Last week, the US administration issued a statement saying that a national unity government in South Sudan would be incomplete without the participation of Dr. Reich Machar who has so far failed to join the government. The differences between incumbent president Salva Kirr and opposition leader Reich Machar have marked or defined the direction of South Sudanese politics in the last three or four years leading to armed conflicts between the respective ethnic groups these leaders represent or come from. In the absence of institutions that could regulate the antagonisms, South Sudanese politics, and African politics in general, is reduced to ego tripping and clashes of personalities no matter what the differences in outlooks or ideology might be.
When conflcits revolve around two personalities, the road to reconciliation often prove long and tortuous, and in the worst casee quite untractable if not unpredictable. The South Sudan conflict had started as a clash of personality between President Salva Kirr and Dr. Reich Machar, two veterans of the liberation war against Sudan. Foremr SPLM historic leader Jhon Garang’s untimely death in a helicoter crash on the eve of South Sudan’s independence was a factor among others that hastened the rift within the liberation movement and laid bare the clash of personality that emerged as soon as Salva Kirr assumed the presidency after liberation.
What started as a creeping division within the ranks of the ruling SPLM fast degenerated or deteriorated into tribal bloodletting, once again showing to the entire world the truthfulness of the age-old African adage: When elephants fight, it is indeed the grass that suffers. The problem is ethnically divided African countries is that individual clashes often spill over and enter the civil society sphere where hostile emotions rule supreme and lead to
bloodsheds. Tribal leaders or politicians camouflaging as “intellectuals” or “elites” have no problem igniting the fire of war in an ethnically divided society. They have the money, the connections and the knowledge to promote their politics within their specific ethnic constituencies or agitate for conflicts. Then starts the cycle of violence and
Counter-violence and tens of thousands are killed on both sides of the barricades while the leaders use their own people as political bargaining chips. They don’t listen to the counsels of elders in their communities or
to regional organizations working in conflict resolution.
While the long-simmering tribal or ethnic differences slowly found ample opportunities to spill over into South Sudan’s communities who lived in peace until then. These conflicts took into their course thousands of
nationalities of neighbouring African states who were trapped in the lootings, killings and chaos that engulfed the capital Juba and then the strategic towns and regions.
The rival ethnic groups of South Sudan did not really understand the intricacies and motives behind this spontaneous outburst of long-suppressed mutual suspicions and hatred the leaders could not address through a genuine national dialogue and reconciliation. They were thus forced into a conflict they could not understand its logic as they were led by blind passion than rational thinking as the leaders were also
irrational in their choice of policies.
Innocent people on both sides of the ethnic divide were forced to pay for the mistakes of their leaders. Once again natural resource proved to be a curse rather than a blessing. The race to control the oilfields in South Sudan by rebel troops under Reich Machar, the former vice-president, was a kind of replay of the Congolese scenario of blood diamonds for which rebels and government troops did not bat an eye to kill or die for. If we try to scratch the surface of ethnic politics to see what lurked beneath the mutual accusations by the two sides in the South Sudanese conflict, what emerges is the oil bonanza that has so far caused more than one conflict between Sudan in the
north and South Sudan in the past.
Now the demon of oil is engulfing its owners, the way Dr. Frankenstein has been devoured by the monster he created with his own hands. Neighbouring states like Ethiopia and Kenya were involved in the mediation efforts to put out the blazes of ethnic conflict in South-Sudan, although they also suffer from the same malaise in varying degrees and forms. This has laid bare the fragility of ethnic relationships that were often kept from imploding by mutual agreements and accommodations or political marriages of convenience among and between the ruling elites in many African countries.
The South Sudan crisis in a way served as a clarion call for the rest of Africa where ethnicity has increasingly become a liability more than an asset. The world is too familiar with the tragic circumstances that accompanied the 2007 elections in Kenya. So, no surprise that Kenya and Ethiopia arekeen to see the demon of ethnic conflicts that remind of their own fragilities and temptations. That was why they have been active in regional politics to keep the disease of ethnic conflicts at bay.
All said and done, the ethnic conflict in South Sudan is not without its lessons. First, it has become clear that the logic of ethnic conflict and not that of democracy is the main driving force in the politics of this part of Africa. As it was evident in Egypt and now in South-Sudan, democracy remains as elusive as it was a pretension or a superficial
allegiance while ethnicity remains the bedrock of African politics. Democracy is only being used as smokescreen to hide the deeper malaise of ethnicity.
Second, the political elites are still tempted to try to overcome their differences not by peaceful method of dialogue and understanding but through violence. They pay lip service to democracy during elections but reject the rules of the game once they are comfortably settled on the saddles of state power and fall back on ethnic or tribal allegiances to promote their personal agendas.
Elite fragmentation is often the cause of ethnic conflicts that push ethnic bargain to the background once
dialogue is replaced with violence. Third, the distance between inter-elite misunderstanding and ethnic implosion
in South Sudan were nearer than most of us thought and it took the first shots for differences within the ruling elites to deteriorate into an all-out ethnic score settling.
Mutual accusations among the political elites keep the fires of conflicts burning as they did in South Sudan and threaten to do in many parts of Africa. Fourth, the absence of modern institutions for conflict prevention and/or resolutions or traditional methods of conflict resolution is still a major weakness that makes it difficult to prevent ethnic conflicts in Africa or put out the fires after they start to burn. Leadership matters in this kind of endeavours. When political elites refuse to make important concessions for the sake of peace and stability, the problem gets out of hand and tends to refuse any solution afterwards.
The same can be said about South Sudan where diplomatic efforts by IGAD, the West and the international community have been going uninterrupted for almost the last three years. Hopes for lasting peace looked bright
one time and turned bleak at other times depending on how the two leaders behaved in their respective, often opposite ways. Peace in South Sudan looked to come nearer than ever when the two sides apparently agreed the proposal to form a unity government with both leaders holding key powers in the new administration.
They were expected to strike the final deal when one side refused to return to the capital Juba and join the proposed unity government, hence making all the previous efforts quite pointless. While Kirr and Machar backpedalled on the peace process, there was a political crisis further north in Sudan that is now resolved thanks to mutual agreement between the military and leaders of the civilian opposition.
It is a pity that South Sudan is still engulfed in mistrust and fear of another round of ethnic war. Who will persuade Machar to go back to Juba and join the unity government? Even the US has no idea about it although it has already made it clear that a unity party without Machar cannot be called a government of national unity. It would be
better if it could find some way of persuading Reich Machar to join Kirr in Juba. Maybe IGAD efforts should be reactivated in order to do the job any other external player has so
far failed to perform.
The Ethiopian Herald Sunday edition October 20/2019
BY GETACHEW MINAS