By: Amir Idris
December 23, 2013 - While people around the world are mourning and reflecting on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, and the champion of national reconciliation and forgiveness, South Sudan, the newest African state is descending into deadly political violence with devastating human cost. Indiscriminate killing of civilians, destruction of private properties, and disintegration of security, and armed forces spreading from the capital city, Juba, to other states. Disturbing credible reports indicate that the killing is largely ethnically driven. Recent figures estimated that hundreds of civilians have lost their lives and over 22,000 have been displaced, mostly from the Nuer ethnic group in Juba. These reports of killings and displacements paint a frightening picture of possible widespread communal violence which might lead to the collapse of the fragile state.
The ongoing political violence could have been prevented if the current political leadership, in particular President Salva Kiir headed the call for dialogue with his critics lead by Dr. Riek Machar, the former Vice President. The root causes of the crisis are political. The failure of reaching a consensus on contentious issues of democratization of the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) Party, the inclusivity of the government, and the implementation of the constitution and democratic principles are at the core of the political crisis. The future of the state of South Sudan relies on its ability to address these core questions through national democratic dialogue that respects the diversity of political views and their constituencies.
History has taught us that political violence is not preordained. Rather, it can be avoided if the underlying causes are understood by the political leaders of the polity. Political violence always has its history and politics. The ongoing political violence in South Sudan has a distant and a recent past. The distant past is the history and legacy of colonialism; the recent past is the absence of democratic governance. British colonialism institutionalized ethnic identities through the policy of indirect rule. Political and judicial powers were given to traditional leaders to administer their territories which are considered ‘homes’ of specific ethnic groups. This policy transformed flexible cultural communities into conflicting political communities. Conflicts replaced coexistence. Politics became ethnicized. Political disagreement turned into ethnic hostility and conflict. Hence, political demands were made in ethnic terms without regard to the national interests of the country.
When South Sudan gained its political independence in July 2011, sadly, the new state has not been able thus far to devise a workable vision to address these pivotal historical challenges and in turn has been unable to realize the political and economic aspirations of its citizens. Instead, corruption, nepotism, mismanagement of public resources, and the absence of law and order as well as the growing tendency of undemocratic practices has become the dominant characteristics of the national and state governments. Against this backdrop, the recent leadership crisis within the SPLM and the subsequent ethnically driven violence should be understood. It’s the failure of the state and its leadership in governing democratically and inclusively.
The painful lesson that all we can learn from the ongoing deadly violence is that the existing government has utterly failed to provide creative and imaginative responses that could have saved the country from descending into violence. The current state of affairs in South Sudan cannot stand; the first phase of the post-independence state is crumbling and cannot be held without major transformations at the political and economic levels. However, for the next phase to succeed, concentrated efforts have to be made by whoever assumes the leadership of its government to seek creative political strategies to lessen the ethnicization of politics and institutionalize democracy as a system of governance. If they do so, South Sudan would embark on an inclusive journey similar to South Africa marked by the spirit of reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing.
Amir Idris is Professor and Chair of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, New York City, USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org