South Sudan and the chronic failure of a ruling elite – By Mawan Muortat
International media describes South Sudan’s civil war as having begun as a political power struggle among the leaders of the ruling Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) party, which later took on an ethnic tone. This depiction is not only true for this war but also for previous South Sudanese conflicts.
The country is often presented as a nation gripped by inter-ethnic conflicts. While this is largely self-evident, the role played by unscrupulous politicians in fermenting hatred must not be glossed over. Far from being a prisoner of its ethnic diversity, South Sudan is all the richer because of it and should instead be seen as a victim of recurring failure of leadership.
In the blockbuster movie “˜Back to the Future’, young Marty (Michael J Fox) travels into the past and meets his youthful parents. Fearing he could cease to exist, he makes sure they fall in love. Perhaps with this all-time sci-fi classic in mind, a friend recently said that in order for the South Sudanese leaders to come to grips with the current situation, they need to travel back to the time before the crises erupted.
Confronted with the grim future they were about to create, the South Sudanese leaders might have acted more prudently. Not that any of them has ever shown any remorse. Perhaps an even more important question is whether the nation itself has learned lessons from this experience.
The eruption of conflict in December 2013 started as a characteristically South Sudanese affair with rumours and counter-rumours of corruption, character assassination, accusations of treason, bribery, leadership challenges and threats of coups. With neither side willing to budge, the standoff between President Kiir and his estranged former colleagues led by Riek Machar escalated until the inevitable first shots were fired and the country descended into mindless violence.
But things were not always like this. South Sudan’s political awakening started during the colonial era. That nascent patriotism was first expressed during the 1947 Juba conference when their representatives demanded a special status for the south.
The second, albeit a rather more forceful act, was the Southern Corps Torit mutiny in 1955. Although the uprising was crushed and several key leaders were executed, many soldiers escaped and became the nucleus from which the Anyanya, the first South Sudanese liberation movement, came into existence.
The period from 1955 till 1972 was the zenith of southern political consciousness and national unity, a fact that has now been largely forgotten. This may be because people often fail to recognise the significant historical trends that occur during their own lifetime, or it could be because these trends tend to fade into relative insignificance when more momentous events take place.
During this period, government officials, students and workers across the country came together to organise themselves and spread the nationalist message. Thousands of South Sudanese, including the very youthful Joseph Lagu, Salva Kiir and John Grang, left to join the Anyanya ranks.
An underground movement was formed to raise funds for the Anyanya in the face of brutal government repression, which involved murder, torture, incarceration, kidnapping and political assassination. An entire generation of South Sudanese grew up in a climate where ethnicity bore little or no political significance.
The flagship southern political parties of SANU and the Southern Front were established, funded to a large degree by membership subscriptions. On the external front, the Anyanya suffered frequent leadership crises owing to a myriad of factors which included poor financial resources, wrangling over power and, undeniably, ethnic mistrust. In spite of this, the movement did not fragment into fighting factions and was able to focus on its main objectives.
So when General Joseph Lagu led the Anyanya into the country following the signing of the 1972 Addis Ababa Peace Accord, he brought with him an army that was united and representative of all the South Sudanese. Throughout southern Sudan and also in the north, South Sudanese poured into the streets to welcome their returning heroes and to celebrate their gains.
As the north remained under the iron grip of the dictator Jafaar Numeiri, South Sudan (or Southen Sudan at it was then known) settled into a sleepy but vibrant democracy. The tranquility was short lived.
The leaders failed to contain corruption and to deliver adequate public services. More importantly, they allowed minor political differences to build up to dangerous levels and undermined the political order in order to gain political advantage.
The belligerents, chiefly Abel Alier, Joseph Lagu and their respective senior aides, took it in turns to co-opt Khartoum to destabilise each other’s camp. Khartoum embraced the opportunity and gleefully began to reverse the gains that the south had previously made. As the crises deepened, politicians wanting to obtain quick career gains resorted to pitting their ethnic constituencies against other communities.
This culminated in the demand by several leaders from the Equatoria region for the unitary regional government to be split into three; the leaders of which would now be picked by Khartoum rather than being elected by the southern public as before. The schism soon spread among the general public too, causing rifts between communities, friends and relatives. Eventually, Khartoum decreed the realignment of the south.
This major event sowed the seeds of mistrust between the South Sudanese people, which they have found difficult to shake off to this day. It was also one of the contributing factors to the resumption of the north-south war.
In 1984, one year into the second civil war, the burgeoning SPLM/A was yet to find its ideological path. An initially healthy debate about the direction the movement should take grew more and more tense.
