S. Sudan joins the EAC, despite mass atrocities: Why this is part of a 'War of Definitions'—and about big money

Words are important. The risk of slipping into an Orwellian smudging of definitions –such as War is Peace – is real and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

SOUTH SUDAN has officially became the sixth member of the East African Community (EAC), joining Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

The country had applied to join the bloc on independence in 2011, but the admission process stalled due to legal and institutional weaknesses, before being put on ice when a civil war broke out in 2013.

But the EAC council of ministers recently decided to fast-track the country’s membership as a fragile peace deal was signed in August 2015 – arguing that the country had opened its economy to EAC members, even as questions on governance, democracy, human rights and security linger.

“We believe that South Sudan has a better chance of resolving its challenges faster and more effectively as a member of the EAC, “ South Sudan foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin, who led a high level ministerial committee on South Sudan’s accession is quoted saying.

The tone of the announcement is instructive. A statement from Kenya’s Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) said that formal admission of South Sudan into the EAC “would be a sweet end to a long wait” for Juba and and a potentially expanded market for traders in the region.

Much of the initial reporting of the announcement also characterised it as South Sudan “finally” joins the trade bloc, and that its inclusion would bring the regional bloc’s market size to 162 million people.

Dragging feet

But the very same day, a statement from the UN indicated that South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis is catastrophic and continues to worsen as warring sides are “dragging their feet” in implementing the peace deal.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous put the death toll at 50,000 or more – the highest estimate that the UN has released so far – while some two million have been driven from their homes in the war, now in its third year. An estimated 2.8 million people are also facing hunger.

The scale of the atrocities is astounding; a UN rights report in 2015 actually said that the war was notable (emphasis mine) for its “brutality and intensity”, including mass killings, rapes, castrations, burning people alive, and tying children together before slitting their throats, all committed by forces on both sides.

“The scope and level of cruelty that has characterised the reports suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences,” the damning report states.

Another African Union report talked of forced cannibalism, dismemberment, torture and extreme cruelty. Most of the atrocities have been carried out against civilian populations taking no active part in the hostilities.

The treaty establishing the trade bloc requires that in considering a country’s application to join the EAC, member states shall look at adherence to “universally acceptable principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice”.

This is confusing. If mass rapes, live burnings, cannibalism, castrations and throat-slitting don’t raise an eyebrow; if a regime can do all that and yet it still stands as qualifying under the principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law, observance of human rights and social justice, then this suggests one of two things.

Either this is a discrepancy of definitions (we are not defining democracy or good governance the same way), or the EAC is making an exception for South Sudan (we agree on the definitions in principle, but are using other, overriding criteria to judge suitability of membership).

The War of Definitions

Scenario one, the War of Definitions, is not exclusive to South Sudan, or East Africa. Particularly over the past decade or so, as authoritarianism and democratic reversals are becoming increasingly common around the world, a strange thing has been happening.

In the early post-Cold War era, the assumption was that despite cultural, historical and social differences, everyone in the world supports the same democratic principles – no one wants to be controlled or enslaved, everyone wants to participate in the political process and wants a good life and all that this encompasses.

If there are “cultural accommodations” to be made, the thinking went, these should be on the kind of institutions and practices that (non-Western countries) create – for example, instead of formal courts, community hearing councils can be established. But the basic norms of democracy were taken for granted.

But in the past decade or so, this has been inverted. Many countries are increasingly contesting the core norms, while accepting most of the basic Western institutional template, such as multiparty politics, regular elections, and constitutions. Richard Young’s book The Puzzle of Non-Western Democracy explores these trends in detail.

It’s like wanting a house, but not the land the house is built on.

The controversy over third terms in Africa is one platform where this inversion, and the “battle of definitions”, is playing out, and Rwanda is perhaps the best example.

Just last week, President Paul Kagame gave a speech at the Harvard Institute of Politics, where he addressed criticism that his recent third term amendment was undemocratic. Rwandans in December voting overwhelmingly – 98% - that the constitution be changed and swung the door open for him to remain as head of state potentially until 2034.


“Many statements of high principle mask deeper contempt, based on unspoken moral hierarchies. The conversation on democracy in Africa is so dogmatic because deep down, we are still thought to be incapable of anything better than mimicry. I disagree,” he said.

In other words, Kagame was arguing that Rwandans, and Africans more broadly, have every right to define, and structure, democracy as they see fit, and he has a point.

But, in the words of political scholar Katherine Fierbeck, I think there’s a risk of “epistemological inflation”: the term democracy meaning everything to everyone, an ambiguous concept that then loses its definitional sharpness. Some would argue this is already happening.

But words are important. Language is important. The risk of slipping into an Orwellian smudging of definitions and meaning – such as War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery – is real and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

South Sudan’s Scenario Two, is the Exceptions. Here, there are no controversies about what we mean when we talk about democracy, good governance or human rights; rape, mass killings and cannibalism definitely do not cut it.

But the EAC is all right with overlooking these obvious breaches, because South Sudan is more likely to adhere to these principles as a member of the EAC, than outside it; good peer pressure, you could say. Or, there’s some other criteria guiding the decision here.

All about the money

Apart from the question of whether the EAC is a good example in the first place (see: Uganda’s shambolic election and repressive aftermath and Burundi’s continued political violence), the question is, which other overriding factor might the EAC be using to judge the suitability of South Sudan’s membership?

Here’s a clue: one of the first Tweets announcing the country’s membership (and retweeted by the EAC’s official handle, @jumuiya) celebrated it as adding to the EAC’s market to make 162 million. The news was tweeted by Vimal Shah, one of Kenya’s most prominent industrialists.

Last month, South Sudan finally agreed to devalue its currency after holding out for several months; the loosening of currency controls means more business for EAC companies operating in the country.

Sources indicate that the admission of South Sudan admission is most likely to have been influenced by Kenya and Uganda who are likely to benefit from Juba most as a member of the Northern Corridor Infrastructure Projects, which would see roads, railways and pipelines extended to landlocked South Sudan.

“South Sudan joining the EAC must be seen from the perspective of grand politics,” says Jared Jeffery, an analyst with NKC African Economics. “The country is a mess now, on every conceivable metric, but leaders like President Yoweri Museveni and President Paul Kagame see themselves in historic perspective, shaping their countries and the region as a whole.”

“For South Sudan, membership in the EAC is a no-brainer. As a landlocked country dependent on an unreliable and hostile northern neighbour, it just makes geographic and economic sense to join the club. Meanwhile, for the EAC it cannot hurt to have an oil-rich member,” Jeffery argues.

So perhaps this is all about the big picture, markets, and money. That’s all well and good, but the precedent set still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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