Despite talks, in South Sudan both war leaders still believe each could win on the battlefield

Not a single capital city in Africa can boast of so many gas-guzzling Hummers on the few stretches of tarmac roads like Juba.

There was not much to celebrate in South Sudan on its third Independence Day on July 9.  Neither international nor regional dignitaries, with the exception of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, took the opportunity to visit. It was a subdued commemoration despite the self congratulatory posters in the capital Juba proclaiming freedom and unity. None of that exists right now in the world’s youngest nation. What does exist is the threat of an imminent humanitarian disaster that could affect four million people.

A power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar erupted in December into an armed and ethnic conflict. It pitted the Dinka community of Kiir against the Nuer of Machar.  More than a million people have been displaced, 800,000 fled to neighbouring countries and at least 10,000 killed. Several towns and cities were partially destroyed.

Despite mediation efforts by the neighbouring Ethiopia, both belligerents still believe each could win the struggle on the battlefield.  To them negotiations appear to be the last resort.  It was only after the Americans and regional neighbours had threatened them with personal sanctions that both agreed to meet.

A transitional government is now on the negotiation table in Addis Ababa. “You need the two men in such a government otherwise neither Dinka nor Nuer would abide by any of its decisions”, believes Abraham Awolich of the South Sudanese research institute SUDD.  It’s a question of how much control Kiir and Machar have over their people. For a long time already, both men have not got along with each other.  Although they have been together in one government, they hardly ever talked to each other.

Dinka and Nuer had already fought each other during the liberation struggle of the southerners against the Sudanese regime in Khartoum.  Machar accused the then SPLM rebel leader John Garang of “dictatorial tendencies”. He split off with his Nuer militia and caused a bloodbath amongst Dinka in the town of Bor.

History repeats itself
Machar sided with Khartoum until 2002 when he returned to the SPLM. Three years later the south and north signed a peace treaty that eventually led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011. Machar became vice president and asked for forgiveness for the massacre in Bor.

History repeats itself. The extremely ambitious Machar accused Kiir last year of undemocratic behaviour within the SPLM, and announced that he would run for the presidency in 2015. Kiir considered it blatant provocation and reminded South Sudanese of what happened in Bor in 1991. “Despite Machar’s apologies for the massacre, the whole episode has never been really solved within the SPLM.  It festered and was used again in the present conflict,” believes Abraham Awolich.

It is often said that rebel leaders and rebel movements do not make good politicians and political parties. South Sudan proves to be an example.  In 2011, the former rebel leaders swapped their combat fatigues for suits and ties. The SPLM became by far the biggest party, making South Sudan a one-party state in principle. The new leaders believed that they owned the country because they had risked their lives in the struggle, and therefore deserved to enjoy the wealth there from. Despite being the least developed country in the world, it earned within its short existence billions of dollars from oil production. More billions were pumped in by donor countries into the development of South Sudan. 

Africa’s Hummer capital
Not a single capital city in Africa can boast of so many gas guzzling Hummers on the very limited stretches of tarmac roads. Hotel rooms are heavily overpriced; food in restaurants is too expensive for the quality on offer, and rents are incredibly steep. The fees for visa and journalist permits are among the highest in Africa.

The few South Sudanese that do not complain belong to the new elite, comprising of politicians and generals. They are enormously wealthy. “The driver for the present conflict is corruption”, concludes SSUD researcher Awolich.  It is therefore important for the leaders in South Sudan to keep or get the power because that alone guarantees access to the wealth of the country. 

Also at the Addis Ababa meeting is a third delegation, representing politicians without a constituency that could fight for them. They are mainly the ex-ministers who got fired by Kiir. Under the leadership of Pagan Amum, the former secretary-general of the SPLM, they portray themselves as the acceptable alternative. But they were all part of the same SPLM and government that could not solve its own problems. They are just as responsible for the present situation as Kiir and Machar.

Isaac Kenyi was an observer for the Catholic Church at the peace talks between the north and South Sudan. Now he sits in the same capacity on the talks in Addis Ababa. He is appalled by the attitude of the negotiators. “The delegations fight over non-issues, drag the talks on and on and afterwards drink and dine together. The international community needs to impose targeted sanctions and travel bans. Maybe that will make the members of the delegation become more serious.”

The question arises as to whether or not South Sudan became independent too early. After three years it has all the signs it was not quite prepared for it. Isaac Kenyi believes that the South Sudanese people were ready for independence. “But not the SPLM, it simply had no structures and no vision.”

John Garang, SPLM leader during the war against Khartoum, believed in a united and democratic South Sudan.  During the years of struggle nothing was really set up for one day to form a government.

Good rain
While peace negotiations drag on, South Sudan itself has been caught in a kind of time warp. The abundant rainy season had turned most of the country into an inaccessible muddy terrain.  The positive side of it is that this hinders fighting to a certain extent. The negative side is that aid organisations have enormous difficulties in reaching the displaced people with food and medicines.

On top of the humanitarian disaster South Sudan seems to be heading towards, tension is on the rise in the southern part of the country.  Eastern, Central, and Western Equatoria are three states that have been able for a major part to stay out of the conflict. Therein live more than two dozen different etnic groups. Their three governors seem to be on a collision course with the national government over federalism. 

They advocate for a government which has a federal character in an effort to break the perceived Dinka dominance within the government. But Kiir is absolutely opposed to it, and has ordered a media that is already forced to self-censor not to report about it. 

Machar tried to get the three Equatorial states to his side in the conflict, but they refused to be drawn into a war. They however agree with him that federalism would be the best solution for future governments.

More than half a year after the start of the conflict in South Sudan, a solution still seems to be far from reach. Instead more problems are building up.  South Sudanese, the region and the international community had no reasons to celebrate the third birthday of the country.

•The author is a Nairobi-based correspondent for various Dutch media and a journalism trainer. Twitter:@ ilonaeveleens


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