Just as Alier and Lagu failed to disagree without wrecking the political system, so did Garang and his opposing colleagues fail to contain their differences before they turned violent. As soldiers went on the rampage, several leaders lost their lives, most notably the Nuer politician, Samuel Gai Tut. The movement was immediately thrown into chaos with Gai’s supporters turning on Garang’s men.
Garang’s subsequent move to recruit the academically meteoric Riek Machar (a Nuer) and Lam Akol (a Shilluk) into the top hierarchy of the SPLM/A should be viewed as a rushed damage limitation exercise to contain the growing ethnic fallout.
But Garang’s efforts did not yield lasting results. His top team lacked cohesion and his autocratic leadership style did not sit well with his highly ambitious colleagues. No compromise could be struck and the growing gulf drove several of Garang’s opponents to conspire against him. The coup attempt was quelled but Machar and Lam were able to escape and open a new anti-Garang front.
Khartoum grasped the opportunity and quickly forged alliances with the various anti-SPLM groups. Machar and Akol were flown to Khartoum where they were offered senior government positions. In the few intervening years Sudan went on to establish, train and arm many militia groups to confront the SPLM/A.
Today, the Machar-Akol defection of 1991 is remembered as the year the Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer parted ways, just as the Lagu-initiated redivision of the south in 1983 is seen as the point when a wedge grew between Equatoria and the rest of the south. But this is a misrepresentation of history because many Nuer, Shilluk and Equatorian leaders remained with Garang (a Dinka), while numerous Dinka leaders accompanied Riek and Lam to Khartoum.
The internecine violence that ensued, which involved many southern communities, is thought to have resulted in an equal or greater number of deaths as the war that the southerners simultaneously fought against the government of Sudan. It is believed that the total number of deaths, including the casualties of war-induced famine, was in excess of 2 million.
Khartoum’s divide-and-rule strategy failed to survive the rollercoaster of southern politics. By 2002, the divided South Sudanese leadership saw enough light to come together again. This closing of ranks helped them to secure the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and in due course, the chance for South Sudanese to cast their votes for independence.
So as we recall the better days of South Sudanese national cohesion, lament the many costly errors of their ruling class and dare contemplate a quieter post-war period, we can only hope that the nation has learned from the bitter experiences of its not too distant past. We must also hope that the art of judicious and restrained leadership will be within the grasp of the next generation of South Sudanese leaders.
Mawan Muortat is a South Sudan commentator and IT analyst based in London. He can be reached at [email protected]
I have read and actually acknowledged what Mawan has describe is true. We in Equatoria live as tribes, but can come together when necessitated. This is different in the other two regions!
I really appreciate the back ground of South Sudan conflict for Independent. I need an highlights on what you think can bring peace amongst this ethnic tension that had turned into genocide that is draining this young nation. I also need some intake about how the South Sudan abroad is perceiving the on going conflict, and what they can do to bring peace.
This is truly one of the best accounts of our problems as South Sudanese. Congratulations to the writer!
Great Article Mr. Muortat. I am Acholi from Uganda. Very interested in being able to contribute towards forging a united Republic of South Sudan. Please get me such articles coming my way through my mail account. A great piece here.
it was well known to all that this will b z situation ,, brothers from southern Sudan thought it was z Northerners mistreatment 2 them ,, but it is now obvious that it is more & more deeper planted hatred ,,, I hv been & still v sorry 4 z separation
I have learned long time ago, becouse I was born when my parents are in exile, during the war so called (Anyanya 1) lead by Josephh Lagu, I growned up unrest due to the continuesly war in the country.
What is most founded in this south sudan, the majority community are the most people who does not have a mind of forgiveness, only revenge, killing is priority. The minority community are well quite. The soution to peace in this country,is the federal system must be imposed to avoid continues conflict, since the country is too large, and many erthnic languadge, deferent understand, a pastralist knows how to lead animal, becouse animal has no complain, the pastorals drink milk from his cow never mind of neigbour who does not have cow.
I once visited Juba the capital of southern Sudan, and happened to talk to a number of nationals and foreign residents , they all believe that the current political leadership luck skills and integrity to foster the country
UN Agency s and some western country governments sides with Dr machar. forgetting that President kill was elected to power by the people of south sudan.
