rather pick another Nuer as his heir – possibly, the current Chief of General Staff, James Hoth Mai. But Riek will take that as an affront. Riek sees himself as the leading luminary of the Nuer tribe and none of the other guys will come before him. In that fact, he will fight to the bitter end as long as the SPLM is alive. And oh! He will not accept to be kicked out of the party either because that would spell the death knell of his presidential ambitions. Dr Machar understands all this.
Therefore, the only solution would be to reach a national consensus, so that the SPLM is dissolved for the sake of ending wars in the country. As idiotic and painful the idea sounds, it is the only prescription to problems in South Sudan. The dissolution of the SPLM will mean that the army will be nationalised as the South Sudan defence force not the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) as it stands. Politicians will be able to form independent political parties and work hard to win the hearts and minds of the populace. One’s political ambitions will be less tied to membership in one dominant political party. And above all, South Sudanese will start to forge political alliances along ideological inclinations – and less tribal leanings.
* Maker Mayek Riak is a lawyer and a postgraduate student of law at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Twitter handle: @MakMayek
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