Sudanese Elections, Bankruptcy, and Ethnic Feuds Dog SPLM on 26th Anniversary
On 16 May, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) celebrates the day it was founded when two Southern-based battalions of the Sudanese army mutinied in 1983. This year as the SPLM marks its 26th anniversary, a number of factors will make the celebrations profoundly different from any the movement has ever experienced.
Anniversaries often provide a moment to pause and take stock of the past and the present. They are also occasions that tempt politicians to revel in past achievements and engage in some chest-thumping. However, this 16 May should be an occasion for sober reflection for SPLM leaders, one that should dissuade them from self-praise over past achievements and compel them to focus on the enormity of the challenges facing the Movement in the present and the future.
The challenges that require immediate attention as the SPLM marks its 26th anniversary this year are the upcoming elections scheduled for February 2010, the dire economic situation of the SPLM-led Government of South Sudan (GOSS), and the increasing ethnic feuds that are spiralling out of control in the Movement’s stronghold in the South.
In its 26-year history, the SPLM acted as the sole de facto political entity in the jurisdictions which it controlled in South Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile. This means that it never had to answer to its constituency through the normal democratic channels that exist in a democracy. In other words, the rule of the people by the people was a phenomenon that was””for lack of a better term””suspended in favour of what is akin to the Marxian dictatorship of the proletariat.
But with an election year in full swing, and assuming that Sudan’s attempts at democracy don’t end up as a farce, the SPLM has been compelled to join the democratic bandwagon. Pagan Amum, the Movement’s up-and-coming secretary general announced early this month that the SPLM will formally register as a party to contest the February 2010 elections. The election is an unprecedented event in the Movement’s history because it is the first time the SPLM is engaging such an endeavour with other political forces. It potentially means that the SPLM’s monopoly of the political sphere among its constituency could end as other parties wedge in to contest for the same votes the Movement is targeting. As shown by what appears to be a spirited campaign launch this month, headed by James Wani Igga, an SPLM stalwart and speaker of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly, the Movement is waking up to the urgency of the elections. The choice of Igga as campaign front man, a decision likely based on his renowned sense of humour, charisma, oratory skills, and ability to sway crowds, is an indication that the SPLM is not taking chances.
Furthermore, the elections are likely to change the internal dynamics of the SPLM structure by realigning allegiances, creating new power blocks, and ostracizing sections of its membership. This potentially could create new avenues of conflict based on geographical and ethnic terms. It could also exacerbate existing cleavages””ethnic, regional and ideological””or open up new ones.
Additionally, the elections pose a challenge because of the conditions under which they will be occurring. On the national level, freedom of expression is still a fleeting illusion as shown by last month’s introduction of a press bill by the National Congress Party (NCP) that revives, among other repressive measures, eerie memories of the press commissar in the former East Bloc countries before the demise of the Cold War.
The other challenge that faces the SPLM is the question of reaching potential voters in the nooks and crannies of the South, a region whose infrastructure is virtually non-existent. A shortage of cash, poor roads, lack of adequate voter registration and education are some of the factors likely to hamper a smooth election in the SPLM’s stronghold in the South.
Yet, beneath the veneer of the enormity of an election campaign and the totally new phenomenon of vying for votes with other parties in its constituency, the SPLM faces minimum risk to its monopoly. Lest this statement is dismissed as overly optimistic, the actions of the other political parties””especially in the SPLM’s traditional stronghold in the South””speak volumes about their ineptitude, and lack of strategy. The Southern Sudanese parties””most of which are comical outfits that exist only on paper””have yet to come up with viable political alternatives. President Omar El Bashir’s NCP, though active in the South, is unlikely to garner enough support because it lacks credibility. In essence, the SPLM may perform well in its stronghold in the South mainly because it is still riding on the cusp of what can be termed as the “liberation dividend,”, which may garner votes because the Movement’s constituency in the South still views it as the party that has the means and capability to achieve the 2011 referendum.
Another major challenge facing the SPLM on its 26th anniversary is the near-bankruptcy of the Government of South Sudan. In March, Elijah Malok, the governor of the Bank of South Sudan, revealed that the bank’s coffers were almost empty. He blamed it on corruption, and said government ministers would often borrow huge sums of money without paying back. The Government of South Sudan is currently dependent on oil revenues which have dipped as prices fall in world markets. Additionally, it still disputes the exact amount of its share of the oil revenues remitted by the NCP, its partner in the Government of National Unity.
Bankruptcy, spurred on by corruption and NCP foot-dragging on oil revenue remittances, has resulted in public servants and soldiers in South Sudan braving it out for months without pay. This could potentially undermine the delivery of services and the credibility of the SPLM-led government in the South. Indeed disgruntled soldiers have taken up arms and demonstrated in several towns within the first quarter of this year. A repeat of this situation could result in mutinies that could undermine the authority of the state.
Lastly, the SPLM’s transition from rebel movement to government in the South Sudan unwittingly unfastened ethnic animosities that had largely remained in check during the war period as various tribes rallied around the cause of fighting a common enemy from the North. The creation of government meant that the SPLM had to abandon its old ways of running affairs by decree. A modicum of open democracy had to be introduced in the way the party managed its affairs. For instance, the 2007 SPLM National Convention””which was delayed many times since the last one was held in 1994″”resulted in the party’s leaders squaring off for positions through the ballot. While acquiring positions through the ballot was not an entirely new phenomenon within the party’s internal structures (even during the war), being in government made the exercise gain new dimensions that realigned the power structure, undermined power monopolies, and created new alliances as some tribes ganged up against others. For instance, several members from ethnic groups from the state of Central Equatoria reportedly ganged up against a candidate from the Bari tribe during the convention. The election of the Bari candidate would have effectively given him the political clout necessary to run for the governorship of the state, an issue his adversaries reasoned, is not welcome since a succession of the state’s governors had previously been Bari.
The unleashing of the centrifugal forces holding the various ethnic groups together following the setting up of the SPLM-led government has resulted in open warfare among some tribes. Currently, the Bari and Mundari ethnic groups are embroiled in a simmering armed conflict whose death toll has been carefully kept under wraps by the Government of South Sudan.
While some of the ethnic-based conflicts have roots in politics, others are fuelled by cattle rustling. In March, the Lou Nuer attacked Murle villages in Jongolei State resulting in more than 400 deaths. The Murle have also attacked the Bor Dinka on previous occasions. Reprisal attacks in these ethnic-based conflicts are common. And so as the SPLM marks its 26th anniversary, ethnic conflicts remain a significant source of insecurity, undermining the authority of the Movement’s government in the South.
Brian Adeba is a journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]