Any change of government in South Sudan should be by the ballot not by Guns
I agree with my colleague Mawan on identifying the chronic problem of South Sudan to be a leadership issue. But to be specific the leadership issue is about the need to inspire South Sudanese to learn how to transform the character of armed conflict to solve their problems to a character of peaceful and mutuality dialogue. It needs a departure from the old methods of dialogue through clubs, spears and guns to dialogue through emphatic listening and shared responsibility to create a win-win results. Yes we mobilized our resources to send away the oppressors who did not agree with us. Use of the same methods is not only self-inflicting damage but the ultimate solution is to end in peaceful coexistence. Else we may finish ourselves. Media warlords and the IDPs camps are just repeating the terrible crime of Concentration Camps where millions were killed. In IDPs camps all ages are dieing slowly because of bad feeding but the worst is that children are born and raise in culture of hate. Both IDPs camps and Internet warlords are killing our oneness. South Sudanese commonality where every culture counts and responsible to bring peace, freedom, prosperity and happiness is being suffocated. The leadership we need is the type that should educate our peoples to take freedom as a responsibility and have a vision to be harmonious then champions of those views become the leaders. Acuil
South Sudan needs the intervention of International community to acheive peace. The national it self has no capacity to acheive peace, becouse every one call it self a man, without knowing that he or she is supporting nonsence. Most of so call higher authorities are primitive, I did not insult my country but we need to be educated physically and with example. South Sudan is the country which is not supporting humanity, no respect to all human kind, most are selfish.
My point is, if peace is there, most of the erthnic people here were not depending on gorvenment support or empoyment. There is capable people who can develop and support goverment in any way, most in agriculture if the country is quite and every body fill happy and secure.
The intervention of International community according to my understand, this country must be rulled by international community for six years, while educating people how to live with other community, cooperation general social life, not to depending alone.All government officials should be relocated out from the country and disarmament should take place immediately, if the international community realised that, this continues confilict which causes lost of life, hunger, general poor econimic situation to stop and people to develop. The forcefully intervantion of International community into the endless war of South Sudan, is a way forward to the peace
This article perfectly summarizes the problems of South Sudan. If everybody were to reason along the same line, a solution to our problems would be on sight. The key problem here is that most people misexamine and misrepresent facts either ignorantly or knowing inorder to cover their wrongs.
Mawan, I have read many articles on South Sudan but I must say this is a brilliant piece. I wish you could develop it further into a short political history of South Sudan by a South Sudanese. I am a Kenyan and I have been following the tragic events in South Sudan very keenly. Many African countries have travelled the very same route as your country. Everybody was wishing that your country would not take this path; we were hoping against hope that South Sudan would learn from the history of the post-colonial Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Nigeria which were……most are still wrecked by the evil of ethnic rivalries….first created by colonial powers and then perfected by post-colonial African “strongmen”.
However reading about your article I am still left with some basic questions unanswered which I hope you may help me with:
1) Linguistically speaking how different are the Dinkas, Nuers and Shilluks? Are their languages and cultures totally different, or these are basically one people being divided by political conmen for political mileage…..like elsewhere in black Africa?
2) In our Kenyan experience, like it is in most African countries hopelessly torn apart by “tribalism” (we should not even refer to our communities as tribes, that word is used in the English language to refer to savage peoples of the 4th century. It is only in Africa where that word is still being used by the western media and our own media….it’s like we enjoy calling ourselves savages), the tribe i.e. savage still comes first before the nation. Mawam, you may remember the late Dr. Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, his economic, social and political development did not work and the honest Mwalimu admitted it…….although I still believe he was undermined by the west. But my point is not about his socialist ideologies, what I wanted to say is that Mwalimu worked hard and created a nation. It is not perfect but Nyerere created a huge nation of over 50 different ethinic communities with different languages and ethnic identities into one nation……within ten or so years….nobody has ever done that in history!
But my second question to you is: in your opinion has the SPLA/SPLM ever tried to create a nation?
3) The other questions I wanted to ask about South Sudan are: have the ruling elite built or even tried to build strong governance institutions like a people-driven constitution, parliament, civil service, independent media, judiciary, professional army and other checks and balances on the various arms of government?
4) Have South Sudanese politicians ever thought of changing the chief negotiator or the venue? In my opinion the Ethiopian Foreign Minister has not done a good job. I have read of instances where he has threatened to detain the President of South Sudan In Addis Ababa if they didn’t sign an agreement. I have never heard of that kind of stupid threat in this kind of a serious negotiation…….never! Can South Sudanese people consider world-class negotiators like Kofi Annan or Raila Odinga?
Otherwise, thank you very much for your article, millions of people all over the world have no clue about why South Sudanese are turning their guns on each other so soon after independence…….the world is embarrassed, South Sudanese leaders should be ashamed!